When I bought my house I inherited a classic Texas Yellow Rose near the front door. I have never grown roses before, my preferred plants are vegetables, herbs and fruits. I have since come around on planting ornamental flowers in and around my garden; they attract beneficial insects and help me keep my garden organic.
But roses? I always thought of them as chemical-heavy vanity, lots of work and spray for an admittedly beautiful flower. And there was a bigger reason not to like roses. When I moved here to North Texas I did a story on the virus Rose Rosette that was killing rose plants across our area. Why invest my time (and precious rain barrel water) on a plant that was destined to die anyway?
To be honest, I dug up the two plants my first year in the house and moved on. Much to my surprise one of them came back (I must have missed one of the roots). Always an admirer of the tenacious, I decided to let to grow out. I read up on how to tend to them and shaped it into a much bushier version of the plant I had inherited.
But what about the virus? How long does this plant have to live? I decided to go talk to someone about it.
I was first introduced to Rose Rosette in a dramatic way. One of the first places we joined when we moved to Fort Worth was the Fort Worth Botanical Garden. My wife and sons loved going to the Japanese Garden there when searching relief from the summer heat and city noise. They also had one of the most extensive rose collections I had ever seen right next to the Japanese Garden. All that flower beauty was displayed in an awesome landscape built in the ‘30s during the depression. I helped my father with the rock work that he built in and around his house in Tennessee and loved the fine examples of CCC-era stone landscaping that is a visual staple growing up in the south.
Rose Rosette started showing up in the Botanical Garden in 2013. There is no cure for the disease that produces “witches broom” on the plants as it slowly kills them. Within two years all those rose plants, some of them 70 years old, were gone. It was heart breaking. If you want to see what that looks like (and all the information on the disease you would very want to know) visit the website.
Yet, if you walk the same area today at the garden, there are roses.
Talking with Jeffrey Myers at the Garden, he explained what that had learned in managing the disease. First off, the virus doesn’t live in the soil. So you can pull the plant (immediately by the way, as soon as you see the first sign of the disease: it is folly to think you can simply “snip” it away) and put in another.
The virus is spread by a microscope mite that floats around in the air when it wants to travel. Growing a rose plant in North Texas is a bit like playing Russian roulette. One day one of these mites might land on your rose. The infection takes almost half a year to create the abnormal growth that characterizes the disease. So for a long time the plant is helping spread the disease to other rose plants before you even know it is there.
The solution for the Fort Worth Botanical garden and other area rose gardens is simple but disruptive to traditional rose garden design. All rose plants become islands. Instead of rose plants in long rows or huge mounds and collections close together, now they are planted in and around other plants. This makes them harder to find for the mites (who are not “looking” for them; they just happen to land on them randomly) and more difficult for the virus to spread.
In a way this has made for a better garden. Variety is the spice of life but it is a biological safety net for gardens. And for the eye as well. Now each rose plant stands out from other roses and become visual and sweet-smelling treats as you stroll the grounds.
I also talked to Pam Smith, the landscape designer for the Rose Gardens of Farmers Branch. She operates a group of magnificent city gardens that I highly recommend you visit if you haven’t already. We have placed on the website an excellent video of her explaining what to look for if you fear Rose Rosette has landed in your rose garden.
Like the Fort Worth Botanical garden, Pam has changed the design of the city garden by incorporating other flowering and interesting plants to frame and protect the precious rose collection. She stresses to never use a leaf blower around your roses and forgo the chemical spraying to control mites. Her opinion (and mine) is that that is too much poison for too little benefit. The mites are very difficult to kill and you have to spray continually.
The other thing that Pam stresses is that you have to be ruthless. If you see even the smallest area suffering from the disease, bag the entire plant in a plastic yard-sized bag and pull it out immediately. Do this on a day there is little wind. Give the space a few weeks and then start over.
As she says, gardening is a journey not a destination. You are going to kill about five plants for every success story in your garden, it is a truth born of trying to bend mother nature to your will.
The website on Rose Rosette tells your some more on how you can help mitigate the spread of the disease and the latest on the development of disease-resistant varieties in the works. Pam says that very soon there will be an on-site test for the disease so you won’t have to wait months to find out if rose rosette is already in your garden spreading the virus.
Living with a virus. Sounds familiar? I’m NOT going to pull my yellow rose of Texas growing near my front door. There is a chance that one day the virus will makes its claim on it but then again, all beauty is fleeting. To me it makes that beautiful flower that greets my visitors even more precious. Until a cure is found or some disease resistant varieties are breed, marvel at any of those ten-foot-tall rose masterpieces you see now rarely in north Texas. They are the last of their kind. For now.
Like most gardeners in North Texas Jeff is a garden novice always trying to find a better plant and a better way to grow them. Join him every Wednesday and on CBSN as he finds experts in the field to enlighten him on a better garden.