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Beauty and the Bees

Updated: Jun 29

We’re getting ever closer to rose season. Gertrude Stein (the early twentieth-century novelist and poet) famously wrote in a non-horticultural context: ‘A rose, is a rose, is a rose.’  But, horticulturally speaking, roses are not all the same. There are the big, blousy, old-fashioned blossoms; simple, single-flowered species; prim, hybrid teas; multi-bloomed floribundas; repeat-flowering, English roses. All are undoubtedly beautiful, but not all are of use to bees.

So what roses are useful to bees? Putting it simply, any rose that produces a hip (the seed pod) must have had a fertile flower bearing pollen which has itself been pollinated to produce the hip. This prerequisite cuts out a large number of varieties, particularly those with double flowers because they are almost certainly sterile, with little or no pollen. Pollen is vital not only in order for the plant to reproduce, but also because it is one of only two foodstuffs which bees need to survive – the other being nectar. So think like a bee when choosing a rose – if you can see the centre of the flower where the business of pollination takes place, then so will the bee!

I have come across a number of bee-friendly roses over the years including the fragrant, milk-white, Rosa alba semi-plena. Some people are often dismissive of the Latin name but this is a really good of example of how the Latin gives us a clue about the plant itself: Rosa simply means it’s a rose; alba means it’s white; and semi-plena tells us it’s ‘half-full’ or semi-double. Introduced in the 16th Century, it was adopted as the symbol of the House of York and it’s graced our gardens ever since. It grows to about 2.4m in height with a spread of about 1.5m so it needs a fair bit of room.

I also like very simple, delicate pink rugosa rose ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’. Not only is her flower modest, her size is too, growing to about 90cm in height with a spread of about 1.2m. She’s a repeat flowerer so you and the bees can enjoy her all summer long.

If you’re looking for a bee-friendly semi-double pink rose then you can’t do much better than R. ‘Sarah van Fleet’. She is fragrant, doesn’t grow too big (1.2m in height with a spread of about 90cm) and she flowers all summer – what more could you ask for?

Now, if you fancy something a bit more strident there is Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’ with its single red blossoms. Although red is not the most attractive of colours to bees, all is not lost because what they zoom in on is the centre of the flower which displays creamy-coloured anthers. You’ll need a bit of space for this species rose, however; she can grow to about 2.5m with a spread of 1.5m.

A rose that I find people either love or loathe is Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’, otherwise known as Rosa mundi. I love it because bees do. This shrub rose, introduced about 1200, has a single flush of pale pink striped with darker pink flowers with bright yellow at the centre. It will tuck nicely into a border, being only 90cm in height with a spread of 90cm. 

We’ve had the white rose of York so we shouldn’t forget Lancashire’s very own rose, the red rose of Lancaster, Rosa officinalis var. gallica. Don’t expect to see the vibrant red flower depicted in stylised emblems of the rose, though; the semi-double blooms are more of a pinkish-crimson which contrasts beautifully with the greyish-green foliage. Also known as the Apothecary’s Rose it’s been grown in Britain for centuries, finding a place in herb and healing gardens: with a height of 90cm and a spread of 90cm it’s easy to accommodate. 

Further round the colour wheel we find R. xanthina ‘Canary Bird’, a shrub rose with single, bright yellow flowers and beautiful fern-like leaves. It’s one of the earliest roses to bloom which is an added bonus for bees.

My all-time favourite ‘bee rose’, however, is the semi-double, compact (2.4m x 1.5m) rambling rose R. ‘Goldfinch’. It has clusters of small flowers which are a muted egg-yolk yellow when they open, gradually fading to clotted cream and then to white just before the flowers shatter. Although it only flowers once (like most ramblers), it does so for three to four weeks when the whole plant is festooned with hundreds of fruit-scented blooms studded with golden pollen-bearing anthers which our buzzy friends adore.

So, if you are thinking about adding a rose or two to your garden, spare a thought for our hard-working pollinating insects – you can have beauty and the bees!

As a thank you for reading my post I am offering 10% off ALL items in my Shop, including my latest book The Little Book of Plants for Pollinators: A Gardener's Guide.

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