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Herbal Rx for Roses – Part 1.

'I'd like to teach the world to grow, in plant com-mun-i-tyyyy'… alas, it doesn't have the same ring as: 'I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony'. I wish there were ad agencies clamoring to create a thought provoking anti-jingle about issues affecting 'pure' (monoculture) crops, vacuum-packed 'organic' produce from plants never allowed to produce natural immunity, and other bandini heaped on the public these days.

The downfall of an environmental cause is this kind of issue gets good press (for a while). It has a great battle cry, but later becomes a lost cause. People can't absorb too much information at once, especially if they don't have a chance to put it to use. In gardening we have an opportunity to put theory to the test and make it our own reality. We may not change the world but we can be good stewards of our little piece of it! It's a start.

Test gardens prove the theory

My test gardens serve as laboratories for more than roses, including experiments with their herbal companions as well. A 12'x24' bed contains a dense collection of one hundred roses in a storied design, from ground-cover varieties to huge climbers. The company they keep includes dozens of herbs and nary an inch of unclaimed soil space; even the airspace is filled, layered with fragrant boughs of absinthe and roses. The beneficial insect population flits through with springtime jitters and the residents of my nearby Habitat Garden wander over to 'spoon' amid the herbal essence. It's a healthy plant community and it's all done without chemicals.

I think back to that environmental circle stamped on the recycling bins (where did those bins go?) and the way all things in nature are interconnected to each other. One leads to another and another relates back to the beginning. Nature can't tolerate empty space and quickly fills it in. "Life will find a way" to quote the probabilities expert in Jurassic Park.

It takes a garden

The Garden is a natural community, plants, animals, insects; even earth, air, and water share your garden and have no other motivation than their own. In fact, that's the best thing about them: their surety. What they bring to your rose beds is an intricate miracle of relationship. It doesn't take a village, it is a village. In such a landscape your visitors are moved to say, "Now that's a garden!" Where to start? Just adding the right herbal companion plants can get that environmental circle rolling, inviting the best of the rest to join in.

Insects are scent-driven in behavior, 'good' bugs are attracted to herbs and 'bad' bugs are repelled by them. (Read the entry on Lavender, the virtual pharmacy.) Choose your friends wisely and your plants' friends with even greater care. (See the entry on Thyme as a hard-working ground cover.) If you don't decide what will live in the open ground between your roses, nature will. Leaving it up to chance is a big mistake.

The finest choice for rose companions is the plant that improves their health and yours, the simple herb. Think of your garden as a huge healthy bouquet. (Rose bouquets on the dinner table should always include purple basil flowers. Read the entry on Basil to find out why.)

Starting the chain of events that leads to an Herbal Rx Rose Garden will be good for you and your gardens health; it can become a working garden instead of a garden that's too much work! Eliminate your chemical gardening practices as quickly as possible and watch your garden develop its own 'immunity'. A garden overdosed with chemical treatment and preventative is weakened not strengthened; like a person who takes too many antibiotics. Nothing works anymore but they're still not well.

Consider this surprising truth from the article "Is Organically Grown Produce Better?" by Don Winterstein in the recent Fruit Gardener magazine: food crops grown with organic methods contain more antioxidants than those grown with chemical practices which have eliminated the natural predation of insects. The antioxidants, nature's cancer preventative, are developed by the plant in response to the insect attack!

An alphabet soup of herbal companions

Following is an alphabet soup of herbal companions and their merits, especially as they relate to roses and the rose gardener:

Anise Hyssop Agastache Foeniculum
A popular nectar stop for hungry beneficials, especially bees who make a scented honey from it. Brightly colored wands of flowers wave in the breeze with bees and butterflies clinging to them in ecstasy.
Basil Ocimum sp.
The annual sweet basil can be sown in May and June directly beneath roses without threat of root competition. During its short life, the purple basil deepens the color of the rose bloom while the rose intensifies the favor of the basil. Basil flowers add a fragrant spice aroma to the rose bouquet as well. On the dinner table they stimulate the adrenal cortex, sense of smell, and improve appetite. In the garden, Basil acts as a scent barrier against predacious insects. This is one of the few companions to grow within the dripline, or near the rose base. Other herbs forget who they serve and compete for rose nutrition while Basil lives such a brief time and all of it beneficial.
French marigold Tagetes patula
Only the French marigold (not other marigolds) is effective against rose pests and it is a champion. A natural insecticide exuded from the roots and stems of this variety repels certain predatory soil nematodes particularly those that attack tulips, potatoes and roses. A flower-less (non-invasive) marigold 'Polynema' was being tested for long term nematode control in commercial rose beds but I've heard of no resounding success from this experiment, yet.
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Wands of purple, pink or blue flowers emit a fragrance distracting to cabbage butterflies (those little green caterpillars that eat everything rose related) so they can't find each other and mate (and make more little green caterpillars!) It will curl up and die in a chemical garden so don't use it if you're still undecided on this issue. Once used for treating leprosy, it is antiseptic and antiviral but should be avoided in pregnancy and by those afflicted with hypertension and epilepsy.
Larkspur Consolida ambigua
THE plant to discourage thrips. Historically this plant was paired with roses in flower gardens for good reason. It also attracts butterflies and bees. I know Larkspur is not an herb, but I had to add it to the mix for good company.
Lavender Lavandula sp.
Did you know that all aromatic plants produce oil or resin as a waste product of the plant's metabolism? Does that sound disgusting? What about the alluring lavender which accumulates its own by-product as resin on its leaves used for defense against pest and predator (dogs don't care for it either). The protective properties of lavender oil extend to the neighboring plants as well. In the rose bed lavender creates a barrier of impenetrable scent that makes the roses invisible to predacious insects. Lavender is a virtual pharmacy, with at least thirty different beneficial chemicals in its oil and hundreds of uses including anti-nausea, anti-depressant, cell renewal, migraine treatment, a soothing oil in baths is used for aches, sunburn and insomnia. The best oils are harvested from L. intermedia 'Grosso', L. dentata and L. angustifolia which are dramatic standouts in the back of the rose bed. Lavandula sp. 'Hidcote' and L. sp. 'Dutchmill' are better neighbors between the roses.
Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis
This herb is a source for citronella oil, demonstrating it has insect repellent properties. When the leaves are used as an evening tea, it is calming and soothes headache, indigestion and nausea. As an antiviral agent, it heals wounds by suffocating bacteria.
Mullein Verbascum thapsus
A striking albeit brief statement in the back of the rose bed. Its nectar and pollen are a food source for 'good' bugs. It self-sows and transplants well at two-inch size so there are plenty of opportunities to share or rearrange the new plants. This six-foot biennial has bright gray rosettes of foliage with a soft thick texture. Its anti-bacterial properties led Shirley Kerrins of the Huntington Gardens to call it the 'original Dr. Scholl's foot pad'!
Myrtle Myrtus communis compacta
This is truly my favorite border plant due to its historical use in Sacred and/or Celtic Gardens. With its sweetly fragrant boughs it invites interaction with garden visitors, so I define the rose bed borders with it and include a bench where people can sit companionably with it. Choose the compact version so you won't be shearing off the flowering ends and can use it to line the front of the bed. Unlike the evil boxwood who is a thief of root space, water and nutrients (and is toxic to boot), the myrtle is a gracious neighbor and far better choice for more formal rose bed designs. It is antiseptic and astringent, the oil is a treatment for gingivitis. Dried leaves are used in herb pillows for sweet dreams.
Rose Rosa sp.
Long before she graced tables with extravagant bouquets, Rose was a controversial herb. In the rose bed the diversity of roses is itself a form of companion planting, by arranging 'wild' and 'domestic' varieties to maximize the strength of the true Rosa sp. Rose is possessed of aromatherapy, medicinal, culinary and spiritual properties. In the garden the heavily scented Rosa damascena is essential to beneficial insects and hummingbirds. She is a heady experience for the gardener as well. Fresh petals from Rosa gallica 'officinalis' are decocted into medicinal rosewater and rose attar. Rosa rugosa produces hips ten times more potent in vitamin 'c' than an orange and tea brewed from fresh rather than dried hips is a medicine chest full of additional vitamins and minerals. Rose is a key player in human history. Her medicinal properties were originally suspect as magic and the rose was rejected by the early church. Later reinstated, but only for royalty, the rose was secretly desired and acquired in defiance. Finally absolved and used on the altar, the rose was embraced once again and her gifts became commerce as well as spiritual. My first rose is my finest: Autumn Damask who traveled The Silk Road for the perfume trade. "A little fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose" is especially true of this species as the perfume oil is coated on all the flower parts.
Rosemary Rosmarinus sp.
Poor rosemary has had a bad rap because someone put the wrong (huge) varieties in the wrong place and the usual method of correcting the problem left them sheared and unattractive! Two diminutive varieties are perfectly suited in size for a rose bed. Always welcome among my roses are the cultivars 'Golden Rain' (with its intricate variegation of yellow and lime-green) and Dwarf Prostrate Rosemary (available from Jeanne Dunn, The Herban Gardener). I've never pruned either to keep them small. Bees are less aggressive to the gardener with the compelling Rosemary to turn all their attention too. And the aromatic nature of rosemary makes it unappealing to boring insects. Their herbal Rx properties are boundless: an anti-oxidant, anti-septic, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. My favorite 'anti'!
Rue Ruta graveolens
Also known as 'The Holy Herb' or 'Herb of Grace', so-called due to its historical use in the early Catholic Church as a green bough which was dipped in holy water and switched over supplicants as blessing. In companion planting it is a serious repellent to destructive Japanese beetles and bad cats. Rue and Basil are complete opposites and very incompatible, they must be planted well away from each other. (Caution: Rue is not for use by pregnant women.)
Sage Salvia officianalis
Salvia officianalis Common kitchen sage is known as 'the physician plant' for its mysterious beneficial relationship to all other plants around it. It enhances the life and general well-being of lavender, rosemary, and the rose. In addition it has a striking Dutch blue bloom in fuchsia colored bracts (especially the slower growing tri-color which is the least attractive to mildew). Hummingbirds wage wars over the blooms. The sage can be used on the outside edge of the bed as a sacrificial plant: drawing the mildew spores to itself. I prefer it right among the roses however for its aura of health. If mildew becomes a problem sprinkle a small amount of the powdered soil amendment, lime on it.
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare var. crispum
This herb is an excellent deterrent to Japanese beetles and striped cucumber beetles (who eat up roses and the Datura: better known as Angels Trumpet). The regular variety is too cumbersome for the rose bed but the Fernleaf Tansy behaves like a ground cover and is like dark-green curled lace all about the rose's feet. Tansy is not for medicinal use by humans, but makes an excellent flying insect repellent when hung in floral sprays.
Thyme Thymus sp.
Thyme is the hardest working herb I know. I cover any open ground in my rose bed with it. Antibacterial and antiseptic, this aromatic family of plants is intoxicating to beneficial insects and prohibitive to disease. The three-inch wands of pastel blooms are a delightful surprise. Thyme was first put to work in biblical times; sprinkled on sacrificial animals to make them acceptable to the gods, it no doubt slowed the decay left on the altar. Later it was layered on stored meats as preservative prior to refrigeration. In WW1 it was an antiseptic in battlefield hospitals. Its history has intertwined so thoroughly with mans that the very nature of desire in human appetite has evolved to include Thyme in our expectation as a seasoning in modern day meat dishes! It also strengthens the immune system. (Note: There are two basic forms: Creeping Thyme with mat forming roots for use as a groundcover away from rose driplines; and Common Thyme with a short single stem and multi-branches, for placement between roses.) Beautiful choices include Coconut, Archer's Gold, Lime, Lemon, and Camphor Thyme.
Wormwood Artemisia sp.
You will not find any other plants growing beneath the boughs of the popular herb Artemisia. Why? Because it is filled with growth regulating toxins that exude into surrounding soil, preventing germination and competition from weed seed. Best use is in the outside edges of your rose bed where it stands guard against rose predators. As an automatic air freshener several species are non-pareil. I especially like Absinthe for its intricate wreath-maker's leaves and insect repellent properties. (The only Artemisia that is safe to eat is Tarragon.)
Yarrow Achillea sp.
Yarrow is an essential plant for Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The shallow flowers serve thirsty beneficial insects whose short mouthparts cannot reach the nectar in deeper blooms. The thick root system makes this a good border companion or it can even be used as a walkway when mowed like a lawn, leave the edges un-sheared so they will bloom. The presence of this herb in the rose bed serves the gardener well with its antibacterial properties. Yarrow will arrest bleeding when applied as a poultice on wounds. The Herbal Rx properties are more pronounced in the unhybridized varieties, but all the rich palettes of cultivars blooms are beneficial for IPM.
Herbal Rx for Roses - This column will continue next month with a 'baker's dozen': more excellent herbal companions for your rose garden, with a dash of anecdotes thrown in for seasoning and some dos and don'ts for the rose garden.
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