Pruning roses in winter readies them for spring

January 12, 2022

By Will Summers, Master Gardener–

There are approximately 5,000 species of roses in the rose plant family Rosaceae, which includes apples, pears, peaches, cherries, hawthorns and, of course, the popular garden rose. Of the roses, in the genus Rosa, there are at least 150 known species. The name Rosa means red in Latin. Within the popular garden rose species, there are several distinct varieties and perhaps thousands of individual named varieties.

Fossils indicate roses have existed more than 35 million years. No one knows for sure when roses were first cultivated. It is speculated that the first roses originated in the Orient over five thousand years ago. We know that by Roman times, roses were being cultivated for medicinal purposes, celebrations and a source of perfume. The first varieties were recognized at that time; however, roses were more grown for their petals instead of floral arrangements. Petals were thrown as confetti or strewn for important Roman dignitaries to walk on. Since then, roses have been a part of human history. The Romans took the first roses to their northern colonies in Britain, and later even, wars were fought between rulers symbolized by the White and Red rose kingdoms. Roses have served as the symbol of status and wealth for centuries.

There are several types of roses grown in Southern Illinois, but the most common is the hybrid tea rose, which also includes Floribunda and Climbing. The name “Tea rose” comes because it was bred for a sweet smell and later used in perfumes and sold as “Rose-water.” In most cases, the hybrid tea rose is a graft of a particular rose to a hardier base, called a “stock.” Roses are sold in nurseries as bare root or containerized. The containerized rose may be planted any time of the year and should have a fully developed root system. Bare root plants are just as they sound, with the roots pruned and shipped in a moist peat or mulch, devoid of soil. Bare root roses should only be planted in the early spring about mid to late March after the last chance of frost. There are also times when a rose sold as containerized is likely to have been a bare root plant, placed in potting soil only weeks before. All roses sold mail-order will be bare root, unless otherwise specified.

Grafted roses sold bare root fall into three categories based on the strength of their roots: Grade 1, grade 1½ and grade 2. Grade 1 has three or more live canes 3/4 inch diameter on the stock, grade 1½ has lesser canes (but will catch up to the class 1 plants) and grade 2 are “bargain” or “cheap” roses and not worth the effort. Bare root plants sold in stores or by mail order will be coated with wax to protect against drying. The wax is harmless and will eventually fall off.
Winter is the best time of year to prune roses. Roses bloom on the new growth. Pruning during dormancy is least stressful to the plant and allows the plant to regain strength as soon as the weather warms. There are several steps to pruning roses:

1. Remove all dead, damaged or diseased wood.

2. Remove any leaves and deadhead spent flowers.

3. Remove any suckers not part of the graft, that originate from the stock.

4. Remove crossed branches or interfering stems.

5. Cut all stems down to a level of 12 to 18 inches high to leave 3 to 5 outward facing buds. Remove the interior stems, canes less than a pencil in diameter, and leave 3 to 5 healthy, equally-spaced, outer stems.

6. Make all cuts at a 45 degree angle, leaving a bud facing away from the center of the plant. Cut no closer than 1/4 inch above the bud with the slope facing away from the bud.

7. Place a dab of white glue on all cut stems to prevent cane borers.

Your pruning should remove half to two-thirds of the plant. Now is the time to prune your roses for the spring. If you have no roses in your garden, consider starting some this year. Not only are roses singularly beautiful, they represent an important part in our history and culture. Plant roses in full sun, with good drainage and air movement and in soil with rich organic matter. Water roses well and regularly through their first year. Avoid wetting the foliage at all times. Monitor and remove insect pests if necessary. Deadhead (remove) spent flowers to maintain the blooming period from June to November. Roses contribute to more than beauty; they add to the diversity of many insect pollinators and, if properly cared for, will grow for many years pest-free.

For more information regarding rose culture, please contact your local Master Gardener, or the University of Illinois Extension Service office, or your local public library.

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