The thorny problem of the multiflora rose

Multiflora Rose, known for its wicked curved thorns and spreading habit, is the bane of farmers throughout the county and the country. Its deceptively innocent and beautiful blossoms decorate our landscape in late May and June. WVU Extension and photos

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Roses are one of the most popular and beloved flowers in the world. Their history as a cultivated plant goes back at least 5,000 years.

We really love our rose bushes – but there is this one.

The multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), also known as Japanese Rose, was thought to be, like many rose bushes, an attractive, useful plant.

It’s called multiflora because it produces many flowers in a cluster.

Native roses usually bear individual, unclustered flowers.

The multiflora rose blooms are pleasant and it provides food and habitat for birds and wildlife, and roses have furnished food and medicine for humans for centuries.

But the multiflora rose is one rose bush that most of us wish we’d never met.

It gets carried away – really, seriously, carried away.

It is the most prolific rose now growing in the United States and Canada due to its invasive tendencies.

Its aggressive habit of taking over has given multiflora rose a bad reputation.

It is now listed as a “noxious weed” in West Virginia and many other states.

Multiflora rose was introduced to the U.S. from Japan in 1886 as rootstock for less-hardy ornamental roses.

It soon escaped cultivation, and started growing up and down the east coast and points west.

In the 1930s, its takeover was accelerated when the Soil Conservation Service began advising farmers to plant it to halt erosion.

They also promoted it to farmers for use as a “living fence” to contain livestock.

Game agencies praised it as a source of cover for rabbits, quail and other birds.

The red rose hips, or berries, were touted as excellent winter forage for everything from birds and mice to deer.

Hedges of multiflora rose were eventually used on highway medians as a crash barrier and to reduce headlight glare.

And then came the realization.

All of those uses for multiflora rose were quite true, but there was no stopping the plant.

Soon the hedgerows took over entire fields and farms and highway medians were overrun.

One might say that the bloom was off the rose.

Despite its pretty display of creamy white blossoms, multiflora rose was soon “flora non grata” everywhere, and we soon learned that, not only was it extremely hard to eradicate, but also hard to live with.

Multiflora rose grows in a mass of thorny viney stalks, and its thorns are vicious.

Just bumping into a cane can be serious.

The multiflora rose thorn is curved toward the base of the cane, so a person or animal brushing against the shrub is instantly impaled.

Moving forward drives the thorn deeper into the skin or lengthens and deepens the injury.

If a thorn tip breaks off in the skin, it can cause festering.

Some people may even experience an allergic reaction to multiflora scratches.

Even the leaves have nasty sharp mini-thorns – each carries several tiny hooks.

All in all, multiflora rose has developed a serious defense system.

This is not a plant with which to be trifled.

Even one innocent-looking multiflora rose lurking beside your yard fence can spread seeds all over the place and soon, you may find you are overrun.

If you wonder if a rose bush you come across is multiflora, or a “good” rose bush, the color of its blossoms can often tell you.

Native rose bushes usually have pinkish flowers, while multiflora rose usually features white flowers. There are multifloras with pink blossoms, but they are the exception.

When you’ve decided to eradicate one, you’ll find it a difficult job.

Cutting the plant down to the ground may kill other roses, but not the multiflora rose.

Each spring you’ll probably find new canes sprouting from the rootstock.

Careful application of herbicide at the base of the plant is the most effective means of eradication.

And it may be necessary to repeat the process for several years in a row to completely rid a yard of these roses.

If you don’t like to use poison in your yard, prune down the sprouts year after year – before they flower – until the plant finally dies.

But some of us have worse infestations to worry about.

Farmers have learned that an infestation of multiflora rose can grow so thick that it can obliterate an entire field.
It can render a field unusable for sowing crops or grazing. Its savage thorns can seriously injure people, cattle, horses and wildlife.

If you have a field in danger of being overrun by multiflora rose, you will have to take serious measures to eradicate it.

Mowing can help keep larger infestations under control, but it will not completely solve the problem.

A regular maintenance program of mowing and herbicide application is necessary to keep the plant at bay.

Or you may want to consider getting a flock of sheep or a herd of goats, who are able to eat all manner of brush and even, multiflora rose.

It is said that eight to 10 mature goats and/or sheep per acre for four seasons or more should be adequate to control pastures infested with multiflora rose.

If we have to deal with multiflora rose as an invasive species, then, perhaps, we could learn to eat it ourselves.

To those brave enough to try it, multiflora roses do offer some nutrition and interest to our diets.

The high vitamin C content in its leaves and rose hips might be enough to tempt some of us.

And roses have other nutritional benefits of which most people are unaware.

Besides being rich in vitamin C, rose hips are also rich in carotene and essential fatty acids.

They are also a good source of vitamin E and may be ground up and added to foods as a nutritional supplement.

Roses are being studied for their value as an antioxidant and may possibly assist in the fight against cancer.

Rose hip tea can be brewed from the rose hips – or berries – gathered in the fall from any rose bush.

They can also be eaten raw – for instance, sprinkled on a winter salad.

But watch out for the stiff, irritating hairs which protect the seeds.

They are not a problem if you are brewing rose hip tea, but if you want to use rose hips raw, you might want to rub or snip the hairs away, so as not to experience any irritation.

Rose hips have a unique flavor, and they are used to make a hot or cold tea.

To make the tea, mash the rose hips and steep them in very hot water, then strain – just as you would any herb for tea.
The best time to harvest rose hips is after the first frost, when they become soft and sweet.

Depending on the weather, multiflora rose hips may last until late winter. But gather them before the birds have gotten them or they rot.

They may be stored in a cool, dry place, dried or frozen for later use.

Some people grind them up and add them to foods for their nutritional content.

It is said that the Native Americans used them in making their pemmican.

Rose leaves and flower petals are also edible. Springtime is a good time to harvest the young, tender shoots.

They can both be eaten raw – but remember, the leaves should be harvested when very young, before they develop thorns on the underside.

Maybe we can at least get some bit of good from multiflora rose.

If you can’t beat ‘em, you and your sheep and goats can at least eat ‘em!

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