Living Antiques

April 25, 2020

I have often promoted the use of heirloom roses in the landscape. They are easy to grow, rewarding the gardener with vigorous, long-lived shrubs. Unlike most modern roses, they require little special care. There are five classes of Old European roses. These are the elegant albas, compact gallicas, fragrant damasks, musk roses, centifolias and their sport, moss roses. All of these  bloom once in the spring. Blooming on old wood, the very fragrant flowers range from white through the pink, mauve and red spectrum.


Before the rose leafs out, remove any dead or damaged canes. Wait until after the flowers fade to shape the shrub as needed.  At the same time fertilize with a balanced product.     


 In the late 1700s the first roses from China were brought to Europe. These roses have a compact, rounded growth habit. They produce a profusion of flowers from growth buds sprouting from all parts of the plant. Flowering is heaviest in the spring with decreased flower production in the hottest part of summer and good rebloom in autumn. Uniquely, the flowers darken rather than fade with age. The chinas were used extensively in breeding programs. All remontant [blooming more than once in a year] modern roses owe this genetic trait to these roses.


In 1810 Hume’s Blush became the first tea rose to arrive from China. Tea roses are believed to be the result of a cross between R. gigantea and R. chinensis. These very fragrant, remontant roses have a taller, more upright growth habit than the chinas. Some members of this class are garden giants, so research the mature size of shrub before making a selection. They resent aggressive pruning. Blooming at the same time as the chinas, the large flowers are borne on weak stems. Tea roses were very popular until surpassed by the more cold-tolerant hybrid teas.


Like the chinas, tea roses were widely used by 19th century rose hybridizers. One product of this work was the class of roses called “hybrid perpetuals.” These roses produce large, fully-double, fragrant flowers on the ends of long canes. They were the first roses to inspire exhibitions focused on the perfection of individual blossoms. 

This is a Dutch painting with the centifolia rose along with other flowers. Modern genetic science revealed that centifolias are a complex hybrid developed by the Dutch in the late 17th century. Other photos, from top: Marchesa Boccella, introduced 1842;Gallica rose Cardinal de Richelieu introduced before 1847;  Damask rose Mme. Hardy, introduced 1832; moss rose Henry Martin, introduced 1862.


“Perpetual” is more of an aspiration than a reality. Most bloom heavily in spring with little repeat through the season. Many are available to modern gardeners. From my limited experience with them, Marchesa Boccella is a star performer, flowering from spring into fall.


“Old garden roses” are defined as types that existed prior to 1867 when the first hybrid tea rose was introduced. Rose classes created since then are considered modern roses. In reviewing the American Rose Society list of old garden rose classes, I was surprised by the number that were not familiar to me. In researching these classes, I found that most are once-blooming rambling roses from Europe, Asia and North America that had periods of popularity and figure in the gene pool of modern climbers.


 You may wonder why anyone would plant a rose that only blooms in the spring. We love other flowers that only bloom once. Think of azaleas, dogwoods and peonies. It would not be spring in this part of the country without them.


Master gardener Ann Bartlett seriously knows her roses. Her writing on heritage roses now appears in rose publications across the nation.  

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