The charm of wild roses | Garden Notes

Barbara Faurot
Posted 7/13/22

“Wild roses are fairest, and nature a better gardener than art.” – Louisa May Alcott

The first roses appeared on earth about 35 million years ago, originating in Asia and …

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The charm of wild roses | Garden Notes

The Pacific Northwest native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) offers fragrant flowers and year-round wildlife benefits.
The Pacific Northwest native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) offers fragrant flowers and year-round wildlife benefits.
Photo courtesy Barbara Faurot

“Wild roses are fairest, and nature a better gardener than art.” – Louisa May Alcott

The first roses appeared on earth about 35 million years ago, originating in Asia and spreading throughout the Northern Hemisphere. There are currently more than 100 recognized species worldwide, with 22 native to North America. Centuries of hybridizing have led to thousands of cultivars, but we’ll focus here on the beauty and wildlife benefits of our native species. 

In the maritime Pacific Northwest, common native roses include Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), Bald-hip or bald-fruit rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), and clustered wild rose or pea-fruit rose (Rosa pisocarpa). Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) is commonly found east of the Cascades. Others are less common: Prickly rose (Rosa acicularis) and Arkansas rose (Rosa arkansana). 

These are all woody members of the Rosaceae family, which includes fruit producing trees and shrubs – apple, pear, stone fruit, blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry – as well as ornamental shrubs like ninebark, spiraea, cotoneaster, and flowering quince. Typical characteristics include a five-part flower, stipules (small leaf-like structures at the base of a leaf stalk), and hypanthia (cup-like structures formed at the base of sepals and petals).

Our native species of wild rose are easy to grow, and they provide year-round benefits in the landscape. A hedgerow with fragrant rose flowers and colorful hips can offer food, nesting materials, and shelter to birds and beneficial insects. Create a biodiverse hedgerow by interplanting with native trees, other shrubs, ferns, or ground covers. 

According to the nonprofit Xerces Society, pollen-collecting bees, including leafcutter bees, are the primary visitors to native roses. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies as well, and serve as host plants for caterpillars.

Wild roses spread by underground rhizomes and suckers to form lush thickets with beautiful flowers in shades of pink from May to July. Red, orange, or purple hips ripen at different times, providing a food source for wildlife through the winter. The plants will need room to form thickets that can serve different garden needs – to help stabilize a slope, create a privacy buffer, border a wildflower meadow, or reduce noise. 

Their informal, wild form is part of the charm of native roses. It’s best to have ample room, but in a smaller space, pruning can help manage the spread. Follow pruning basics for cane growers: First, remove dead, deranged, or diseased branches. Each year, cut some of the oldest canes to ground level and remove some of the new shoots. 

To identify our three most common native species, the size, flower forms, and prickle types offer some clues: 

The Nootka rose (R. nutkana) reaches 3 to 8 feet and has a large, sturdy pair of prickles at the base of each leaf of bud. It bears large, sweet-scented, solitary flowers, and purplish-red, pear-shaped hips. It generally prefers sun, but will tolerate a wide range of conditions at forest edges, shorelines, riparian areas, or rocky slopes. The Nootka rose is adaptable to both dry and wet areas. The name Nootka derives from Nuu-chah-nulth, First Nations peoples from the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island. 

The smaller bald-hip rose (R. gymnocarpa) grows from 1 to 4 feet tall and is usually bristly with soft, slender prickles. Small, pink flowers grow singly at the tips of branches. The orange or scarlet, pear-shaped hips do not have sepals on mature fruits; gymnocarpa means “naked fruit.” The bald-hip rose prefers part shade, is drought tolerant, and is often found in forests, forest edges, or thickets.

The clustered wild or pea-fruit rose (R. pisocarpa) grows to 3 to 8 feet and has few straight prickles, with a pair at the base of each leaf or bud that are smaller than Nootka rose prickles. Fragrant pink flowers grow in clusters of up to ten, and early hips resemble a pea; pisocarpa means “pea-like fruit.” The bright red hips with attached sepals last far into the winter. This species is adaptable to sun or part shade, and occurs most often in sunny stream banks or swampy areas. It may hybridize in the wild with the Nootka rose, which can complicate identification. 

Our region also has some non-native rose species considered to be invasive in the state, primarily dog rose (Rosa canina) and sweetbriar rose (Rosa rubiginosa). They have wildlife benefits, but can outcompete native and other desirable vegetation. The easiest clue to identify them is their strongly curved prickles. 

By the way, a prickle is a sharp outgrowth from the epidermis or bark of a plant. In contrast, a thorn is a modified stem with a sharp point. Hawthorn (Crataegus) and firethorn (Pyracantha) are two examples. A spine is a sharp-pointed, modified leaf or stipule, like those found in barberry (Berberis vulgaris) or the Pacific Northwest native devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus).

Modern roses – from hybrid tea to floribunda to grandiflora to climbers – have been bred over centuries from wild roses. Consider honoring this heritage by welcoming native roses in your garden, or simply enjoying them in our local parks, shorelines, and woodlands.

The Master Gardener Plant Clinic offers live Zoom sessions to answer home gardening questions from noon to 2 p.m. Thursdays through September. Sign up or submit a question at 

(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)