It is quite magical to come upon a blooming rose bush in the middle of the forest with a shaft of sunlight shining on her sweetly scented flowers through a break in the tree canopy. While her flowers are dainty and small, there is no mistaking the rose family scent wafting through the sunbeam. Previously I had only vaguely wondered how she got there. This is multiflora rose, and she has quite a story. What a force these renowned and yet quite vilified rose bushes are! Each one will grow 10-15 feet tall and 13 feet wide and form an extremely dense thicket with huge, barbed thorns.
The nefarious multiflora rose is an import from Japan brought over originally in 1866 for rootstock for ornamental roses, and of course it escaped! In the 1930s the soil conservation service recommended it for erosion control and living fences for livestock, and millions of free plants were distributed especially in the northeast and Midwest. It was even planted on highway median strips to reduce headlight glare.
These days the multiflora rose is considered a noxious weed in most states and aggressive policies for controlling it are in place, but evidently it is next to impossible to get rid of. An Audubon society article says: “Multiflora rose is an aggressive plant that isn’t particular about soil, moisture or light conditions. It thrives in dense forests, along stream banks, in abandoned pastures and on savannah and prairie. Just about everywhere, in fact, except the mountains and deserts of the West. An average multiflora plant is said to produce a million seeds a year and they remain viable for 20 years or more. The seeds are dispersed hither and yon through the digestive tracts of birds that consume the hips. Moreover, new multiflora plants sprout where the tips of arching canes touch the ground and take root. And there is simply no easy way to eradicate multiflora thickets let alone control their spread.”
What a champion this rose bush is! Her story sounds like our Mama Earth is at work to me. She is bringing these warrior plants into our world to reclaim what is hers in any way that she can. I suspect these roses are in league with the vines and the fungi of the world too, all with their own special ways of taking over and taking back the land, on a mission to reclaim the Earth.
And being one of the great tricksters of the plant world, multiflora rose literally enlisted the help of our government to spread her far and wide! “Please Mr. Conservation Officer, I promise to make wonderful fences and help control erosion and provide some bird and deer food to boot! I promise not to spread out of control!” These roses like nothing better than to make an impenetrable thicket that make safe homes for their friends like Brer Rabbit, a fellow trickster who said: “Please Mr. Fox, whatever you do, DON’T throw me in the briar patch!”
When I was little, I remember my dad reading me the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch over and over. When I started thinking about the rose thickets, my mind went to Brer Rabbit’s story. I know this story is no longer read due to the use of Tar Baby as a racist slur, but what I didn’t realize was how there was a whole series of Uncle Remus stories written after the civil war in 1880, that sadly, were used to make plantation life appear benevolent instead of horrific. But even more interesting to me is that the origins of the Brer Rabbit stories are a mash up of trickster rabbit stories from the Cherokee and from the slaves who came from West Africa. HansonThese pesky trickster rabbits are everywhere! Just like the multiflora rose.
This rose is a wonder of spreading herself far and wide and making dense thickets quickly and providing safe habitats and food for birds and animals with her hips or seed pods, providing an important food source in the fall and winter for the birds and deer and others. It is like a wild tea party in the middle of the forest! Grouse, wild turkeys, cedar waxwings and robins are especially fond of the hips. Leaves and hips are consumed by chipmunks, white-tailed deer, opossums, coyotes, black bears, beavers, snowshoe hares, skunks, and mice. Cottontail rabbits gnaw on twigs and bark.
Her final trick allowing her to spread far and wide, is that her seeds never drop or open to release but must be eaten and exposed to gastric juices to be viable. That they must be fully consumed and digested by an animal before being able to gestate and bring forth new life is just such a gloriously embodied life cycle.
This Wild Warrior Rose weaves an intricately woven tapestry of life so rich and thick that it is impossible to unravel it. Her beauty is too prickly, wild, and uncontrollable for most human tastes. But when we can let go of our control and blinders that only allow us to see how the world serves our human needs, then the deeply glorious mysteries of this wild rose and our entire cosmos can truly begin to reveal themselves to us.