University of Illinois Extension

Canadian Explorer Roses

Gardeners who love roses and who live and garden in cold climates are often beside themselves when trying to find roses that will overwinter successfully year after year, said Greg Stack, a U of I Extension horticulturist.

"A real bonus would be a rose that needed minimal or no winter protection and still make it through the winter undamaged," said Stack. "Well, for our northern gardening friends, as well as all the others, there is a solution. Invite a Canadian Explorer to your garden."

The Canadian Explorer series of roses is a group of about 22 cultivars bred from the 1960s through the 1990s at the agricultural research stations first in Ottawa, Ontario, and later at l'Assumption, Quebec.

"They were bred to withstand the cold Canadian winters with genetics coming from rugosas and Kordesii hybrids," he explained. "These roses were given names to honor famous Canadian explorers, individuals who themselves had to endure unbelievable hardship."

Canadian explorer roses are mostly pinks and reds with a few yellows. While they don't bloom continuously, many do have repeat blooming when dead headed. They also show remarkable winter hardiness even in zones 2 and 3.

The following selections from this series of roses can be broken down into three basic groups: those with long canes or climbers, rugosas, and shrub types.

"Among those with long canes making them dependable climbers is 'William Baffin'," Stack said. "This rose has fragrant deep pink, double blooms. Growing to 10 feet tall, it also has orange hips (fruit) that offers winter interest.

"William Baffin was a British explorer who in 1615-1616 was sent to find the Northwest Passage which would have made it easier for seafarers to more quickly reach the spice markets in the Orient."Sam Holland

'Henry Kelsey' is a climber with long limber canes growing to about eight feet. It has red semi-double flowers with a spicy fragrance. This rose is named after the young explorer known as Boy Kelsey, the "discoverer" of the Canadian prairies in the 1600's.

'John Davis' is a climber growing to eight feet with glossy green foliage and contrasting red canes. The double pink blooms have a spicy scent. John Davis was a navigator in the 1500s whose exploration led to a passage from Europe to the Indies. The strait between Baffin Island and Greenland now bears his name.

"'John Cabot' is a very vigorous climber growing to nine feet," he said. "The orchid-red to fuchsia-pink fragrant blooms are followed by orange hips in the fall.

"John Cabot was an Italian explorer sailing under the British flag. He landed in Newfoundland in 1497 and believed he bested Columbus by finding a more direct route to Asia."

Other good Canadian Explorers that are climbers include 'Captain Samuel Holand' (above right) and 'Quadra'.

The rugosa roses that carry explorer names all have fairly unique foliage that is often rich green and highly textured with canes that are usually very thorny.

'David Thompson' (below left) has deep pink, double flowers with an intense fragrance. It grows to about four feet tall and unlike most rugosas does not produce hips and has very few thorns making it good for cutting.

David ThompsonDavid Thompson was an 18th century Canadian geographer and famous fur trader.

"'Henry Hudson' is a more compact form of rose growing to about three feet tall," Stack said. "The rounded pink-tinged buds open to a full white bloom that has the scent of cloves. In cooler weather the blooms take on a slight pink coloration.

"Henry Hudson is noted for the exploration of the bay north of Ontario that now carries his name, in search for the Northwest Passage. Henry Hudson was reportedly last seen by members of his mutinous crew in 1611."

'Martin Frobisher' produces light pink blooms with a sweet fragrance. Growing to about four feet tall, it has reddish-brown canes with hardly any thorns close to the bloom. In the winter, the color of the canes deepens, contrasting nicely with the snow.

Martin Frobisher was the 16th century explorer who led the first English exploration to explore the Northwest Passage.

Other good Canadian Explorer rugosa-type roses include 'Jens Munk' and 'Charles Albanel'.

"In the shrub rose class, 'Champlain' is probably the most beautiful," he said. "The dark velvety red blooms are held in clusters and have a light scent. In the fall there is a profusion of orange hips. Champlain grows to about three feet tall.

"Samuel de Champlain has been called the 'Father of New France' (Quebec) and is believed to be the first to cultivate roses in North America."

'George Vancouver' produces clusters of red flowers giving way to an impressive display of red hips in the fall. This is a medium-sized rose growing to about three feet tall. George Vancouver was a surveyor of the 1700s and was the first to circumnavigate the island now known as Vancouver.

'Simon Fraser' is a small rose growing to two feet tall and good for small space gardens. It produces lightly scented pink flowers in clusters. The first flowers of the season are usually single and as the season progresses they get to be semi-double. Simon Fraser was a Canadian explorer whose travels resulted in the first settlements in British Columbia.

'Louis Jolliet' is a taller shrub rose growing to about four feet tall. The medium pink flowers are produced in clusters and have a spicy fragrance. In the fall, small orange hips are produced.

Louis Jolliet was an explorer of the 1600s who led the first French expedition down the Mississippi River.

Other shrub-type Canadian Explorers are 'John Franklin' and 'Alex McKenzie'.

The first yellow rose introduced as part of the explorer series is 'J.P. Connell', Stack said. "It is also one of the few that does not honor a Canadian explorer. This rose is a light lemon yellow and offers an intense fragrance. It is also one of the best hardy yellow roses growing to about four feet.

The Explorer series of roses not only survive the Great Lakes winters but also do well in the warm summers, exhibiting a great deal of resistance to black spot and reducing the need for spraying.

"These roses are the perfect combination of disease resistance, extreme hardiness, and repeat blooming," he said. "So why not invite a Canadian Explorer to your garden? Not only will they provide some excellent color, but they can also offer a starting point for conversation about early real-life explorers."