Incredible Climbing Roses

by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian

In the introduction to his book, Climbing Roses, noted rosarian Stephen Scanniello says, “Climbing roses are the acrobats and aerialists of the rose garden, the carefree plants that tumble over fences, scale walls and trellises, fling themselves over arches, and swing aloft on ropes and chains.” What an apt description of this large group of roses! One that paints a vivid portrait of these wonderful roses – their color and texture at multiple heights, their ability to soften edges and boundaries, and to utilize space that may otherwise sit dormant.

Climbing roses are roses that naturally develop long, pliable canes that are suitable for training on some sort of support or will gracefully arch as a result of their own weight. Technically, they are not really climbing plants, and are not considered vines because they have no way to attach themselves to a support without help (consider the twisting of a wisteria vine, the hooking stems of a clematis or the suckers of ivy). As a result of their long canes, they can be trained and shaped to appear like they were truly climbing. They can be trained to grow up and into a tree, cover a wall or fence, draped over an arbor or trellis, attached to an upright support and grown as a pillar. They can spill over walls, used to cover hillsides, and with some of the miniature varieties, used in hanging baskets.

This category of roses can be divided into two major groups – the ramblers and modern climbing roses. While not definitive descriptions, generally ramblers bloom once a season in the spring on growth from the prior year and the flowers are followed by colorful hips. They produce huge trusses of small blooms on very vigorous plants with canes that can reach 20 feet or more. Modern climbers bloom continuously throughout the season on new growth; canes are shorter and more upright than their rambling counterparts, and may produce hips after flowering if not deadheaded. Ramblers are often old roses with complex histories and lineage difficult to trace, while many modern climbers are the result of hybridization or sports (spontaneous mutations) of bush roses.

There are many wonderful old garden roses that are classified as climbers; some are species roses and others in the Bourbon, Tea and Noisette group. A perennial favorite species is the Lady Banks rose, Rosa banksiae lutea, (ARS 9.1), a vigorous rose that is covered in the spring with small, butter yellow blooms. It is a very healthy rose with clean, light green foliage, is striking entwined with blooming purple wisteria. Sombreuil, a climbing Tea rose from 1850, is a smaller rose growing to 8 feet or so, with very full white flowers, tinged with pink and very fragrant. Mme Alfred Carriere, (ARS 9.0), a Noisette, can grow in a shady location with poor soil, and still produce sumptuous blooms of porcelain cream tinged with blush pink and a super fragrance. Zepherine Drouhin, introduced in 1896, (ARS 8.0) is a climbing Bourbon rose with cerise pink double blooms that are extremely fragrant and is completely thornless!

Many popular ramblers are crosses of species related to Crimson Rambler, an import from Japan in 1893 (its name in Japan is “Cherry rose”.) It was descended from a cross of Rosa wichuriana and Rosa multiflora. When introduced into the U.S. it was an immediate and enormous success being the first rose with canes long enough to cover large surfaces with massed clusters of crimson flowers. Up until it was introduced, roses of this scale were white, blush or pink. The first yellow rambler on the market was Aglaia, created by Lambert in 1896 from a cross between R. multiflora and Reve d Or. After the introduction of this rose, the term “rambler” began to be used as a class of climbing rose. Trier is an offspring of Aglaia, and was the first truly hardy, perpetually blooming rambling rose, also introduced by Lambert in 1904. New hybrids of Rosa wichuriana appeared with Dr W VanFleet (ARS 8.0), named after the hybridizer. New Dawn (ARS 8.6), sport of Dr W VanFleet (ARS 8.0) was given plant patent #1 in 1930 and remains a very popular climbing rose today. Veilchenblau (ARS 8.4) from 1909, is a Hybrid Multiflora, one of the rare mauve colored ramblers, covered with brilliant green foliage and masses of blooms – it is quite a site growing on a fence with climbing Iceberg (ARS 8.6), as in the photo below.

Some of the most popular modern climbing roses have produced sports that have proven to equally appealing – Iceberg, Peace and Double Delight to name a few. Hybridizers have been working diligently to produce large flowered climbers that are healthy, bloom continuously, and have smaller, neater habits than some of their older relations. Fourth of July is one of the few modern climbing roses to have been an AARS winner. Other top ranking ARS modern climbers include: Clair Matin (ARS 8.9), with large trusses of clear pink blooms; Kiftsgate (ARS 8.9), a huge rambler with simple white blossoms and golden stamens; Dublin Bay, (ARS 8.6), a hybrid tea type medium red bloom; Royal Sunset (ARS 8.6), another hybrid tea style flower of apricot and yellow; and Altissimo (ARS 8.5), the velvety red five petaled beauty.

The general care for climbing roses is the same as other roses with the exception of planting, pruning, and providing support and training. When planting climbing roses, you need to provide adequate space from the support structure to give the rose room to spread out; this is especially true if you will be growing the rose on a south or west-facing solid surface. Make sure that the site has adequate drainage and doesn’t get excessive runoff from rooftops or drains. Ramblers, flowering once in the season, should be pruned immediately after blooming, while modern roses can be pruned along with other roses during dormancy. Climbers and ramblers may need a few seasons in the garden before pruning is even necessary; pruning may be limited to removing dead wood. You want to stimulate strong, thick canes that can be trained to grow horizontally in order to produce lateral canes with lots of buds. New, strong canes (generally any stem that is a good finger thickness) are the ones you want to keep – these can be reduced by 25-30% at pruning time. This will stimulate production of more flowers along the stems. In subsequent years, all strong shoots should be reduced by 25-30%.

Providing support for your climbing roses can be as easy as tying the long canes so that they run horizontal to the ground; secure with any type of flexible material like plastic, stretchable tape, or Velcro strips or even cut of bits of nylon stockings. These flexible materials allow some movement of the canes, and won’t bind as the canes increase in size. Do the same for long canes over an arbor or trellis. Keep in mind when planting, that a full grown rose, especially a rambler, can get very large, and heavy (especially when in flower after a rain), and that the structure you use to support it must be capable of supporting the weight. If you want to train a rose to grow on a wall, you will need to provide a support that provides space both in front of and behind for air circulation, and access for tying canes. You can use a wooden lattice that is attached to the wall with bolts.

There are so many great climbing roses available today, both old garden varieties and new ones; take a good look in your garden and see if you can find a place for only one of these lovely acrobats!

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