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Hello, flower friends!
I’m so excited to share a new article with you about a special type of wildflower in a genus that is so well-loved–the Rosa genus.
That’s right–this particular wildflower is a member of the vast family of the rose (Rosaceae).
It’s no secret that the rose is probably one of the most beloved flowers in the world. Countless words have been written about this flower over a vast period of recorded time. Roses have been the center of poems, horticultural journals, legends, religion, mythology, and culture in general.
Did you know that roses are only native to the northern hemisphere? In fact, most of the roses we know today have descended from ancestral roses that grew wild in China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North America. Many of the original species were white, cream, or pink with a single layer of petals. They bloomed once and then were done, unlike the repeat-bloomers we know and love today. Through many years of hybridization and cultivation, most roses that are sold commercially today have many petals and are repeat bloomers (meaning that they bloom multiple times throughout a season).
Also, some species are more fragrant than others. As roses were bred for desired physical characteristics, oftentimes their lovely scents fell by the wayside. Today, it seems that a lot of breeders are working hard to develop varieties that are disease resistant, beautiful, AND fragrant. No matter what you’re looking for, there’s probably a rose out there for you.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to the some of the many varieties of roses and their origins, you can check out this book (I love my copy!): The Ultimate Rose Book by Stirling Macoboy.
Roses Native to the United States
Before I started to become interested in plant identification, I have never really thought about roses as a wildflower. The main thing I knew about roses was that most people liked to plant Knockout Roses, which are a trademarked brand of roses that are produced commercially.
But, there is a whole wide world of wild roses right here in North America!
And no, I’m not talking about the non-native, invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). This species is native to Japan and was introduced to the United States in in the late 1700s. The government actually promoted the use and distribution of this rose in the 1940s to 1960s for erosion control and as a “natural fence”. Now, we are left with a major problem. Birds like to eat the hips (which are essentially fruit that contains seeds) that are produced in the Fall. They then spread the seeds via their droppings.
For reference, one multiflora rose can can produce 40 to 50 panicles, each panicle can produce an average of 50 hips, and each hip usually has 7 seeds. A small problem can become a big problem fast.
Between honeysuckle and multiflora rose, a person can have a difficult time keeping their land and woods cleared. Just ask my sister-in-law and brother-in-law who’ve been fighting these two plants as they try to reclaim some old cattle pastures!
Chances are in the U.S., if you’re going to come across a wild rose, you’ll likely be encountering multiflora rose, which produces small white flowers in clusters in about June here in the Midwest. Other wild roses you may encounter (which are native) will likely be pink.
The New York Public Library has an excellent collection of botanical prints that have been digitized and are free to download:
The carolina or pasture rose (Rosa carolina), the Virginian rose (Rosa virginiana or lucida), the thornless to near-thornless smooth rose (Rosa blanda), and the climbing/trailing 3-leaved prairie rose (Rosa setigera or rubifolia; pictured below) are the four of the five roses you are most likely to encounter in the wild that are native to North America. Additionally, the marsh rose (Rosa palustris; not pictured) may be found in moist, boggy ground of eastern North America. Rosa pisocarpa (translated as “pea-fruited rose”; also not pictured) is a wild, prickle-free shrub rose that hails from northwestern North America. All of these roses mentioned have pink blooms.
According to The Rose by Jennifer Potter, a few North American rose varieties had already made the voyage to Europe and were planted in European gardens by the early to mid-1600s. In fact, Rosa virginiana was recorded in the renowned gardener John Tradescant the elder’s garden in 1634.
There are other native roses, but they appear less common in nature or literature, and some that have been adopted as native are actually native to other countries/continents. An example of this, recorded in Stirling Macoboy’s The Ultimate Rose Book, would be the Cherokee rose (R. laevigata). The Cherokee rose is native to China, although it is the state flower of Georgia, USA due to records from 1803 that place it growing wild in lands of the Cherokee.
The Prairie Rose
Imagine my delight when Hayden and I are buzzing around on the 4-wheeler in late June last year (2021), checking out our new property that we were to be signing for in a matter of weeks, and suddenly I see a flash of pink amidst the bright green foliage of the forest. As a plant-lover and a person that is fascinated by weed and wildflower I.D., I had to stop and take a look.
This part of the woods is not quite as thick, due to some fallen trees. Because of this, the area receives quite a bit more sunlight than the rest of the woods, and I believe that’s why this rose has thrived in this area. In the same thicket of rambling rose canes, wild blackberry grows harmoniously with the prairie rose, creating a giant thorny mass that most people would avoid.
But not me.
What’s different about the prairie rose is that the leaflets are mostly arranged in threes, rather than the typical five to seven leaflets. The rose is considered climbing or trailing. In some areas the canes were a few feet taller than my head and I’m 5’7″. In other areas, the canes trailed along the ground. Where the canes touched the ground, little rootlets were forming, like the way strawberry runners form new plants.
I was disappointed that this rose has no scent to speak of. I have often heard that some of the wild roses were heavy in scent and that over time fragrance has accidentally been bred out of the rose varieties. I was assuming this one would be fragrant, but alas it is not.
In the Fall, I came back to the same spot at dusk and collected rose hips! I used them in a few dried wreaths in the Fall, and they were beautiful. Rose hips can also be collected to make rose hip jelly and teas. Hips are supposed to be extremely high in vitamin C, though I’ve heard through the cooking process much of the vitamin C content is destroyed. Regardless, the prairie rose produces much larger hips than the invasive multiflora rose. If you were going to make jelly or teas, larger hips are more desirable.
To conclude, I hope you’ve learned something new today about wild roses! Wow–they are fascinating. I would love to call myself an amateur rosarian after all the research I’ve done on this article and the few rose bushes in my own collection, but I know I’ve only scratched a small portion of the world of roses, both wild and modern. I hope you find a few of the resources I mentioned useful if you plan to go down a research rabbithole on roses like I am.
Also, if you’re interested in plant identification, one of my favorite books is the Peterson Field Guide for Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America. You can pick up your own copy by clicking here. Some of the scientific names are out-of-date, but the pictures are excellent, and they can help you get in the right vicinity when identifying plants.
Another Wild Rose!
I was ready to publish this article, but decided to hold off until after our weekend trip to Mark Twain Lake in Missouri. I’m glad I did! While I already had wild roses on the brain, Hayden and I were trekking through rural Stoutsville, MO area and came across several patches of another wild pink rose. I had to stop and take pictures, of course.
I can say with some assurance that this rose is not the prairie rose, but I did not get to observe it as closely as I would have liked to identify it. The leaves were very soft and velvety to the touch (I thought) and they were not in the characteristic “3s” that the prairie rose is known for. The marsh rose is known for velvety leaves, but due to this rose being found in Missouri, I’m not sure that it is the marsh rose. After my research for this article, I would say the specimen I came across is the pasture or Carolina rose (Rosa carolina). Sometimes wild roses can hybridize, also. Regardless, what a beautiful splash of pink in the countryside!
Are you all excited about roses now?
A few of the resources I’ve mentioned in this article were recommended by the founder of a cut rose farm called Grace Rose Farm. I learned about the origins of this farm on a podcast awhile back, and her story is really neat! She also ships rose bouquets!
J. W. Amrine, Jr. in Driesche, F.V.; Blossey, B.; Hoodle, M.; Lyon, S.; Reardon, R. Biological Control of Invasive Plants in the Eastern United States. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team. Morgantown, West Virginia. FHTET-2002-04. August 2002. 413 p. <https://wiki.bugwood.org/Archive:BCIPEUS/Rosa_multiflora>
Macoboy, Stirling. The Ultimate Rose Book. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1993.
Potter, Jennifer. The Rose. London, Callisto and Atlantic Books, 2010.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Rosa Carolina Corymbosa; Rosier des despres” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1817 – 1824. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-1417-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Rosa Lucida; Rosier a feuilles luisantes” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1817 – 1824. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-1406-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Rosa Rubifolia; Rosier des Prairies” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1817 – 1824. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-1490-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Rosa blanda” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1799. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-94f7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99