Multiflora rose both a success and an invader

Multiflora rose both a success and an invader

Decades ago when my wife and I first moved into our home, the yard was an overgrown jungle. The folks who’d owned the place for decades before us had grown old, and it had been years since they were able to tend to what our new neighbors would later tell us was a showplace of carefully cultivated, well-tended perennial plantings.

I was young and dumb and looked at my little less-than-quarter-acre of paradise only as the playground of our future children. It was late fall, after the frost, and everything looked largely the same to my then untrained eye. Accordingly, I recruited a friend, rented a chain saw and weed-whacker, and proceeded to lay waste to what my predecessors had spent a lifetime nurturing. (Trust me, I’ve since learned the error of my ways.)

My buddy and I were each a scratched a bloodied mess by the time we were through, thanks to one plant in particular that dominated our work — the multiflora rose.

Multiflora rose (botanical name Rosa multiflora and very simply translated as multiflowered rose) is considered a scourge by darn near everyone. Its thick, thorny, brambly mass has taken over landscapes across nearly half of the North American continent. It chokes out native species; hinders the passage of hikers, bikers, livestock and even larger wildlife; and provides little by way of good sustenance for the latter.

An obvious and frequently asked question is: How did this native of Eastern Asia (China, Korea and Japan) find its way here? And why was it growing in my “showplace” of a city lot in the first place?

The story is “rooted” in good intentions. First, while many exotic ornamental species were brought to the U.S. simply because they looked pretty, smelled nice and would add color to the hopelessly green landscape, multiflora may well have been brought here with a job to do as rootstock for more attractive and marketable rose varieties sometime in the 1800s. The plant caught on as an ornamental as well, and in doing so, it picked up the vector of well-meaning gardeners and landscapers. That’s where my own backyard problem originated.

To be fair, even though the small, white, five-petaled flowers of the multiflora aren’t the most beautiful in the rose family, you’d be hard pressed to find one more fragrant. At this time of year, the countryside is flush with the bouquet. My swollen eyes and stuffed-up nose can easily attest to this.

The plant’s tendency to grow quickly into thick, impenetrable walls offered yet another opportunity for its spread as soil and wildlife conservationists recommended it to stabilize soil in the fight against erosion and to provide habitat for songbirds and small animals. Multiflora rose “rose” to the challenge with a vengeance and soon overran entire fields, fencerows, woodlots and pretty much any patch of land it could find.

The plant is difficult to control and tough to entirely eradicate. Although nontoxic, livestock has little interest in it, aside from goats. Some enterprising goat herders have even developed flocks equipped with radio collars bounded by “virtual fencing,” thereby offering clients an option for natural removal. For most folks, however, the fight against multiflora comes down to blood, sweat and, yes, sometimes even tears.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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