Getting a potted rose

Plastic pot, cardboard box, or plastic poly-bag — what's common to all these editions is that the plants are showing growth on top and their roots are in soil mix below. Here are the real advantages of getting a potted rose:

1 You can see and inspect the plant before deciding to buy it. 1 If you want, you can take it right home and plant it that day.

However, buying potted roses has disadvantages, too. Depending on the venue, the plant may not be well-cared for (it may be getting too much hot sun and not enough water, for instance). It could also be root-bound, especially if it's been in the same pot too long.

Here are some things to check when picking out a potted rose:

1 Labels: Is it labeled with its name and planting/care instructions?

1 Flowers: Is it in bloom? (Note: Traveling home, and the trauma of transplanting, may cause a rose plant to jettison its flowers; you're better off buying one that's only in bud if you want quick color.)

1 Stems and roots: Do the stems look plump, green, and healthy? Are the roots plump, white, and healthy? (To check roots, probe them with your finger or temporarily pop the entire plant out of the pot.)

1 Signs of disease and pests: Are there signs of insect pests or diseases, such as webs or yellowed or black-spotted leaves? (See the section titled "War of the roses: Tackling rose pests" for details.)

Grafted versus own-root roses

When you go rose-shopping, you may notice that roses are labeled as grafted or own-root roses. Lately, the growing trend goes toward more own-root roses. What's this all about?

A grafted rose is actually two plants: the stems (or canes) of one plant and the root system of another. In grafting, horticulturists play around with a sort of Frankenstein assembly — they take a piece of one plant, attach it to a closely related plant, and encourage the parts to grow together. Ideally, a grafted rose is the combination of a weather-tough, vigorous rootstock and a possibly more frail but desirable and attractive scion, or top.

A grafted rose plant has a telltale knob, bulge, or bump low down on the stem right above the root system. Certain rootstocks have been used to confer vigor, uniformity, disease resistance, or adaptability to certain types of soil. However, the rootstock may generate suckers (errant canes) — or leaves and even flowers — that look nothing like the main plant; a bitter or snowless winter can kill the top and leave you with only the rootstock rose (in which case, you may as well rip out the entire plant and discard it).

An own-root rose, on the other hand, is entirely one plant and one plant only. It's raised from a cutting, and it grows on its own roots. You can recognize these plants because they bear no sign of a graft at the point where the canes meet the roots; the seller also proudly labels the plant as own root. If you prune it low or winter damages it, it'll resprout true to type — that is, as itself, as expected. Winter damage, although unfortunate, is not a disaster. And you don't get suckers. Own-root roses are often (but not always) longer-lived than their grafted counterparts. On the other hand, plant vigor and productivity (the amount of foliage and flowers) varies. Some own-root hybrid tea roses, in particular, are not as tough or uniform as their grafted counterparts.

How do you decide? If you have cold, harsh winters, you may be better off with own-root roses. Elsewhere, you can grow either type and judge the results for yourself, which vary according to the rose variety.

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