Local lifestyle columnists

Have you met Lady Banks?

By From page D6 | March 09, 2014

Rosa banksiae is quite the charmer – disease-resistant, drought-tolerant and almost thornless – yet she lives on the wild side.

This rambling rose has scaled many a fence and climbed plenty of trees since her introduction to European and American gardens in the 1800s. In fact, the plant’s proclivity for covering everything in her path is both graceful and grating. If you invite Lady Banks into your yard, you need to know how to handle her.

History and habitat

Native to China’s western and central provinces, this climber was cultivated in gardens for hundreds of years before its importation to England in 1807 by William Kerr. He named the white rose with miniature double blooms Rosa banksiae to honor the wife of botanist Sir Joseph Banks of Captain Cook expedition fame. Alba Plena was the original cultivator. Later discoveries included Rosa banksiae var. normalis, the natural wild form of the species with five petaled single flowers, and Rosa banksiae var. “Lutea,” a yellow variety introduced to Europe in 1824 by J. D. Park.

Thriving at altitudes ranging from 1,600 to 7,200 feet in the Gansu, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, the rose tolerates extremes from cold to heat to dry spells. Blooms appear in early spring cascading across arching canes that can reach a height of 30 to 35 feet or more in the wild. The small flowers can last for almost a month. Leave are evergreen, pointed with a serrated edge.

A surviving testament to the wild side of Lady Banks lives on today in Tombstone, Ariz. The story goes that mining engineer Henry Gee and his wife Mary lived in a boarding house owned by the Vizina Mining Company. After receiving a boxful of rooted cutting from Scotland in 1885, the homesick bride planted one by the patio. This same white Rosa banksiae is still alive today, annually blooming its heart out for tourists. With dramatic old world grit and elegance, it has swallowed up 8,000 square feet of the roof and boasts a trunk over 12 feet in circumference. Guinness calls this climber the world’s largest rosebush.

Growing tips

If you have an empty corner in your yard or elbow room along a fence, consider Lady Banks. She’s worth getting to know. Years ago I planted this rose along a field fence bordering my country garden in Castro Valley. Seldom did I prune unless a cane invaded the vegetable patch or walking path. A little training of errant branches and occasional trimming worked. Today I live on a small lot in Vacaville and I miss the buttery yellow marshmallow blooms that scrambled for my attention each April to May.

Here are a few growing tips anyone can handle:

  • Pruning Rosa banksiae isn’t an annual must-do task like the hard pruning of a hybrid tea rose. I only pruned a cane if it invaded the vegetable patch or walking path – because blooms sprout on 2- to 3-year-old wood.
  • Lady Banks is virtually disease-resistant. That means no mildew and no black mold spots.
  • Once established and mature, this climber’s water needs are limited to periods of extended drought and extreme heat.
  • Lady Banks isn’t picky about light or soil. She prefers well-draining soil but tolerates clay and grows well in full sun to partial shade.
  • If you prefer planting this rose beside a trellis or arbor, make sure the structure is sturdy and large enough.

Launa Herrmann is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.

Launa Herrmann


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