Roses have been planted at the ends of vine rows for centuries and the reasons behind this are tripartite; they were thought to provide an early warning system for disease, they also acted as a shield against wondering animals and they add beauty to the landscape.
Roses are beautiful and fragrant, a staple favorite amongst gardeners and viticulturalists alike. In Italy, as with many other countries that grow vines, the rose holds a special place in the vineyard, the practice of growing rose bushes at the end of each vine row holds a sentiment rooted in tradition; these two plants have been allies throughout time.
Even though today it has been proven that vines and roses do not suffer from exactly the same strains of maladies; or that a rose bush’s location at the front of the vine row will guarantee that the rose will shows signs of illness prior to the rest of the row, it was once believed that the sensitive and delicate nature of the rose bush would work as an early warning system, alerting the vine-grower of impending dangers to his vines. The two illnesses that frequently befell vineyards and still do are powdery mildew and downy mildew.
Powdery mildew is caused by a fungal pathogen called Uncinula necator. When it develops it can be seen on foliage, fruit, flower parts and canes. Mildew usually appears first as whitish or greenish-white powdery patches on the undersides of basal leaves. It can cause mottling or distortion of severely infected leaves, as well as leaf curling and withering. After an initial infection has taken hold, patches of white powdery mildew develop at around 7 to 10 days; the spores (conidia) are then spread by the wind, thereby spreading the infection. This disease spreads quickly in early summer when temperatures are moderate. As a consequence, the wine usually develops strange odors and flavors, the disease also interferes with the fermentation process. Prevention is the best defense against this pathogen (all hail the rose bush!) however, when it strikes, vine growers would usually spray sulphur. Nowadays specific fungicides will do the trick.
Downy mildews, on the other hand, are a completely different kingdom of organism. The secondary downy mildew infection produces oil spots on the top of the vine leaves, while fuzzy-looking spores and mycelium can be seen on the lower-leaf surface, as well as on the canes and bunches during phases of high humidity. Downy mildew is best controlled at, or before, the first infection because in warm humid weather, the disease spreads quickly into a secondary infection. Back in less modern times copper was used to deal with this pathogen, nowadays copper-based fungicides are still available to winegrowers.
Supposedly, the second reason why roses were used at the ends of vine rows was to protect the vines from roaming beasts of burden. Back in the old days when vine-growers needed to deter horses and oxen from hitting the posts at the ends of each vine row, the naturally thorny bushes would act as a deterrent.
In contemporary vine cultivation, it seems most likely that roses are placed in the vineyards for their ability to add beauty to the landscape (aside from the tradition factor associated with them). Winery’s will often give wine tours to hungry wine lovers and the aesthetic component these flowers add, providing a dramatic splash of color to the landscape.
In summary, thinking about this interesting feature of the vineyard, from a more practical perspective, the rose bushes will also attract beneficial insects like bees, which is very important for vineyard sustainability. So, the next time you are driving past a vineyard in the Italian countryside, take a minute to consider those beautiful flowers at the end of the vine rows!