How to Get Rid of Rose Suckers in 5 Easy Steps
Does your rose suddenly look different than the variety you planted? Grafting is popular for increasing the hardiness and vigor of many varieties, but the rootstock can send out suckers that threaten your rose. In this article, gardening expert and rose enthusiast Danielle Sherwood explains why suckers happen and what to do about it.
While grafting is an established propagation practice for roses that works very well, it does have some drawbacks. Sometimes, your beautifully growing rose will send up a cane from below the graft (or bud union) that belongs to the rootstock, called suckers. If allowed to grow, these suckers will take over the rose, eventually reverting to the hardier variety.
For clarity, suckers here refer only to canes grown from rootstock on grafted roses. When very vigorous or wild roses grown on their own roots slowly spread, the errant canes pop up where you don’t want them still grow from the desired plant. These are not true “suckers.”
How do you identify a true sucker? What’s the best way to remove suckers and save your rose? Getting this right depends on your understanding of the structure of grafted roses and what to look for. Here are 5 simple steps to help you figure it out!
What is Grafting?
Grafting is a propagation practice commonly done for fruit trees and even garden veggies. Since roses have been in cultivation, gardeners have experimented with grafting delicate and fragile varieties onto hardier rootstock.
To graft, a portion of the desired rose is fused onto a stronger rootstock variety. The hope is that the resulting rose will have the desired blooms from the grafted rose, along with the strength, disease resistance, and hardiness of the rootstock.
Some of the most common rootstock varieties are ‘Dr. Huey,’ a deep red Wichuriana climber, ‘Fortuniana,’ a hybrid of a wild rose combined with ‘Lady Banks,’ and ‘Multiflora,’ a very robust wild rose. Each offers different strengths.
Tolerance for heat and cold, disease resistance, and vigorous growth are all considerations. Certain rootstock varieties are more commonly used in specific regions, like ‘Fortuniana’ for humidity and heat tolerance in the southern US and ‘Multiflora’ for extreme Canadian winters.
Drawbacks to Grafting
While grafting allows gardeners to grow roses that otherwise wouldn’t make it in their environment, there are some drawbacks to buying a grafted rose. Grafted roses are weaker than roses grown on their own roots and may not live as long.
The bud union (knuckly growth where the two roses are fused together) creates a vulnerable spot on the rose. When under stress, this can cause the rose to die back to the rootstock.
I inherited a ‘John Paul II’ rose (a creamy white hybrid) when I brought it home and didn’t pay it much attention. A few years ago, I noticed it growing dusky red rose flowers with long canes that stretched along my fence! The vigorous ‘Dr. Huey’ had sent up suckers from the rootstock and was vying to take over.
As these suckers took over the whole plant, they sucked away the nutrients the ‘John Paul II’ rose was in need of, slowly killing it and replacing it with the ‘Dr. Huey’. Just like this situation, it is best to get rid of rose suckers so the plant can remain in good condition.
5 Steps For Getting Rid of Rose Suckers
The best time to take care of suckers is when the rose is young and tender, as new growth is easier to snap off and less likely to grow back. Check for suckers in early spring. Examine your rose for long, slender canes with foliage or thorns that look different from the rest of the plant.
If you’re lazy like me and haven’t been paying attention, you might get surprised by a dark red bloom growing on your white-flowering rosebush! Even if that’s the case, you still have a chance to save your rose.
Step 1: Gather Materials
You really won’t need much to get rid of rose suckers. Most gardeners use their hands to snap them off. Since roses tend to have sharp thorns on the stems, you should probably wear thick gardening gloves to protect your hands. A small trowel is also useful for moving dirt around.
Pruning shears can be useful in some situations, so having them handy is nice but not necessary. Twisting or tearing the rose sucker off with your hands is said to be more productive.
If you plan to seal the wound afterward, you’ll need materials for that. However, this is a personal choice that differs from gardener to gardener.
What You’ll Need
- Thick gardening gloves
- Small shovel or trowel
- Pruning shears (optional)
- Small paintbrush (optional)
- Rose sealant, clear nail polish, or white glue such as Elmer’s (optional)
Step 2: Identify the Sucker
Your first step is to know how to identify a sucker. Generally, hardy rootstocks will send up long, fast-growing canes that look different than your purchased rose. There can be some confusion between a sucker and what is new growth on the plant.
First, you’ll need to figure out where the new growth is coming from. This will enable you to determine whether the rootstock is trying to take over or if your rose is going through a growth spurt.
The bud union, where the graft occurred, is a big knobby growth at the base of the canes above the roots. To verify that a cane is a sucker, you’ll need to expose the bud union and see where it comes from.
If you have buried your bud union beneath the soil (which is not ideal in warmer climates but is recommended in my climate to prevent winter dieback and destabilization from wind rock), gently use a garden trowel or small shovel to remove the soil around it and examine where the suspected sucker cane is sprouting from the plant.
A rose bush will have new growth that comes from the base of the plant, bud union, or graft. These are new stems for the plant that we want to keep and are commonly called water shoots. There will often be foliage and flowers that are the same as the plant you purchased.
Any new growth above the bud union belongs to your purchased rose, and should be left to grow. This is what you want to see! It’s shoots from below the bud union you want to prevent.
Examine the foliage, thorns, and colors of vigorous new growth. If they look different than your rose (or are even blooming in a different color), you probably have a sucker. Sometimes, suckers will show up a few feet away from the main rose bush. They can sprout up from anywhere the roots have spread.
If the cane is sprouting from the roots or anywhere below the graft point, it belongs to the rootstock. You’ve got a sucker!
Step 3: Snap Off the Sucker
When pruning our roses, we’re taught to use freshly sanitized, sharp bypass shears, and make sure we make a clean cut. When dealing with suckers, you can ignore all that.
Gentle, precise cuts with pruning shears encourage new growth, and that’s the opposite of what we want here. Instead, put on some thick gardening gloves, dig to the bud union, and grab the sucker right where it attaches to the rootstock.
Pull down hard and snap it off. Try to get a bit of the ‘heel’ (the portion of the base where the sucker spouted) along with the cane to discourage resprouting.
I know it feels a bit brutal (or maybe cathartic, depending on your perspective), but a heavy hand is better in this case. The hardy rose trying to take over can handle it. The goal is to do a bit of damage to the connection point, reducing the likelihood of new growth.
Step 4: Seal the Wound (or Don’t)
The jury’s still out on whether sealing the wound where you removed the sucker is helpful or not. I didn’t seal my snapped off ‘Dr. Huey’ wound, and my ‘John Paul II’ is back, looking better than ever.
If your roses are prone to cane borers, you probably already seal pruning cuts to prevent infestation. Otherwise, sealing is unnecessary and can sometimes do more harm than good by sealing in moisture, decaying matter, and preventing the cane from forming its own natural seal, which usually happens within 30 minutes.
Commercial sealants for roses are widely available, but some gardeners use plain white Elmer’s Glue or clear nail polish. In the case of suckers, whether you seal or not is up to you. If you do seal, know that it’s unlikely to prevent new sucker growth, and you’ll still need to monitor your rose.
Step 5: Monitor for Regrowth
Your continued observation is the key to tackling the problem before it gets out of hand. Keep an eye on your grafted roses, especially after a harsh winter that could cause dieback to the rootstock.
While many will make it through with no issues, springtime might reveal some new suspects needing further examination. Check where the unusual growth is coming from, and remove it promptly before it can weaken your rose.
If you haven’t been paying attention and the rose has partially reverted to the rootstock variety (like the case of my white rose’s transformation to red ‘Dr. Huey’), you might still be able to save it.
Roses with many healthy canes that still bloom with the desired rose can generally make it through a large removal of sucker growth. However, if your rose is completely reverted or weakened, you’ll have to choose to grow the rootstock (oftentimes surprisingly beautiful!) or remove it.
Seeking out own-root roses, or roses that have not been grafted, that are suited for your zone and climate is worthwhile. They will last longer and stay true to what you originally wanted. However, grafted roses allow us to enjoy beautiful varieties that wouldn’t normally thrive in our environments, making them stronger, more robust, and more resilient to common diseases.
If you have purchased a grafted rose (most varieties sold at big box stores and nurseries are!), get a handle on suckers by monitoring for fast-growing canes that differ from the rest of the bush. Remove right away to prevent any takeover, and enjoy your roses!