America's Best Selling Rose

One of these roses
is not like the others
tl;dr; Grafted roses in nurseries and big box stores come in "body bags". They will silently fail in 3 years as the root stock takes over. Avoid the problem by only purchasing roses labeled as "own root".

Planned obsolescence is a serious problem for consumers in our modern world. My own experience shows that the quality of consumer goods has plummeted in my lifetime. Products that used to last for years, now to seem fall apart in a year or less. While this is especially rampant in consumer electronics and home appliances, the problem also extends to the rose garden.

If you bought a rose bush from a garden center or big box store in the last twenty-five years in the Western US, you've purchased a rose that, in my experience, is doomed to fail. It's very likely that after just a few years in the ground, your rose will bloom only once a year and the blooms will be muddy dark red.

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Mass production of garden plants is a time consuming and expensive process. Buying a rose of a particular variety means that you're buying a genetic clone of a single outstanding individual from a population of thousands of test roses. Every plant of "Knockout" or "Peace" traces back through asexual reproduction to just a single specimen. To market a given rose, it has to be propagated. This can be done in several ways.

Rooting cuttings is the slowest way to propagate a rose. A small twig of the rose is cut from the parent plant. The cutting is then placed in a soil medium in a special environment. In several weeks, the cutting may have formed new roots. It's repotted to a larger size and then grown on until becomes a salable size. This is known as an "own root rose".

This is an expensive way to propagate roses. It may take years for a cutting to get to size appropriate for sale. From the point of view of the customer, it fails to provide immediate gratification. After the customer plants the rose, it may still be years away from a mature plant performing at its peak. Some varieties of roses are weak and never do well when growing on their own roots.  That's where the next propagation method shines.

A faster way to make a rose to sell is by bud grafting. This is where a single vegetative bud from a leaf axil is sliced from a parent plant and grafted onto a stem of a different rose variety. That other variety is likely to have superior vigor or roots adapted to special soil types. This is called the root stock rose. The grafted bud then sprouts and has the advantage of a fully developed root system behind it. The developing bud is supercharged and grows quickly. This is known as a "grafted rose".

For the customer, this is immediate gratification with almost no effort.  Weak varieties that would never have been marketable on their own roots can become best sellers when grafted. Some of those giant Hybrid Tea roses are weak growers and only survive because they've been superpowered by a strong vibrant root stock.

"Dr Huey" at Oregon State University in 2007

"Dr Huey", a  Hybrid Wichurana rose from 1920, is a very common root stock for roses sold in the Western US. It was chosen for its strength and its own ease of propagation. Wichurana family roses are known for vigor and size. Their roots are strong and capable of supporting a large shrub with huge arching canes. As a root stock, they give the grafted rose the backing of those powerful roots.

Herein lies the problem: the root stock was selected for vigor, the rose grafted to it was selected for the flower, not vigor. If the grafted variety has less vigor than the root stock, then a problem takes hold about three years down the road.

"Dr Huey takes over two plantings in downtown Corvallis, OR

The plant above the ground needs be able to pass energy made by the leaves to the plant below the ground. The graft is a choke point with a limited lifespan. As if frustrated by the inadequacy of the grafted variety, the root stock will start sending up shoots of its own. These will inevitably have more vigor and energy than the original grafted variety. The grafted part will wither. Some root stocks are more prone to this than others. 

It doesn't take long for "Dr Huey" to reject the graft in favor of its own shoots. It seems almost inevitable. The variety you bought will slowly disappear, producing fewer and fewer blooms until the last branch of the grafted variety dies. The shrub has fully reverted to its root stock variety. That's how "Dr Huey" became the most common rose in the Western US.

No matter what root stock is used, once the suckers begin sprouting, the end is inevitable. Nothing will stop it. The only solution is to edit the plant from the garden with a shovel.

"Dr Huey" makes war on the rose "Peace"

This is the time of the year where "Dr Huey" is most evident. I joke that "Dr Huey" is Oregon's most popular rose. It's everywhere. Several years ago, a botanist friend and I bicycle toured neighborhoods in Northeast Portland looking for plants of "Dr Huey". We found literally hundreds. On some blocks, every rose in the strip between sidewalk and street had completely been taken over by root stock.

It is common to see the owners of homes carefully tending rose bushes that have reverted entirely to "Dr Huey". Frustrated that they can't get it to bloom more than once per year, or it doesn't look like it used to, they give up on roses as they're too hard to keep. It's true, but only because the nursery industry is a chained to the customers demand for instant gratification.
"Dr Huey" eventually wins

So how does one avoid this problem?

Look for roses that sold as "Own Root" - that means not grafted. There are many small nurseries that specialize in such roses and do either mail or internet ordering. It's a tough business that seems at odds with our immediate gratification lifestyle. Buying "Own Root" roses may mean not being able to get the latest varieties.

I do not endorse any specific nurseries, as I have no current experience buying consumer roses. I've been in the industry, my rose collection is large enough to last my lifetime.

Fashion controls everything and fashion is cyclic.  Rather than buying into the latest fad rose, I endorse the old roses that have proven their merit by lasting centuries. They can grow on their own roots, don't need chemical support of fungicides and might not even need supplemental water.  Really, I guess "Dr Huey" is a fine example, it thrives without our help.