Roses for seaside gardens

Rugosa rose 'Schneezwerg'                                               David Austin Roses

Rugosa rose 'Schneezwerg'                                               David Austin Roses

If you garden at the Shore, you’re already familiar with the challenges – thin, sandy soil, salt-laden breezes and hot, unbuffered sun narrow the planting choices.

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that roses, a class of plants largely thought to be demanding and disease-prone, could include some beach-worthy specimens. That’s true only if you’re unfamiliar with rugged rugosa roses, alternately known as “beach roses” or “salt spray roses.”

Native to such harsh Asian locations as Siberia, where it grows wild on coastal dunes, these roses have a tough constitution that withstands drought, bitter cold and even salty conditions. They may lack the classic form of hybrid tea roses , presenting themselves instead as sprawling shrubs with short-stemmed flowers, but they are among the easiest roses to grow.

“Rugosa” means “wrinkled,” and that describes their distinguishing feature – deeply crinkled and veined leaves of a rich green. The foliage is all but immune to diseases like black spot that leave vulnerable roses looking like a bundle of leafless twigs by midsummer. You’ll never have to spray these roses with noxious fungicides and in fact shouldn’t spray them with any chemicals since the leaves can easily be burned. 

Rugosas cover themselves with abundant, richly fragrant blossoms, reblooming through the season. They then follow the summer show with equally abundant fruit or “hips” responsible for a few more nicknames, including “beach tomato.” Reaching the size of cherry tomatoes on some varieties, the hips are attractive to birds and prized for teas, jams and herbal mixes capitalizing on their high vitamin C content.

The hips are conspicuous enough to make rugosas as showy in fall as they are in summer, offset by foliage that turns golden or russet, a rare trait in roses. Some varieties such as ‘Therese Bugnet’ also feature colored stems that give the winter landscape a touch of scarlet.

So why don’t more people grow these tough and carefree roses? They have a few downsides that may be a little off-putting to those who favor manicured gardens.

For one thing, many rugosas sucker to form a big haystack of a shrub six feet tall and wide that by summer’s end can look anything but tidy. (Hybrid varieties are more compact.)They are also fiercely armored with prickly thorns that cover virtually every inch of the stems. If you’re looking for a barrier hedge, these characteristics might be a plus, rather than a minus.

The color range is pretty limited, too, sticking mostly to white and various shades of rosy red and pink. There are a few newer introductions that add yellows to the palette, but hybridizers have not focused much on expanding the rugosa spectrum. Breeding involves trade-offs, and hybridizers haven’t found it easy to develop new cultivars without losing some of the rugosa’s best qualities.

Many of the hybrids marketed today are venerable European cultivars including ‘Blanc de Coubert’ from 1893, the purplish ‘Hansa’ from 1905 and ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’ from 1901. In more recent developments, the Canadian Explorer series and the German Pavement series offer more choices, with the latter including compact varieties growing only about three feet tall and wide. Rugosa roses ‘Alba’ (white) and ‘Rubra’ (pink) are the species with simple, single flowers; both are hardy as rocks and grow wild on our shores in such places as Island Beach State Park and Sandy Hook.

Perhaps this is the real bottom line: Who wants to labor over fussy gardens at the Shore when you could put on your flip-flops and go to the beach? Plant some of these carefree beach beauties and you’ll have more time to work on your tan. 


Rugosas in the wild                                                     Dale Calder/Flickr

Rugosas in the wild                                                     Dale Calder/Flickr



Rugosas want well-drained soil - not a problem in sandy shore locations. They don’t demand as much sun as most roses, but do need several hours of direct light to flower well.


Dig a hole twice as broad and deep as roots. If soil is poor, mix in compost or chopped leaves, but hold the fertilizer – it can burn plant roots. Mulch with wood chips or shredded bark to conserve moisture.


Water infrequently but deeply, so moisture penetrates to the root zone. Watering every 4 to 7 days is usually enough; rugosas are drought-tolerant once established. 


Any fertilizer recommended for roses is fine but use granules, not foliar sprays, as the leaves are prone to burning. A single application of a slow-release fertilizer or compost in late spring should suffice. Stop feeding in late August or September to let the plants harden up for the winter.


Rugosas are prone to suckering but hybrid forms will be more compact. If pruning is required, do it in early spring, removing a couple of large branches near the ground and trimming the rest. Stop pruning and deadheading in August to allow hips to form.

Fending off trouble

Tiny aphids are common pests that congregate on new growth and flower buds. They often can be washed off with a strong jet of water. Be wary of using pesticide sprays since, as noted, leaves are easily burned by chemicals. Happily, rugosa varieties are resistant to black spot, a fungus that defoliates many other roses.