Traditional rose varieties often cope best in the worst winters

Christmas is a realistic time to think about roses. The days are short, frost hard, wind bitter and this is the time when things that are thinking of dying will die.


The beautiful catalogues that brighten the midwinter season are full of reassurances about the hardiness of stock, including the roses. But the winter of 2012-13 proved to me that some of the loveliest are just a little bit too tender for our North Sea coast garden, at 300ft elevation. We had a lot of gaps in the spring.


Admittedly, we had more troubles than usual, including a serious flood. This rushed down suddenly on a night when we were away in the south, built up against the outside of the north wall of the walled garden, burst through the heavy garden door by knocking it off its hinges, and went on to flood the lower part of the enclosure, up to 5ft deep in places, before draining away and washing out the front drive.


This was damaging enough, but it was followed by a spell of hard frost. Herbaceous plants survived remarkably well but many roses proved that they do not like having their roots balled in ice. When a week or two of sub-zero northerly winds followed, the roses gave up. As spring approached, it was obvious that the stems of many favourites had faded from green to black. Pruning was going to be a brutal experience.



As things turned out, the rose season got off to a good start because we have quite a few Scotch roses, the Rosa spinossissima hybrids, which are tough as old boots. They rushed into bloom in May, including a wonderful show put on by “Glory of Edzell” and my favourite, the Scotch rose “Double Yellow”, but the follow-up in midsummer was disappointing. A survey in autumn showed that the old roses have been the most reliable. Varieties that should be running out of vigour by now, according to most gardeners’ expectations, have thrived, including those wonderful climbers “Madame Alfred Carrière” and “Paul’s Himalayan Musk”. They are different in style but both are muscular in a way that so many of the more recent varieties have failed to be.


“Madame Alfred Carrière” has an abundance of light-green or greyish-green leaves and spreads herself gently across the wall, without throwing out major shoots like a rambler but looking lush at every season and reaching 20ft in two to three years. The first of the large, double-white blooms, each with a tinge of blush at the heart of the flower, appear in June, build up to a first major display then continue in ones and twos right through to autumn. The variety has every virtue: it is almost thornless, sweetly scented and
I can vouch for its hardiness. We have two: one beside the vine house, where it was torn from its moorings by an autumn gale and is starting again after a vigorous cut-back; and a three-year-old that shared the honour (with “Paul’s Himalayan Musk”) of being the star of the courtyard at the back of the house.


The Musk is a high-power rambler, which produces sprays of strongly scented double-pink flowers in one tremendous burst in July. Many people think that one burst is not enough, but when you see Paul’s monster in high summer you will say “Wow!” and reach for your smartphone camera. William Paul was a Hertfordshire nurseryman and horticultural writer in Victorian times and his rambler was one of his best sellers. It is still one of the best, so long as you’ve got plenty of room. And it is truly hardy.



The hardiness theme reminds me of a conversation I had with a Highland gardener, who described one of his roses as “a living miracle”. When asked what was miraculous about his pink-flowered shrub, he said: “It’s alive and well, that’s what’s amazing. I never thought I’d be able to grow any interesting roses up here. We’re very high and very, very cold.”


His shrub is called “Martin Frobisher” and it has been around – or at least listed in British nurserymen’s catalogues – since 1968. It is one of a remarkable series of roses bred by Dr Felicitas Svejda, an Austrian-born researcher who was commissioned by the Canadian government to create roses that would thrive in the toughest conditions – at least down to minus 35ºC. She produced about 25 roses, all named after explorers.

ROSE Martin Frobisher

Hardy rose, ‘Martin Frobisher’


As our winter climate gets worse, we may hear more of these explorers. They are not only tough but also pretty. Several are listed in British mail-order catalogues. “Martin Frobisher” (above), so admired by my Highland friend, is pink, fragrant, has at least two flushes of bloom and looks rather like one of the familiar Alba roses. It’s worth finding if you are pessimistic about our winter climate – or if you live at 900ft near Aviemore.