In Praise of Multiflora Rose

It is mid-June and warm breezes circulating in the Hudson Valley carry an inescapable but pleasing fragrance from the tangled multiflora rose bushes that abound along country roads and in old fields. I sometimes think that the society world would be ecstatic if Paris could capture the bouquet from these attractive clusters of white-to-pink blossoms in a parfum bottle. Come fall and especially winter, when these thorny and almost impenetrable thickets (at least to humans and livestock) are heavy with trillions of dangling red berries, or hips, hungry mockingbirds and other wild creatures will rejoice in their own fashion.

Multiflora rose in bloom. (From Plant Conservation Alliance)

I should state here that Rosa multiflora is an exotic invader and widely despised, especially by farmers and ranchers. A fact sheet from the Plant Conservation Alliance's Alien Plant Working Group shouts LEAST WANTED in the ancient block type used on posters offering rewards for the capture of Old West badmen. Yet multiflora rose, aka rambling rose (I hear a country song), has redeeming qualities that weigh against the bad.

The shrub was brought here from Japan in 1866 for use as rootstock in growing ornamental roses. And of course escaped. In the 1930s the U.S. Soil Conservation Service touted the value of multiflora rose for erosion control and as a "living fence" to confine livestock. Meanwhile, state conservation departments passed out rooted cuttings, urging landowners to plant much-needed cover for small game such as ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite quail and cottontail rabbits as well as to provide food for songbirds. Later on, highway departments planted multiflora rose on the medians of divided roads to reduce headlight glare and stop cars from swerving into the opposite lane.

Multiflora rose hips. (From Plant Conservation Alliance)

By then it was too late to close the fence gate. 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.

Still, the U.S. Forest Service tells us that multiflora rose is vital to many wildlife species. 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. Cottontails gnaw on twigs and bark. "The hips are especially important as winter wildlife food when other high-nutrition foods are unavailable," USFS scientists say, adding that multiflora tangles are a preferred nesting site for gray catbirds.

In the early 1960s, when I was an enthusiastic young bird-lister in Michigan, I checked off my first mockingbird, an icon of the Old South, at a park in Memphis, Tennessee. But the mocker was already expanding its range northward at a steady pace, and the species is now a year-round resident here at Seasons and across the Northeast into the Canadian Maritimes, as well as in my native state. (Our other talented mimics, the catbird and brown thrasher, flee the region in fall for warmer climes.) As Kenn Kaufman writes in Lives of North American Birds, "Its success there may have been partly due to widespread planting of multiflora rose, a source of favorite berries and good nest sites." So there!