Monthly Archives: January 2011

Virginia Rose

Have you always loved roses, but hate the spraying, fertilizing, watering and pruning they require to keep them from looking a mess? Please meet the lovely Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Unlike its highly-bred, cultivated cousins (hybrid tea roses and modern cultivars of climbing roses) this native eastern rose is hardy to the coldest parts of New England, grows happily in almost any soil, needs little to to no irrigation except for rainwater, and blooms its head off through June with pink flowers with the most heavenly fragrance. Not to mention, their beautiful red fruits (hips) persist right through the winter, feeding birds and providing winter interest when the landscape is otherwise white and brown. What’s not to love?

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Most Virginia roses bloom in light or medium pink, although there are white-flowering cultivars available too (I’ve not had good experience with the white-flowering form, however). Their flowers might not have the fluffy allure of the larger double-formed hybrids, but their single-flowering form makes them much more attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, who don’t have to fight their way through many layers of petals to access the sweet nectar and pollen at the center of the flower. And did I mention its fragrance?

When it’s happy, which is in any decent soil with good drainage and plenty of sunshine, Virginia rose will spread fairly rapidly within just a few years, so if you have a large area you’d like to fill in quickly with a wildlife-friendly native plant, Virginia makes a great choice.

In bloom, a pink tapestry of Virginia rose mingles beautifully with foxglove, cranesbill and other late spring bloomers and will form a low, thorny hedge that offers excellent year-round predator protection for the birds visiting your gardens. This sunny hillside of our farm was planted with a single container of Virginia rose in 2006, and by June 2009 it had happily spread to form a sizeable thicket:

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As you might imagine, its spreading habit (through underground roots that snake in every direction) makes Virginia rose unsuitable for small gardens, where its roots will eventually take over surrounding plants and form dense canes that shade them out. A better-behaved but just as pretty wild rose is Virginia’s closest cousin, Carolina or pasture rose (R. carolina) which spreads by slowly enlarging clumps rather than spreading roots.

In the thicket above, an annual mowing stops Virginia rose runners from spreading into the adjacent lawn, but you can also contain its advancing roots with a hard root pruning every few years with a sharp shovel. A driveway also makes a good boundary, as long as you don’t use large amounts of salt to de-ice your driveway.

Note: Please let it be known that I would dearly love for the above Virginia rose thicket to spread and cover the entire hill, but hubby has drawn a literal line in the sand (with rocks!) where his lawn cannot be further encroached! I am hoping he won’t notice the line has moved a few times

So planting Virginia rose in beds with other perennials is not a good idea, but in a new planting of a large area, you can interplant with self-seeding annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials to fill the bed for the first few years while the rose spreads….I initially planted the above bed with common sage, purple coneflower, cranesbill, foxglove, cosmos and cleome, and after 4 years, mostly only the foxglove remains in the area, probably because its seedlings are more shade-tolerant than the others. The others I have simply moved to other areas of the garden or given away to friends.

If you’ve grown roses before, you’ll appreciate that Virginia’s foliage is very resistant to most of the common diseases that disfigure roses. Like all roses (wild or cultivated), Japanese beetles love to eat its foliage, but if your plant is healthy and vigorous, it should shrug off any damage. These roses bloom in June in central Massachusetts, and Japanese beetles don’t tend to arrive in large numbers in our area til early July, so by the time the beetles start chewing, you should have other beautiful blooming plants to distract you from a few holes in their leaves.

 Virginia rose canes top out at about 4′, so you should never need to prune them for height, especially because you’d be cutting off one of the plant’s best features, its plump red hips that you barely notice until the first winter snows suddenly bring them to life:

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The hips must be pretty sour to taste, because the birds don’t seem to touch them at all during the winter. They disappear around the beginning of spring here, so winter’s deep freezes must sweeten them up a bit, or else late winter birds are too hungry to be picky. I often see their thorny stems used as a temporary hideout by foraging winter birds, who get spooked by hungry hawks hovering around my bird gardens and feeders. The white background makes tiny birds much more visible to larger predators (my dogs will confirm this because they constantly mistake them for chipmunks!) but even a cat is unlike to risk those nasty thorns and go in after them…

If your garden conditions are boggy or wet, the best native roses for garden use are swamp rose (R. palustris) and New England rose (R. nitida), although these bloom a little later than the field roses in summer.

If you look, you may still find native roses growing wild in natural areas. More often than not, though, roses that you see in the wild are the invasive multiflora rose (R. multiflora), which is often assumed to be native but is an introduced rose from Asia that has been steadily overtaking old fields in New England for decades:

19-x Multiflora rose closeup cropped reduced Although birds do eat their berries, multiflora rose has a highly negative impact on its surroundings, forming enormous thickets that crowd out the native plants that underpin balanced and healthy ecosystems. Chances are, if you see a large, fragrant sprawling wild rose with white flowers and arching stems, it’s multiflora rose. Removing these from your property can be a great contribution to protecting local biodiversity…you can either replant with one of our native New England roses, or use the “wait, weed and watch” approach, which means simply rooting out any remaining multiflora canes that pop up over time, and allowing any native plants that are still hanging on to make a comeback.

If you try the wait, weed and watch approach, be prepared for a funny thing to happen. You’ll begin to notice an increasing variety of birds, butterflies and other interesting wildlife that visit your naturalized area, many more so than your more cultivated garden areas, and eventually you will realize that your wildlife garden, with all the life it attracts, is your most beautiful and favorite garden of them all…

** BY THE WAY ** Apologies to my email blog subscribers who received a half-written article on Wednesday by email – I hit the “Publish” button instead of the “Save” button and the article went out as is  {deep embarrassment}. The complete article is available here: Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Happy New Year to my blog followers! With apologies to the Rolling Stones for this blog title, I’ll start the year talking about  some ways to help overwintering wild birds stay safe from bad weather and predators in your backyard. With many of our native bird species declining at an alarming rate, our feathered friends need all the help they can get from those of us who care about their future….

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With the exception of hummingbird feeders, winter is the only time of year I hang bird feeders here on our farm. To be honest, feeding wild birds is more about making us feel good than about really helping birds. Birds rely on a variety of natural food sources (seeds, berries, buds, and the various insect life forms that overwinter in leaf litter, plant stems or tree bark) to get themselves through winter, and the best way to help them is to plant as many bird-friendly plants and trees in your surroundings to provide food and habitat throughout the year.

But hanging a feeder is a great way to supplement natural food sources for birds especially after heavy snowfall has buried many seed plants and ground-level food sources, and a bird feeding station near the house is an low-impact way to enjoy nature from indoors. Especially in the worst of the horrid weather when even I (who LIVES to be outdoors) prefer to stay inside…

If you do hang feeders, locate them somewhere that birds can quickly dive for cover if necessary. Birds visiting a crowded feeder in an exposed location are sitting ducks for predators such as hawks looking for a quick meal. Evergreen shrubs and trees (including rhododendron, mountain laurel, yew, hemlock, pine, spruce, fir and cedar) are the best, because they also provide shelter from wind and harsh weather. But any shrub or tree with a twiggy or dense branching structure will give birds a safe place to rest in between feeding. Shrubs such as holly, crabapple and native viburnums are all great “shelter” trees for birds, plus they retain their fruits well into winter to feed hungry birds.

Any plant with thorns, including wild rose or hawthorn, also provide a safe haven for birds to hide from danger. Not many predators (especially cats!) are willing to fight with thorny stems for a meal.

If your family puts up a live Christmas tree at the holidays, consider re-using your discarded Christmas tree as temporary evergreen cover near your winter feeders. The very first year we tried this, within hours, we saw finches, sparrows and chickadees begin to use the tree as a hideout in between visits to our nearby feeding station. And within days, we witnessed real drama when a sharp-shinned hawk held some of them hostage inside the tree:

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Can you imagine his beady little eyes watching you inside that tree? This photo still makes me shiver…

The truth is, this hawk was just too slow for our speedy songbirds. At one point (after a good 20 minutes of waiting), a group of brave birds mad e a dash for the shrub border at the edge of our property. The hawk watched and waited a while longer, but after a few minutes, he gave up and flew away in search of easier pickings elsewhere.

So remember, feeding the birds is a nice idea, but make sure you’re not luring them to certain death at your feeders. Resolve to add some “bird shelter” to your gardens this year. I’ll be posting over the next few days with some more ideas…