Pruning Climbing Roses I

A story claims that Michelangelo was once asked how he was able to convert a huge marble block into his sculptural masterpiece, 'David'. He replied that he simply removed everything that wasn't 'David'. The big difference between pruning a climbing rose, and creating "David", is that the rose will grow back even if you remove the wrong bit. Michelangelo didn't make mistakes, but since I do, I'll stick with roses. Here's the rose I pruned today: 'Sombreuil'-of-commerce.

"Of commerce" is a fancy plant term meaning "the name everyone uses, even if it is the wrong name". The hard core Old Rose aficionados say the 'Sombreuil' you can buy today is not the original 'Sombreuil' introduced in the 19th century. There was some thought that the 'Sombreuil' you can buy today was a 20th century rose called 'Colonial White', but apparently the person who introduced 'Colonial White' didn't hybridize it, but merely took an old rose everyone had forgotten about, gave it a new name, and sold it as his own creation. What ever the real name might be, it's a beauty.

I spent most of today pruning the smaller of my two 'Sombreuil's. It's a prickly rose, the prickles needle-sharp and well able to pierce a glove. But even canes several years old are still flexible and can be arranged and rearranged.

After I removed this:

The rose now looks like this:

In order to understand how to prune climbing roses, first let us consider the growth structure of a typical climbing rose:

The main stems are called basals These are the canes that come out of the base of the plant. Basals form the main structure of the plant. Think of the basals as analogous to the trunks of a multi-trunked small tree.

This 'Sombreuil' has a lot of basals. (Some in this photo are cut short--more on that in a future post.)

Just as when a small, young tree loses the tip of a trunk, it may be possible to get a continuation of the trunk from a large side shoot growing near the lost tip. This happens with roses as well. Here's a picture of a basal cane with a side shoot that has become the continuation of the basal. The red lines indicate the basal, with the black rectangles indicating where a strong side shoot has taken over the job of containing the basal's structure:

This is important for roses when you want to cover a particular structure, such as an arch or pergola, but the basal cane you are working with isn't long enough to reach over the arch. That new large side shoot can get you the extra length you need.

Now comes the payoff part of the climbing rose structure--the bits that produce the flowers. Climbing roses produce short and longer blooming laterals. These blooming laterals sprout from the basal canes. The basal canes may themselves have a cluster of flowers at their very tip, but that is one flower or one cluster. We all want lots and lots of flowers all over a large climbing rose. Blooming laterals are what produce a massive display of blooms. Maximize laterals to maximize bloom.

Some climbing roses produce a lot of short blooming laterals, like these. Each small side branch had a cluster of flowers at their tips:

Some climbing roses will produce longer laterals, or a mix of short and long. The longer laterals may flowers only at the tips, or first at the tips and then more along the length of the lateral, in subsequent flushes of blooms. Long laterals can potentially become those continuation-of-the-basal canes previously mentioned.

Understanding the growth habit of the climber will take you a long way in knowing how to prune it. Enough for now. More later.


  1. I love all the info you have here about pruning roses! I have a climbing rose that's been in the ground for two years but only has one cane, about 5 feet tall. Should I prune it this year? And if so, how do I prune it to encourage new canes to appear?

  2. Hi Claire Splan,

    I would focus on getting the rose to grow more canes. Try two or three good doses of a high quality organic fertilizer like alfalfa meal, the right amount of water, and a good layer of compost as mulch around the roots. One cane is just not enough. Pruning stimulates a rose to some extent, but it's not the whole story. I would just remove any dead wood from what you've got and take off the tips of any lateral growth (not the main cane). Good luck!

  3. I love the pictures and commentary!!

    Thanks so much for sharing what you have learned ;o) Now here comes the hard part: I have several 'species' / old garden roses that make 1" diameter inflexible canes and basals much like the rose in the last picture of this post.

    Sadly, I do not have the space to allow them to flourish the way they should and they were all planted mid-bed (~ 3' from walls and/or fences).

    Unfortunately, my back yard is only 30'X40' with a perimeter garden, which includes a 2 - 1 1/2 storey trees, a large lilac, numerous other unidentifiable roses, and a beachnut tree [gift from a squirrel, which is now 2 storeys high - gotta go ;o( ]

    I am seeking any advice that you can give regarding how best to support these monsters without blocking view / access to lower plants behind.

    Hoping that this is still an active blog and eagerly awaiting your insights.

    P.S. The pic is of 1 of the 3 roses; the fence in the pic runs along the north side of my yard


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