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Introduction to Climbing Roses

The subject of climbing roses could be the study of a lifetime. There is more variety of growth habit, size, pruning needs and possibilities of location for climbing roses than any other type. So the purpose of this article is to interest you in adding a climber or two to your rose garden and give you some of the basics of choosing and caring for this climber.

WHY GROW CLIMBERS?

A full-grown climber, full of blooms in June, is a wonderful sight. Its height lifts your eyes from the earth (which might have weeds) to the more beautiful backdrop of the sky. Climbers change your garden from a two dimensional flatland to the full use of the space you have, all three dimensions. "They add movement, texture and color at various heights; soften straight lines, accentuate curves; create depth; and provide a feeling of abundance."5 Climbing roses can be used by the cottage gardener, with natural unstudied growth on walls and fences; as well a by the most rigidly formal gardener who can carefully train them on chains and tunneling arches.

Climbing roses are ideal as well for gardeners who wish to grow more than roses in their yards. "Companions in any walk of life are best if they provide contrast or complement."8 Blue or purple clematis vines are beautiful twining through a climbing rose and add a color not found in roses. You might think blue morning glories would do the same thing cheaper and easier, but morning glories take over the rose bush and re-seed themselves relentlessly. Lower growing perennials can be grown at the base of climbers, where there is often a area of bare canes. Daylilies work well, providing a contrast of leaf type and bloom time, without being invasive. They come in thousands of varieties and tend to have peak bloom in mid July and early August when roses may be languishing.

Another reason to add a climber to your garden is that "climbing roses are much less affected by pests and diseases than other roses."5 This may be partly because most of the leaves are high enough to prevent blackspot spores from being splashed on them from the ground. Growing far above the earthbound roses also gives them more air and light, great for their health. This is not universally true of course. Dorothy Perkins and some other ramblers have a strong tendency to mildew, mainly when overgrown. A climber grown right against a wall can have a tendency to disease, due to inadequate air circulation.

CHOOSING VARIETIES

"If ever a climbing rose is a disappointment…it is usually because the right type has not been chosen for a particular purpose."11 First, be certain that the rose you choose is hardy for your area. The idea of winter protecting tender climbers by taking them down from their supports and burying them sounds too much like work to me. Even the method of taking evergreen boughs and tying them onto the climber's branches to protect it from the wind and cold is a daunting task if you have more than a couple of these roses. If it can't survive our weather, shovel-prune it. Here in Rhode Island we are mainly zone 6. This keeps us from growing most of the Teas and Noisettes that will not tolerate the low temperatures of anywhere colder than zone 7. Generally, climbing sports of hybrid teas and floribundas are not as hardy as a climber that is not a sport. Where you might tolerate winter kill on a hybrid tea bush, but save the base of the plant by mounding it in manure; you would lose almost the whole plant if the same thing happened to a climber. You would then be set back at least 2 years.

The mature size of a climber is one of the most important things to be considered when choosing a rose for a particular spot. Paul's Himalayan Musk, a well-known rambler, could not be grown on a pillar or even an average size arch. It easily reaches 30 feet in height and is best suited for climbing into a tree or swallowing an old structure that you'd like disguised. Be aware that a climber grown on the side of a house will grow taller than the same one grown on a separate support.

Growth habits and rebloom are next on the list. Some climbers, like Altissimo, are very stiff, and are unsuitable for much training. Others, like the ramblers, grow such flexible canes that they can be twisted and looped into any shape. Modern roses rebloom sporadically through the summer after a main flush in the spring. Most modern gardeners would dismiss a once bloomer without a thought, feeling that a rebloomer must be far superior. In fact, a once blooming climbing rose or rambler often produces quantities of bloom far in excess of any repeat bloomer and is a spectacular sight. We have the once blooming fragrant Madame Gregoire Steaechlin in our garden, sent to us by mistake from a mail order nursery instead of a repeat bloomer, and we wouldn't want to do without it.

You'll probably be glad to know that there are quite a few climbers that tolerate part shade. "Most of the Hybrid Musk Roses (which can be trained as small 6'-10' climbers), including Buff Beauty, Lavender Lassie, Kathleen, and Cornelia, will tolerate up to a half day of shade."6 We have Golden Showers growing and blooming well on the north side of our house. Climbing Iceberg, which is hardy despite being a climbing sport, does well for us in an area shaded by trees for at least half the day. One of advantages of climbers that I've found is that they can occupy the ecological niche in our yard near a solid fence. A bush would not thrive, being shaded by the fence; but once the climber grows a bit above the fence it can take off, since now it is exposed to the sun.

Following are some excellent choices for a climbing rose in your garden.

New Dawn: One of the most reliably hardy and healthy climbers and a best seller since its introduction in 1930. It has the distinction of being the first plant in the world to be patented. It is an ever-blooming sport of "Dr. Van Fleet", a hardy Wichuriana hybrid. It is a double flower, pale pink in color, with a mild old rose scent. The foliage is shiny and very healthy, and can be grown without spraying. Give it plenty of room, because once established (about 3 years) "it can quickly outgrow any space allotted to it,"5 and canes can easily reach 15 feet. It is easy to grow, resistant to pests and can even be grown in as little as 4 or 5 hours of sun a day. New Dawn and its descendants must be deadheaded differently than the average ever-blooming climber. Just pinch off the dead bloom, as new buds develop directly behind these and will be lost if you prune back the lateral. ARS rating 8.5.

Sombreuil: This is classified as a climbing tea, bred in 1850 and therefore eligible for Dowager Queen in a show**. You may hear arguments that what is now being sold as Sombreuil is actually a newer rose called Colonial White, but this does not make this rose less beautiful. It has flat, perfectly formed creamy white blooms with an old garden rose appearance. It is quartered with a "button" eye. The bloom can be tinged with pink or yellow, and will hold its color better if given partial shade, with five or six hours of sun.5 It is very hardy and once established, quite vigorous. Because it can bloom on new growth, it produces plenty of blooms in the fall as well.2 It can be from 8-13 feet tall when mature. The long canes can be trained in many shapes. ARS rating 8.8

Altissimo: This rose is incomparable, literally and figuratively. There just is no other rose with the combination of rich blood red color accented with bright golden stamens and extremely heavy velvet substance. It is a very large single bloom, about 5 inches across, growing on tall, upright, very stiff canes. It has only a light scent, described as clove. The individual blooms seem to last forever on the plant, although they are most beautiful on the first day of their bloom when the stamens are bright and fresh. If not trained as the shoot is growing, it soon becomes far too rigid to train. A fan shape will work well with this climber5, so that the blooms do not form only at the tips of the long 10-foot canes. Hard pruning of older growth will encourage new vigorous basal shoots. It is very hardy and disease resistant. ARS rating 8.5

Dublin Bay. This rose is a good choice for a moderately sized climber, taking several years to reach its 8 to12 foot mature height. It has bright rich red blooms about 4 inches across with about 25 petals. It is hardy and has shiny dark green disease resistant foliage. ARS rating 8.5.

Jeanne LaJoie. This is the best climbing mini and indeed one of the best of any type climber. It is covered with rich pink miniature blooms in great profusion in the spring and fall, with good rebloom in between. It is disease resistant and easily propagated. It takes several years to become well established then takes off and can reach up to 15 feet, although it can be pruned to keep it in a smaller area. ARS rating 9.3.

Don't be afraid to order an interesting climber by mail or internet. Since climbing roses are vigorous growers by nature, even the little own root roses that you can order this way will quickly establish themselves. A couple of my favorites that can't be bought locally are Summer Wine and the Impressionist, both available from Heirloom Roses.13 Summer Wine has a scent like green apples, thin flexible canes, vigorous growth and single flowers of ever changing pink and peach shades with red stamens. The Impressionist is a stiffer climber, with "English" style blooms of almost egg yolk colored centers, shading to creamsicle and then a shade of pink (really). It has a myrrh fragrance. Both are disease resistant. Roses Unlimited14 also carries a large selection of own root climbers, including Climbing Crimson Glory (deep red black and a wonderful strong fragrance) and City of York (fragrant, single white blooms, once bloomer).

EXHIBITING

If you enjoy exhibiting roses as well as growing them there are additional factors to be aware of. Some climbing roses are more attractive in a vase than others and are more likely to show well. For the last couple of years, two roses have been far more likely to win Best of Class: Fourth of July and Altissimo. America was a consistent third. The rest of the top ten for 2000-2001 included Clair Matin, Dublin Bay, Berries 'n' Cream, Rosarium Uetersen, Don Juan, Joseph's Coat, Pearly Gates and New Dawn.9 This does not preclude less well-known climbers from winning, as a well grown rose of any variety is judged on its own merits.

When judging, the judge has to take into consideration the growth characteristics of different climbers. "S"Specimens must be shown on the current years growth and therefore may have stems too short to balance the exhibit properly…should not be penalized too severely for its lack of balance."1 One bloom per stem exhibits are judged by the standards for hybrid teas, while clusters are judged by the standards for floribundas.

Be careful not to enter climbing hybrid teas, climbing floribundas or other climbing sports of bush roses in this class. They should be entered "just as if the word climbing did not appear before the classification."1 Care should also be taken to look up your variety in Modern Roses XI, the Combined Rose List or other reference to determine if your "climber" is really considered to be a shrub instead. Westerland and Sally Holmes are 2 very tall shrubs that come to mind.

SUPPORTS

The choices for supporting a climbing rose are limited only by your imagination. Look at your yard before you start. If you have a rock pile, a dead tree, or a picket fence; you already have a support in place. You might be thinking about growing a climber up the side of your house. "Covering areas of the house with trellis work or treillage" works well and was the system used by Dr. and Mrs. Brownell, local Rhode Island breeders.11 Make sure the trelliswork is separated from the house by an iron bracket or wooden block by about six inches. If you have a house that will need to be painted, think long and hard before you do this.

Rose Support

One of the simplest of supports, for the less vigorous roses, is a 4 by 4 of pressure treated lumber or a cedar fence post . Drill holes through it at different intervals and push 3/4" doweling through it, leaving some protruding from each side.11 Bury the bottom 2 feet like a fence post. Even good wood will eventually rot though. A tripod of sturdy bamboo posts lashed together at the top and bottoms inserted in the ground is easy, inexpensive and works well for small climbers and pillar roses like those bred by the Brownells, who used these extensively. But "possibly the most permanent post which has been contrived for climbing roses is iron pipe set in concrete."7 Two inch pipe works well. The open top of the pipe can be used creatively by inserting the ends of 1/8" thick strap iron into 2 posts, forming an arch in between. Bend the end of the strap so it stays in place in the pipe. (See illustration with 2 pieces of iron inserted for connecting arches) "Semicircles are relatively simple and can be accurately gauged by making the length of strap iron between the offsets a trifle more than one and one-half times the distance between the posts."7 Since most arches are for people to walk through, give them plenty of room. The height should be at least seven feet8 so that the roses overhead don't become a hazard. If you find a metal pipe unattractive, cover it all around with bamboo canes8 to combine durability and a natural look. Many formal rose gardens grow climbers along chains that's are draped between two posts. A galvanized chain "as thick as a man's thumb … will support the weight of any roses it will ever be called upon to bear."7

There is a large variety of materials that you can use to make supports. One could solder copper plumbing pipes together into obelisks or trellises. Treating them with sal ammoniac (available in a stained glass supply store) gives it that aged green patina. Stone or brick columns can be topped with wooden crossbeams to make impressive and formal arches or pergolas. Simple wires strung between posts are enough to support a living fence of roses. White plastic lattice available in any building supply store can be attached to a simple frame. If you have lots of room and time, build an old-fashioned wood lattice pyramid8 for your roses to grow on. While it looks impressive, I'd be wondering what critter would consider it a nice home to live under. If you live in the city and only have a telephone pole handy, use that. One of our members, Louis Horne, has covered a pole with large pieces of bark, giving it the appearance of roses climbing up a dead tree. Look at lots of books and then be creative

"It is important to note that the shoots of all Ramblers and Climbers should be tied to a support in a near horizontal position. These shoots will produce flowering laterals along their length and provide a generous display of flowers. Vertical shoots will tend to produce flowers only at their tips."12 Tie shoots loosely and always cross the tie between the cane and its support to prevent chafing.7 Natural twine is inexpensive but doesn't last long, soft nylon cord is more enduring. Narrow strips of leather were often used in the past. Besides lasting well, a loop of leather could be nailed to the support,7 which were less conspicuous than tying it around a post for instance. Check your roses before winter sets in to be sure they are securely tied. The wind can damage the canes badly if they are allowed to rub together, leaving lesions that insects and disease will take advantage of.

PRUNING

"Pruning a rose bush is not unlike giving a home haircut to a small child: you do the best you can, secure in the knowledge that if it turns out odd-looking, new growth will quickly hide your mistakes." Liz Druitt, The Organic Rose Garden

That being said, pruning a climbing rose is quite a bit different from pruning a bush variety. First, do not prune a climber at all for its first 2 or 3 years except to remove dead wood.2 It takes time to develop the long canes and large root system it needs to support them. If there are more than 4 or 6 main canes at this time, select the best and prune the others out all the way to the ground while the rose is dormant.3 For most climbers, spring pruning should be to remove dead wood and to remove canes that are weak, excessively crowded or crossing. As some canes get older, they stop producing productive flowering laterals. These older canes may be removed as well. Cut them from the base if possible.5 After that, much depends on the type of climber you have. I highly recommend Stephen Scanniello and Tania Bayard's book, "Climbing Roses", for very specific information on training and pruning the dozens of varieties of roses grown at the Cranford Rose Garden in Brooklyn.

The basic repeat blooming large flowered climbers that are now widely grown, can be pruned in late winter/early spring. Find the flowering laterals that grow off the main canes and cut them back by about 2/3. Leave at least three eyes or nodes on the pruned lateral for new growth. "The reason we prune this far back is because the subsequent stem that emerges can be no larger in diameter than the stem from which it grows. We want our… blooms to be on long, sturdy bloom stems."2 After flowering, remove the spent flower and a very short stem. Many climbers form their next flowers just behind the previous set.11

Ramblers like Dorothy Perkins, Excelsa and American Pillar should have all of the canes that have flowered this year cut off at the base in the late summer. The new long canes that grew from basal shoots will grow laterals and flower the next year. These should then be tied in place. Other ramblers like Velchenblau have their new year's growth start part way up on the older canes rather than from the base. Remove the old wood above this point, again in the late summer.12 Huge ramblers like Paul's Himalayan Musk can be left alone.

On once blooming large flowered climbers, no pruning should be done until after the spring/summer flush, or else you'd be pruning off your potential blooms. After flowering, prune the laterals back to 5 to 15 inches.11 Leave some faded blooms to form rosehips for the fall.

You may have an established climber that has become overgrown, poorly shaped and generally overgrown. You can start all over again by cutting off all the canes about 12-18" from the base. Do not expect any significant bloom the next summer. "This drastic pruning is suitable for climbing roses that have retained a good proportion of healthy growth and is effective on nearly all ramblers."4 Mikolajski goes on to say that this would kill a less healthy bush, which should be "renovated" gradually over a few years.

Many climbers become bare around their bases after a few years. If you want to retain one of these canes but stimulate it to produce new lower growth, there is a method that is sometimes helpful. "Nick the cane with a knife right through the bark about 1/3"; above a bud near to the base of the plant. This nick should travel from one side of the stem to the other, covering about a third of the total diameter."10 Do this while the rose is dormant. This can cause the dormant eye to start growing a new cane.

The bottom line for growing climbers is: get to know the ones you have. Each variety has its vagaries which only observation and experience will show you. Learn by looking. Follow the old Chinese proverb "the best fertilizer is the farmer's footsteps".


  1. American Rose Society. Guideline for Judging Roses. The American Rose Society, Shreveport, LA, 1993.
  2. Just Roses. "Climbing Roses", Internet reference: no longer available , 9/9/02.
  3. Mattock, John. Gardener's Guide to Growing Roses. Knickerbocker Press, NY, 1996.
  4. Mikolajski, Andrew. Climbing Roses. Lorenz, NY, 1987.
  5. Scanniello, Stephen & Tania Bayard. Climbing Roses. Prentice Hall, NY, 1994.
  6. "Selecting Climbers". Internet Reference: http://www.berkeleyhort.com/roses/r_selectclimb.html, Sept.9, 2002.
  7. Stevens, G.A. Climbing Roses.The Macmillan Co., NY 1933.
  8. Thomas, Graham Stuart. Climbing Roses Old and New. St. Martin's Press, NY 1965.
  9. "Top Exhibition Roses". Internet reference: http://www.roseshow.com. 9/12/02.
  10. Warner, Christopher. Climbing Roses. The Globe Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut, 1987.
  11. Wilson, Helen Van Pelt. Climbing Roses. M. Barrows and Co., NY, 1955.
  12. Welyczkowsky, Cindy. Fertilizing, Pruning and Winterizing Roses. Ohio State University Extension Fact sheet. Internet Reference: http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1205.html.
  13. Heirloom Roses. 1-503-538-1576. http://heirloomroses.com/.
  14. Roses Unlimited. 1-864-682-7673. http://rosesunlimitedownroot.com/.
** [HMF Editor]   The ARS has acknowledged that the rose referred, "a climber known as Sombreuil or Colonial White", was not bred in 1850 and is no longer eligible for Dowager Queen. It is a modern climber that appeared out of no where in the 1940's or 1950's. Sombreuil or Colonial White is a Large Flowered Climber. The 1850 rose is Mlle de Sombreuil, a Tea.
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