The Bloom Is Off The Rose!

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Photo credit: Lynn Willis

by Michele Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Mother Nature can be a capricious mistress.  In recent years, we’ve seen an unexplained devastation of  bat and bee populations.  We’ve also witnessed the successful return of the eastern bluebird after years of decline due to competition from non-native birds.  But a new blight attacking the non-native multiflora rose has the potential to wipe out this aggressive and invasive rose, and, in the process – help our native plants.

Multiflora rose (rosa multiflora) is one of the most prominent invasive plants in this state we’re in.  It was imported from Japan in 1866 as a rootstock for ornamental roses, and was later planted for erosion control, highway crash barriers, bird habitat, and hedgerows.  As a classic “exotic invasive”, however, it wasn’t long before the rose grew densely enough to crowd out native species all over the U. S. countryside.

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Invasive plants are one of the biggest threats to the Garden State’s biodiversity. They easily out-compete native plants and take advantage of our state of affairs: forests fragmented by sprawl development and weakened by over-browsing from too many deer.   Deer eat up the native forest understory, clearing the way for invasives which they don’t eat.

According to the 2004 N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) report An Overview of Nonindigenous Plant Species in New Jersey, we host around 1,300 species of non-indigenous plants, enough to put us among the top five states with the most invasive species.   In addition to multiflora rose, some of New Jersey’s top invaders are purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), common reed (phragmites australis), autumn olive (elaeagnus umbellate) and Japanese stiltgrass.

Invasive species cause significant and sometimes irreversible damage and cost millions of dollars in economic losses.  A 1999 Cornell University study pegged agricultural losses from lower crop yields and invasive control expenses in the United States at more than $30 billion dollars per year.

Government agencies spend billions to control or eliminate invasives with very little to show for it, at least compared to the scope of the problem.  But now, Mother Nature has come up with her own weapon against multiflora rose in the form of a virus called Rose Rosette Disease.  It is not surprising since our plants and animals are constantly evolving in relationship to one another.  When one species becomes abundant, another often rises up to out-compete, attack or otherwise interact with an unexplained outcome.

In the case of multiflora rose, its attacking disease produces rapid elongation of new shoots, then development of “witches’ brooms” (clusters of small branches) with small, distorted leaves that may have a conspicuous red pigmentation. Infected rose plants often die within one to two years.  Ironically, in some infected areas, land stewards are leaving the dead multiflora rose bushes in place because they now provide shelter for the young shoots of the native species they once choked out. To learn more about Rose Rosette Disease consult the Virginia Cooperative Extension website at  http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/450/450-620/450-620.html .

We can spend billions on eradicating various invasives, sometimes with the same result as using a slotted spoon to empty the ocean!   It’s a reminder that, for all our human intelligence and creativity, we need Mother Nature’s help to address problems of our own making.

If you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources I hope you will consult NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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  • kdstrong

    The author of this article is completely misinformed, and apparently knows nothing of the dangers of Rose Rosette Disease (RRD) on garden roses. Rose Rosette Disease IS a MAJOR PROBLEM for rose growers and is slowly spreading across the U.S. This is a key example of the fix (the unchecked spread of RRD) being worse than the problem (some wild multiflora roses). If you want to learn more, go to http://www.rosegeek.com.

  • lavender_lass

    Ms. Byers,

    You are the Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation…and you know this little about RRD?

    RRD is not a natural way to control wild roses. It HAS been for many years a threat to antique and modern roses…and has now started wiping out entire gardens, both private and public. Do you know the history of some of these roses? Do you realize the danger posed by this disease?

    I suggest you visit the Gardenweb and do some research on the rose forum and the antique rose forum. RRD has been a concern for some time. Many members have lost roses this year. Many more will continue to lose roses.

    Without some kind of large scale response to this threat, RRD will soon decimate the entire rose population. Some of these roses have been in existence for hundreds of years. If RRD spreads west of the Rockies (which I’m sure it will eventually) roses throughout the United States will be in jeopardy! Why don’t you write an article about that?

    For too long, too many people have seen RRD as a “natural control” for invasive wild roses. Only now, as major gardens and nurseries are being impacted, are the “experts” starting to realize they should have tried to stop this disease decades ago.

  • Frances_in_NJ

    Rose Rosette disease is a terrible problem. It is devastating rose gardens here in the northeast, and is spreading across the country. Its a small world nowadays: in time, it will probably spread around the world. It is NOT an effective way to remove multiflora. Of course it kills the plants, but multiflora produces huge amounts of hips, and so although the parent plants may die off, there is always a new crop coming along. This disease is hurting home gardeners, but also businesses and public gardens. Before you discuss how wonderful this disease is, you might make a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic garden, which has been badly damaged by Rose Rosette Disease. And don’t forget that there are also native species of roses, which will also be killed by this awful disease.

  • hartwoodroses

    You have absolutely got to be kidding!!! I see no mention of the fact that Rose Rosette Disease has spread from wild Rosa multiflora and holds the potential to wipe out many of our garden roses. For those of us with extensive rose gardens (and, in my case, a rose nursery) Rose Rosette Disease is a threat to our gardens, livelihood, and the genus Rosa itself.

    The author would serve the public better by educating herself on ALL aspects of Rose Rosette Disease. Talk to the experts, the scientists, and the gardeners who have been affected by this disease. After a conversation with rosarians who have lost rose after rose because of Rose Rosette Disease, will the opinion of the author continue to be so positive?

    Better yet, come visit my garden and see what Rose Rosette Disease really is. ‘Glenn Dale’, a large, rare rambler rose that grows on my fence, is showing symptoms. Removing it is going to be a big job … I could use some help.

    Connie Hilker
    owner, Hartwood Roses
    Fredericksburg, Virginia