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Roses for noses

Prepare to sniff and enjoy. It's still possible to find hardy bushes that grow roses as fragrant as Grandma's - right here in Central Florida.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2001

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
“Nodding” is a common characteristic of the Duchess de Brabant tea rose.
Have you ever been given a bouquet of roses and, when your curious nose drew you close to a beautiful bloom, you smelled nothing? That disappointment is all too common, with fragrant roses growing mainly in our memories of our grandmothers' gardens.

Northern climates are much more friendly to the ultra-fragrant old-fashioned roses of Europe that ooze that soul-stirring perfume. Still, Floridians can easily grow dozens of rose varieties that offer savory aromas, each as distinctive as a fine wine. And we can grow them without using much time or an expensive, steady torrent of chemical pesticides.

In general, I favor the ease and simplicity of growing "own root" roses, though I do have Oklahoma, Fisherman's Friend and Valencia on Fortuniana root stock. (Many people think roses must be grafted to grow well.) All the rest of the 130 or so roses in my Tampa garden are own root, and all are organically grown, because I enjoy brewing rose petal tea. Like all other roses in Central Florida, they love full sun, improved non-acidic soil, organic nutrients and a thick mulch.

Since each will live for many years, it's worth the effort to give them a good home to grow in. Suggestion: Dig a big hole (20 inches wide and 20 inches deep). Fill the bottom half with compost (avoid cow manure, which can be too high in salt), then sprinkle the following on it: 2 cups dolomite, 8 cups cheap clay cat litter, plus 2 cups calf manna and fish meal. (Buy the last two at a feed store in 50-pound sacks. Both are excellent plant foods to usearound the yard.) Toss all this like a big underground salad, cover the mixture with 2 inches of the sandy soil you dug out, set the rose in, then replace nearly all the soil piled up beside the hole.

Your rose will be planted about 4 inches deeper than it grew in the pot and will protrude from a silly-looking dome of soil, which will settle in a few months. Cover the dome of soil with 4 inches of mulch (Enviro Mulch, coastal hay or wood chips from a tree-trimming service). Next, sprinkle a handful or two of Ringer Lawn Restore all over the mulch and rose bush, to inoculate it with beneficial microorganisms that combat disease and digest organic matter into compost.

Deep planting like this protects the original root system from climate extremes, while the buried stems make new roots just as tomato seedlings do. The thick mulch feeds the soil and the earthworms in it while keeping both moist and cool.

Ongoing care is simple. Each March, July, September and December, sprinkle a cup or two of fish meal and calf manna around each bush right on top of the mulch. With the March feeding, add 2 cups of dolomite to neutralize excess acid. Use a blast of water from your garden hose to zap aphids on new growth, and if you wish, use a solution of an old-fashioned lye soap such as Kirk's Castile to nuke powdery mildew, black spot, spider mites or aphids.

New blooms that open after a soap treatment will be soap-free for use in teas and cooking. Be sure to treat yourself to plenty of bouquets; all are repeat bloomers, and the more roses you cut, the more the bushes bear.

Love a good red rose? Try the gloriously fragrant black-red Francis Dubreuil (tea, introduced to commerce in 1894), the cherry-red Louis Philippe (China, 1832) or the well-known Don Juan (climber, 1958). I grow two on the Fortuniana root stock for the time being: the Fisherman's Friend (English, 1987) mentioned above and my favorite red, Oklahoma (hybrid tea, 1964). I plan to test both on their own roots.

Lots of us adore yellow-toned roses but find them finicky and/or scentless. Not Amber Delite (mystery rose discovered in Texas), Princesse de Nassau (noisette, 1835), Alister Stella Gray (noisette, 1894), Lady Hillingdon (tea, 1910), Mme. Berkeley (tea, 1899), Mlle. Franziska Kruger (tea, 1880), Miss Atwood (mystery rose discovered in Bermuda), Graham Thomas (English, 1983), Abraham Darby (English, 1985), Celine Forestier (noisette, 1842), Perle des Jardins (tea, 1874) and the huge-bloomed Valencia (hybrid tea, 1989) which I first saw and smelled thriving on Fortuniana in the beautiful garden of Tampa rosarian Fermin Rodriguez. He generously gave it to me.

My favorite ultrafragrant pink roses are Portland from Glendora (mystery rose from California), Rose de Rescht (damask perpetual, 1940), Clotilde Soupert (Polyantha, 1890), Mrs. B. R. Cant (tea, 1901), Monsieur Tillier (tea, 1891), Belinda's Dream (shrub, 1992), Felicia (hybrid musk, 1928), Duchesse de Brabant (tea, 1857), Souvenir de la Malmaison (Bourbon, 1843), Souvenir de St. Anne's (Bourbon, 1950), Mme. Laurette Messimy (China, 1887), Heritage (English, 1984), Blush Noisette (noisette, 1817), Catherine Mermet (tea, 1869) and Jean Bach Sisley (China, 1889).

Sweetly scented whites are precious and few: Ducher (China, 1869), Puerto Rico (mystery rose), Spice (mystery rose from Bermuda), Marie Pavie (Polyantha, 1888), Rival de Paestum (China/tea, 1841), Devoniensis (tea, 1858), Rosa moschata (species, 1540) and Iceberg (floribunda, 1958).

The first 25 years I gardened, my main passion was homegrown veggies, but encountering lusciously fragrant roses in Tampa and Denver in the 1980s made me go mental over them instead.

Be prepared to go over the deep end, too, once you try a few. I am planting another 15 or so varieties of own root roses in my Tampa yard this winter to test for reliability and intense fragrance, so I hope to offer you more names in the future. In the meantime, I grow more than 150 varieties each summer in Denver, so my nose gets spoiled all over again.

No wonder that as a native Floridian gardening in two areas I'm obsessed with Florida gardeners being able to indulge in the decadent best of both. What could be better than the scent of roses, gardenias and citrus blossoms mingling in your yard on a heavenly spring morning?

- John A. Starnes Jr. is an avid gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida and Colorado. He can be reached at


Antique Rose Emporium, toll-free, 1-800-441-0002.

Chamblee's Rose, toll-free, 1-800-256-7673;;

Hardin's Nursery, 6011 S Dale Mabry, Tampa; (813) 839-6151.

Personal Touch Rose Services, 4610 Reola Road, Dover; (813) 659-2995.

P.L. Roses, Kathleen,

Roses Unlimited, Laurens, S.C.; (864) 682-7673;

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