Skip to Content

Roses as Wildflowers

A Wildflower Gardener's View of Roses

By Ray Allen, Founder of

Why not add some wild roses? After growing meadow wildflowers for awhile, it occurs to many, "Why not add a wild rose or two?" After all, everyone knows that wild roses are some of the most beautiful and famous wildflowers of them all. And it makes sense that like all wildflowers, they don't need lots of care. Nobody sprays, fertilizes, or worries over the native roses in the wild. Yet they manage to produce lovely foliage and flowers year after year. So it's nice to know that the roses we're talking about are some of the most self-sufficient flowering plants on earth. It's only the delicate rose hybrids that are famous for high maintenance.

wild rose

You can add trouble-free roses easily, but here are some tips. First of all, you need to realize that when you add roses to a wild meadow, you're adding a shrub, not just another herbaceous perennial wildflower plant. ("Herbaceous" means the top dies down in the winter, like it does with a daisy .) Like a tree, a rose takes years to grow to blooming size from seed, so we recommend you begin with a plant, not a seed. (We don't even handle the seed, since it is so hard to find.)

Roses have been hybridized since Roman times. This is the famous "Cabbage Rose" an antique classic hybrid that gave its name to a whole group of multi-petaled "old roses."

A shrub, or rose bush, has "woody" stems that, except in the coldest climates, will lose their leaves, but not die down to the ground over the winter. Instead a rose bush sheds its leaves and just stays there bare during winter, like a small tree. This means you need to place your rose plants where they will not be chopped down by your mower or trimmer when you mow your finished meadow down in fall.

How about maintenance? Wild gardeners usually don't want anything around that takes lots of care. After all, that's the whole idea of wildflower gardening. And that's why we have no fussy "tea roses" in our recommended group. If you like them — the voluptuous roses you see every spring at the garden center — then go for it. But put them in your rose garden, not in a naturalized area. Because no matter where you live, you're going to be spraying, fertilizing and pruning with the tea roses. Anyhow, our list is made up completely from other groups called landscape shrub roses and other types are almost totally work-free. Many people think their blooms are the most beautiful of all.

wild rose
wild white rose

Choose your Wild Roses carefully. For a wildflower area, you'll want roses that don't grow too big or require any special care. In fact, in a good portion of the US, many roses really require no maintenance at all. If you live in Zone 6 or colder, the only thing you may have to do is trim off the dead wood after winter. It's simple. When the leaves begin to emerge in the spring, you simply prune off any dark dead wood at the top of the canes. For example, in Maryland, the top 8 inches or so of each branch may be dark and dead. In Minnesota, the dead wood will be probably half of the cane or more. In either case, you just snip it off, and new growth begins at the cut. Since none of these rose grow into huge bushes, this job is never much work.

Where to place your roses. For the reasons above, your roses should be placed either near a fence, at the front or at an edge of your meadow area, or someplace else where you don't mow.

What kind of roses are recommended? Like everything else about your meadow, this is up to you. But most wildflower gardeners want to add rose plants that are no- or at least, very low-maintenance. And in this area, you're in luck. Many of the roses available are the most carefree plants you can own. However, finding low-maintenance roses means totally ignoring the largest group — the "tea roses" (the delicate hybrids with the big florist-style blooms). Yes, they're beautiful, but they're the opposite of what you need, and require lots of care. Look instead for shrub roses, species roses, and other types are almost totally work-free.

pink wild rose
"The Wild Rose Form." Species Roses (the true "wild" roses) have only 5 petals, never more. Most are deep red or pink, a few are white, and a very few are yellow. Many carry the colors of the apple blossom, a blush of bright pink with white, which makes t

What is a wild rose anyhow?

This is an interesting question, and the answer is simple. A true "wild rose" is one that nature created, not one hybridized by man. There are only about 100 basic native species in the worldwide rose family, and they all have just five petals. That lets out most of the roses you've seen, right? Since the rose is so popular, and has been hybridized so heavily, there are now over 20,000 different roses, but still only 100 truly "wild" ones. These wild ones are called "Species Roses" by botanists, and some are quite famous. Most people have heard of the Rugosa Rose, (Rosa rugosa), the really tough single red or white rose from the Far East, now very common as a landscape rose in North America. There are others you may have heard of with common names like "Prairie Rose", and "Pasture Rose." But don't believe everything you hear from Grandma about roses that are "wild."

The best roses for wildflower meadows

If you can find a true species rose plant, by all means add it to your meadow, but they are hard to find, since very few nurseries stock them. In addition, most of the species roses have a very short blooming season, during early summer, and then are flower-free the rest of the season. Most wildflower meadow gardeners prefer plants that contribute color for more than just a couple of weeks.

Season-long bloom

By cross-breeding certain species roses with others which are "repeat bloomers", the horticultural world has created some relatively modern shrub roses that are perfect for wildflower meadows. They have flowers that echo the lovely, simpler shape of the wild rose, they re-bloom through summer and fall, and they still require almost no care. Most of them also carry the always-loved fragrance roses are famous for. With some, you may want to trim them every few years, but none are rangy or rampant, and all are tough and hardy as oaks. They're all very good candidates for being great color-makers in any wildflower planting.

nearly wild roses
Roses like the one shown are in a group that includes "Nearly Wild" just one of the now-widely available roses that offer the wild rose "look" with the repeat bloom most meadow gardeners are looking for.

The "near wild" roses

Others that fit this description have names like "Carefree Beauty" and "Carefree Delight." Many of their names make it clear how much care these beautiful shrubs demand. But check carefully before you order, and be sure the plant is hardy in your neighborhood.

Low Maintenance is the number one factor we considered in choosing this group. We've also grown some of these beauties up in Vermont, so some of the recommendations are based on personal experience. Bonica, for example, is probably the easiest rose in the world to maintain, and in Vermont, (Zone 4) it grows beautifully. However, it is so severely set back by the winter freezes, we recommend it for Zone 5 and above.

Cold Hardiness is a big factor to wildflower gardeners, whether they live in Minnesota, Virginia, or, say, Colorado. After all, why bother to plant a rose bush just to have it killed by next winter's freezes? This is why you must be careful in your choices.

Some of the most cold hardy of all are the ones developed in Canada by the Canadian Ministry of Horticulture. They call this group of roses the "Canadian Explorer Series," and they've been turning out these beauties for decades. If it's from this group, it's very cold tolerant. In addition, these roses do very well further south, far from Canada, as well.

In this group, some names are famous, like Henry Hudson. Most everyone has heard of him. But the others are less famous. Other Canadian explorers with names like John Franklin and Henry Kelsey also have roses named after them. In addition, the lovely Chuckles Rose, although not named for an explorer, was bred in Canada.

To learn more, visit our article, The Wild Roses.

a modern tea rose