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New heights for those old climbers

I love Central Florida, but like many northern transplants, I have long wished for the grace and fragrant charm of old-fashioned rambling roses. Generations ago they covered cottages and garden arbors with sweet swirls of pink and white and red. But the climbing roses we buy today often struggle to reach the top of our mailbox and, once they do, they die. So we conclude that climbing and rambling roses won't grow in Florida. Wrong!

You would be correct if you were referring to the climbing hybrid teas such as "Climbing Peace" or "Climbing Oklahoma" that are sold here as climbing roses.

In our area, climbing hybrid teas are denied the winter rest they need, plus they must cope with a long spring drought, acidic soil teeming with microscopic nematode worms that sting their roots and a long, steamy summer far more suited to subtropical plants.

Years ago I experimented in my yard and my clients' yards and found that if we purchase "own root" plants of a certain class of Old Roses called "wichurana roses" or "wichurana ramblers," we could enjoy success. Their blooms come from a pleasing palette, and they are very fragrant.

Bred mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these genetic climbers display rapid growth, great vigor and aloofness to the bugs, heat, humidity and fungal diseases that plague most climbing roses in our climate. All were bred from a wild Japanese species called Rosa wichurana noted for its toughness, beautiful glossy leaves and flexible canes.

Like all roses they prefer full sun, slightly acid soil well-amended with compost and a thick mulch to keep the soil damp and cool. They also enjoy a feeding of a good organic such as menhaden fish meal, Calf Manna or Mills Magic Rose Mix _ applied every March, July, September and December.

Most of inland Central Florida has very acid soil, so most rose folks give their roses a light sprinkling of dolomitic limestone every March to neutralize that acid and to supply calcium and magnesium.

What you might not know is that you'll get much faster coverage of a trellis or fence if you train the new shoots horizontally and not vertically. Why is that?

If the roses are trained horizontally, long rose canes will send up many vertical shots that will eagerly climb up. Use plastic plant ties or make some by cutting up old pantyhose or nylons. Use the ties or nylons to lash those vigorous shoots to your fence or arbor. (The nylons or pantyhose will stretch as the canes thicken.)

Remember, these climbers are vigorous, so buy or make a sturdy trellis; or train them on your chain link fence.

With cooler temperatures (let's hope) around the corner, the autumn and winter months are ideal for planting these lovely toughies. Scan your landscape for a sunny spot in need of a touch of class and year-round splendor, then choose from the wichurana ramblers listed here. Keep in mind that they can tolerate light shade.

Life is short and has prickles of its own, so why not invite the soft, sweet but reliable beauties our great-grandmothers knew and cherished into our gardens?

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnesmsn.com.

WICHURANA RAMBLERS:

Albertine (1921): pastel salmon pink

Leontine Gervais (1903): warm apricot, gold and tangerine

Cl. American Beauty (1909): deep rose pink and magenta

C. Red Fountain (1975): rich red

Aviateur Bleriot (1910): pastel apricot and yellow

Alberic Barbier (1900): pale lemon and cream

Dr. Van Fleet (1910): baby blanket pink

Francois Juranville (1906): clear pink and salmon

Gardenia (1899): pastel yellow and white

Jersey Beauty (1899): five petals creamy yellow

WHERE TO ORDER: The Antique Rose Emporium: toll-free 1-800-441-0002. Chamblee's Roses: toll-free 1-800-256-7673.

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