Rosa ‘Dr. Huey.’ 

Guest rant by Mike Nowak. Mike recently interviewed Ranters Susan Harris and Marianne Willburn for his radio show and it’s now available  here on YouTube or here as a podcast.

WARNING Number One! Reading this essay will lead to feverish dreams, night sweats, itchy palms, itchy shorts, inability to concentrate, inability to annotate, automate, congregate, delegate, demonstrate, navigate, salivate, undulate, ruminate, ventilate and marinate. (Do you all love RhymeZone as much as I do? I doubt it.) In other words, folks will have their usual reaction to reading pretty much anything I write. Think of reading my stuff as succumbing to gardening click bait. Or popping M&M’s like…uh, candy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You did get my text message, didn’t you?        

Anyway, this terrifying tale came to my attention via the Intertubes, where all truth lies. (See what I did there?) A gardener was horrified that the roses on her shrub had inexplicably changed color over the winter. I can’t find the original post, because you can never find the original post, no matter what social media site you’re on because they do that on purpose! I’m looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m going to say that the original color was Drunk-Tank Pink, which had turned into a kind of dull, plodding, I’m-so-darned-tasteful-it-hurts-to-look-at-me burgundy. Not only did the color change, but so did the canes. They were now exploding out of the earth in a kind of giant soil-squid-like manner and had already wrapped themselves around a couple of hapless squirrels, the annoying yappy little dog next door (yay!) and an SUV parked in the alley (serves you right for blocking your neighbor’s garage door).

“Ah-HA!” I exclaimed, knocking my canna root smoothie onto my computer keyboard. “My old nemesis, Dr. Huey!”

WARNING Number Two! I am about to impart real knowledge. Those of you who read my stuff regularly and are not prepared to absorb real knowledge without real damage should avert your eyes for the next paragraph. Have a friend read it and tell you when to jump back in. Here we go.

Rosa ‘Dr. Huey’ is a variety that was bred by Captain George C. Thomas in 1914 and introduced in 1920 by Bobbink and Atkins. It’s a Hybrid Wichurana. So am I but that’s a conversation for another day. In the case of this rose, it’s a rambler that can be trained as a climber, featuring I’m-so-darned-tasteful-it-hurts-to-look-at-me burgundy flowers with yellow stamens. Its chief characteristics (correct me if I’m wrong—write to King George III, care of Bedlam) are that it is incredibly vigorous (read: invasive), has no scent, is prone to blackspot and other fungal diseases, and has only one short flush of bloom in spring. And, though this requires more research, it apparently cheats at Solitaire. Awesome. Kind of makes you wonder what was going on in 1920.

To address the drawbacks of their creation, breeders decided that it was best if this particular rose stayed beneath the soil line. But it was vigorous, after all, which made it the perfect candidate for rootstock. Ergo, that became the solution. Breeders would graft other, more “palatable” rose scions to those nasty old Dr. Huey roots. In other words, they buried it alive!

Uh…have any of you ever seen a horror movie? Do you know what happens when you bury something alive? It. Comes. Back. That’s the very first lesson of horror movies! Am I the only person in the horticultural world who understands that? And I don’t even like horror movies!

So, you know what’s happening with all of those rose bushes, don’t you? Of course you don’t! Allow me to hortsplain.

The polar vortex arrived last winter. It is in cahoots with Dr. Huey. There’s some kind of payoff scheme involved. I live in Chicago. I know how graft—even ice-cold graft—works. The polar vortex agreed to kill off an appropriate number of rose bushes to the soil line. I’m not sure what it receives in return for that favor but, I can guarantee that there’s a quid pro rosa quo.

That has allowed Dr. Huey to rise from the dead—turning bright pink roses and iridescent red roses and cheery yellow roses into dull, so-tasteful-it-hurts-to-look-at-me burgundy roses. And sending out canes that strangle squirrels and cars and probably, someday, when you’re distracted by a squirrel wrapped in a rose cane—you.

And that’s just the beginning. Dr. Huey is very persuasive. While he lurks beneath the surface, he is communicating with other plants. Don’t be surprised if one day, your prize wisteria suddenly turns into kudzu. Or your prize tetraploid daylily becomes an orange “ditch lily.” Or your benign purple coneflower becomes a not-so-benign purple Canada thistle. That’s Dr. Huey at work.

Illustration by Kathleen Thompson

WARNING Number Three! Get ready for the maniacal laugh.


Don’t say I didn’t warn you this time, because I’m looking at the text message I sent. Check your phone.

Photo credit.