Damask rose

Rose hunting — a different approach to rose acquisition. Above, a damask rose.

In the early part of my horticultural career, June was the month when I put on my Stetson hat, laced on a stout pair of logger’s boots, strapped a holster with my Felco pruning shears to my waist and set out rose-hunting.

Why June? Roses are, generally, in their first most glorious bloom then, so it’s a good time to savor their beauties. Plus, the rose canes are at the right stage of maturity then for taking cuttings. The latter point was particularly important, because in my rose-hunting days, I preferred to start my own roses rather than buy them from a nursery.

This approach to rose acquisition had a number of advantages. By taking cuttings from established bushes, I knew exactly what I was going to get, and didn’t have to rely on the fulsome descriptions of nursery catalogs. An inspection of the parent bush allowed me to predict whether the offspring would be disease-resistant and vigorous. If the parent rose was flourishing in an abandoned garden or perhaps by an old gravesite -– and those were my favorite hunting grounds -– I could ascertain if the bush was of a type that could flourish without special care.

Finally, by starting my rose bushes from cuttings, I helped to ensure longevity. Nursery-grown roses are commonly propagated by grafting the hybrid garden rose onto a tougher, although less attractive, rootstock rose. This treatment allows the nursery to produce big and uniform bushes more quickly. But if such a rose is killed back to the graft union, either by harsh weather or a hungry deer, the new growth will be that of the less attractive rootstock. A rose grown from a cutting, in contrast, is the same beauty from its blossoms to its roots, and regrowth after a catastrophe will have all the characteristics that caused you to choose the rose in the first place.

Before setting off on a rose hunt, equip your car with a cooler and cold pack, so that you will have a cool place to store any cuttings you may harvest. Bring along, also, a half-dozen gallon-sized ziplock plastic bags, each containing a dampened paper towel, a pencil and some plastic labels. When you find a rose that piques your fancy and have gotten permission from the owner or cemetery manager to take cuttings, look for a new cane with a flower on top. From this, snip off the flower and then cut up the remaining cane into pieces about the length of a pencil; each piece should include two or three leaves. Seal the cuttings in a plastic bag with a label on which you have written the name of the variety or a description of the blossom. Then stow the bag in the cooler.

When you arrive home, dig a bed in a shady spot, mixing enough sphagnum peat into the soil to make a half-and-half mixture. Snip all but the topmost leaves from the cuttings, dip their bases in rooting hormone powder (obtainable at good garden centers or by mail order), and stick the cuttings in the amended soil with the descriptive label. Water the bed well after the cuttings are all in place. Afterward, place a do-it-yourself greenhouse made by cutting the bottom off of a 2-liter, clear plastic soft drink bottle over each cutting.

Keep the rooting bed moist. In about six weeks, remove the bottles and tug gently on the cuttings’ leaves. If a cutting slips easily out of the soil, push it back into place and firm the soil back in around its base. If the cutting resists your tug, that’s a sign it has probably sprouted roots. Rooted cuttings should be dug up without injuring the roots and transplanted to a sunny corner of the vegetable garden. There they will mature into a garden-sized bush within a year or two, at which point they can be transplanted again, this time to their final location in the flower garden or shrubbery.

It’s been 30 years since the heyday of my rose-hunting career, and I no longer own specimens of most of my finds. I still retain, however, one flourishing bush of a thornless, very fragrant, pink-flowered damask rose that a fellow hunter gave to me. It blooms just once each year, in June, but is a showstopper when it is in flower. If an enterprising rose hunter were to stop by my house this June, I’d be glad to share a cutting.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including “Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill” (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature. His companion broadcast to this column, “Growing Greener,” streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.