If you're wondering whether your rose bush is dead or alive, you're not alone. Roses (Rosa spp.) go dormant over winter, and most look fairly dead by the time spring rolls around. Even if all of a rose's stems, or canes, look dry and black, the rose still might be alive.
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Roses are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 11, depending on the variety, and many survive winter even if parts of them die back. Several methods can be used to check whether or not a rose bush is still alive in spring. You can also use these methods if you wonder whether or not a rose was killed by a disease or other problem.
Wait for Leaves
The simplest way to determine whether a rose is alive or dead is to wait to see if it sprouts leaves. Watch the plant carefully to see if leaf buds form along the stems. If they do, then you'll know what parts of the plant are dead and what parts are alive. Once you can see swollen leaf buds, begin spring pruning to remove dead wood.
Sterilize your pruning tools before using them on roses, and sterilize them again between pruning different rose plants and when you finish pruning. Sterilize tools by soaking them in a solution that is 1 part household bleach or pine oil cleaner to 3 parts water for at least five minutes. Rinse them with clean water before using them.
Check for Green
If you don't want to wait for leaves to sprout or you haven't noticed signs of the rose's life in spring, then check whether any parts of the rose canes are still alive. First, pull away any winter protection from the base of the plant. Starting midway down a cane, use a sterilized pruning knife to scrape away the outer layer of bark.
If the cane is alive, you'll see a green layer under the bark. If the cane is dead, the inner layer will be brown. Keep using the knife periodically down the cane until you either find a green layer or reach the base of the plant. If you don't find green on any canes, then the rose bush is most likely dead.
Inspect Rose Bush Roots
Even if their upper canes are dead, some roses can come back from the roots. This fact depends on whether or not the roses are grafted. Some rose bush tops are grafted onto more vigorous root stocks to provide increased hardiness. Grafted roses include many hybrid roses, such as the cultivar 'Hotel California' (Rosa 'Hotel California,' USDA zones 5 through 9). Other roses are grown on their own roots. They include the Knock Out rose 'Radrazz' (Rosa 'Radrazz,' USDA zones 4 through 9).
A grafted rose is considered dead if all the stems above the graft union are dead. The rose may still sprout from the roots, but it will not be the same kind of rose bush it was previously. Instead, it will be whatever rose species was used as its root stock, and it may not even bloom. Roses growing on their own roots, however, can still come back from the roots. Before removing those plants, wait until late spring or early summer to see if they sprout new shoots.
After graduating from The Ohio State University, Marissa Baker turned her attention to professional writing. Her experience covers a variety of topics, including gardening, landscaping and lawn care equipment. She has been gardening for as long as she can remember, and writing about garden and lawn care since 2012.