Monday, January 18, 2010

Roses in the Yukon

In the late 1970’s when we were living in Winnipeg, Manitoba (zone 3), one of our neighbours expressed no end of frustration with his efforts to grow roses. Every year the severe winters would kill off the rose bushes, despite heavy layers of mulch. My impression was (and his, as well) that it was hopeless to grow roses in a climate where winter temperatures can dip down to –40 degrees (where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet).

What I’ve realized since is that our neighbour was trying to grow hybrid tea roses, such as Chicago Peace, Mr. Lincoln, and Chrysler Imperial – ones that he had grown up with in southern Ontario. Pity he hadn’t discovered the vast array of hardy Canadian roses that can handle the harshest of northern winters with little more than snow cover for protection.

We have the Canadian government to thank for two varieties of hardy roses – the Explorer and Parkland series. Between 1939 and 1945 Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC), at its Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Ontario, was hybridizing roses under the leadership of Isabella Preston. Some 21 varieties were developed during this time. Beginning in 1968, Dr. Felicitas Svejda began work on hybridizing roses that would withstand –30 C. winters. She named the first 13 cultivars after Canadian Explorers, presumably because they reflected the hardiness of people like John Franklin, Henry Baffin, and Martin Frobisher whose travels were in Canada’s harshest regions. The Explorer series of roses now includes some 25 hybrids in a variety of colours and sizes.

The AAFC had also been operating, since 1915, an agricultural research station at Morden, Manitoba in the Canadian prairies. Although the Morden Research Station was primarily involved in food crop research and development, it also began a program of hybridizing roses. They were considered hardier than the Explorer series developed in Ottawa – many were hardy to zone 2 – and were the beginnings of the Parkland series of roses. Over time Morden also continued the work of the Ottawa farm hybridizing the Explorer roses, which explains why some of the Explorer roses are said to originate at the Morden Research Station rather than the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

OK, enough with the background and history of these roses. If you’re interested in reading more about them, here are some helpful web sites:

Hortico's Hardy Canadian Explorer Roses – Hortico is a major retail distributor of roses, especially the hardy Canadian roses.

Canadian Hybrid Roses – This ‘Help Me Find’ link provides a comprehensive history of the Canadian roses.

Explorer Rose Garden – This is a wonderful web site created by the ‘Friends of the Central Experimental Farm’ in Ottawa and features the garden specifically dedicated to the Explorer series of roses.

Canadian Hardy Roses – The Canadian Rose Society provides a great inventory and description of hardy Canadian roses.

Here are a few photos of these roses from our garden:

Morden Sunrise


Prairie Joy

J.P. Connell

Despite the growing zone rating of these roses, there is still a trick to overwintering them in Yukon gardens. Here’s what we do:
  • Put them in raised beds – an absolute must – to raise ambient soil temperatures during the growing season; and where you can control the drainage and soil composition. And don’t plant them too close to the edges where severe frost can come in from the sides.
  • Feed them well in the spring and early summer, but stop feeding in mid-summer or after their bloom to allow them to go dormant when cold temperatures arrive.
  • Prune them back to 12” to 14” before covering them for the winter.
  • Cover them with a generous mound of light potting soil. This year we used a mixture of potting soil, peat moss, and coco peat.
  • Don’t remove the covering in the spring until the native trees leaf out. This is to prevent the roses being affected by the freeze-thaw cycles after the snow cover melts.
Remember, hardy Canadian roses are not just for severe northern climates. They are a wonderful addition to any garden in zones 3 to 9. Go ahead, plant some and enjoy them.

Addendum - Jan 19:  I appreciate all the comments on this post.  And it seems the J.P. Connell rose comes up as the most popular.  Here's another photo of it:


  1. Thanks for the history lesson and for posting photos of the Hardy roses in your garden. Please, may we have their names?

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  3. Aha, good catch, Allan! I have now posted their names. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting.

  4. Love the Morden/Parkland series, but they don't love my garden. I'm wondering if it's because here, unlike in Manitoba or the Yukon, we have all these mild/frigid freeze-thaw cycles in the winter; whereas these roses are conditioned to get-cold-stay-cold situations. What do you think, Hank? I've been puzzling and postulating on this for a few years now but really haven't any empirical evidence, other than the Explorers do just fine for me.

  5. I have actually heard of the Parkland series, though i am far south of their best habitat. Your roses look fabulous and very healthy, not a black spot in sight. I'm thinking black spot and other common diseases of our hot, humid climate may not be a problem that far north - is that correct? If so, lucky you!

  6. Wonderful post Hank, your pictures are beautiful and I really enjoyed learning some of the history of the Canadian roses. This post is very timely for me, since I will be planting a few roses for the first time this summer. Also, I lived in Winnipeg for a few years and worked at Morden's sister research station, the CRC in Wpg, so I have an affinity for their roses. Morden Sunrise is lovely, and on my list. :)

  7. Jodi, I think it is possible that the Parkland roses don't like the freeze/thaw cycles. They seem to break dormancy quickly once things warm up - which is why I like to keep them covered and insulate them until the risk of severe spring frosts are past. Winters in NS, it seems to me, would be similar to our spring conditions - mild enough for the rose to break dormancy and then to be subjected to severe frost. When I didn't properly protect the Morden Sunrise and the Prairie Joy last year, I lost them. My experience is the same - that the Explorers seem to do better, despite the billing that they're not as hardy as the Parkland series. Hank

  8. Gardening gets so much easier when we begin to plant where we're expecting to bloom, with attention to what thrives.

    Your roses are lovely.

  9. Nice photos, and thanks for the links. I will check them out, I really like the Champlain rose.

  10. Hank I love that J.P. Connell rose. Just beautiful.A very interesting post. I just did a posting on some of the roses I had lost over the last few years.Most of them pink. I think it was because I pushed some zone 6 roses into my zone 5. That old zone denial at work ;-)

  11. Those roses are beautiful! My 12 year old son - who is very fond of roses and spends his pocketmoney on rose-bushes, already has added J.P. Connell to his wishlist!

  12. I have quite a few of the hardy Canada-developed roses and love them! They seem to do quite well here in Alaska. I will add J.P. Connell to my list after drooling at your photo.

    Christine B.

  13. HHG, I saw your post on losing some of your rose bushes - with some kind of hex on you and pink roses. It is indeed disappointing to lose them, especially when you can't really put your finger on what the problem is. There are so many factors involved. Pushing the zone is worth it, because when it works, it's awesome. I'm overwintering a tender (hybrid tea) roses that I pulled up after they went dormant and put it in the cool crawlspace of the house, as bare root stock, until April when I'll pot it up. We'll see what happens.

    Annetanne, best wishes to your son on getting his J.P. Connell rose.

    Christine, I'm sure you will like the J.P. Connell rose. Check out the Canadian Rose Society link in the post, and click on the JP Connell rose for a really nice photo of the blossom and the full shrub.

  14. Great post Hank! I do not grow many roses ... due to the pests mostly ... but since blogging and reading posts like yours I may be changing my mind. Your photographs and roses are beautiful. Morden Sunrise and JP Connell inspire me the most. Great info here too.