In rose circles, the terms "antique rose" and "old rose" are generally used interchangeably. Roses have been in cultivation for thousands of years, but the line of demarcation between old or antique roses and modern varieties is generally set at 1867, when the first hybrid tea rose, 'La France' was introduced. Not surprisingly, the seedling that became 'La France' was discovered in a nursery in that country by rose grower Jean-Baptiste Guillot. Guillot believed that the seedling was a chance offspring of two old rose varieties, the Hybrid Perpetual and the Tea rose.
Old Rose Ancestors
Old or antique roses are descended from wild species roses that grow in different parts of northern hemisphere. European wild roses include the so-called dog rose, Rosa canina; the eglantine or sweet briar rose, Rosa eglanteria; and the French rose, Rosa gallica. American wild roses include two southern types, Rosa virginiana and Rosa carolina, as well as Rosa palustris, sometimes known as the swamp rose. Many rose species are native to Asia. One of the most important is Rosa chinensis. The Middle East also contributed species roses, including Rosa foetida, the only species rose with true yellow blossoms.
Old Rose Characteristics
Modern hybrid tea roses are characterized by an upright habit, large, high-centered blooms and the ability to rebloom several times over the course of the growing season. Old roses tend to have a shrubbier habit, with often fragrant blooms. Some old roses have a simple five-petaled configuration similar to a wild rose, but often old roses have multiple petals and distinctive flower shapes. Old roses bloom in shades of cream, pink, rose and occasionally dark purple. With a few exceptions, old roses tend to bloom only once a season.
Antique Rose Varieties
Various old rose varieties emerged or were developed in the centuries before 1867. Fragrant gallicas were used for medicines and cosmetics in Europe before the year 1000 CE, and pale-colored albas were grown in medieval times, if not before. Damask roses probably returned from the Middle East with crusaders in the 12th century, bringing a reblooming rose, 'Autumn Damask' to Europe. The cabbage-shaped centifolias were improved by 16th-century Dutch breeders. China roses, cultivated for centuries in Asia, arrived in Holland in 1781 and allowed breeders to create new strains of reblooming or remontant roses. Another Chinese hybrid, the tea rose, ancestor of today's hybrid teas, arrived in the West in 1824. Free-blooming Bourbon roses, a class that includes the favorite, 'Souvernir de la Malmaison,' originated on the French island of Reunion some time in the 18th century. American-born Noisettes, with relatively large, clustered flowers, were introduced in the early 19th century in South Carolina.
"New" Old Roses
Some classes of roses developed since 1867 have many of the characteristics of old or antique varieties combined with modern traits. The hybrid musks, bred by an English clergyman in the first third of the 20th century, produce large shrubs that bear clusters of fragrant, pale-colored roses. They rebloom throughout the season. English breeder David Austin has produced a class of roses that he dubbed "English Roses," which combine modern colors like yellow, peach and orange with fragrance and old-rose forms.
Saving Old Roses
In the last decades of the 20th century, rosarians developed an interest in saving older rose varieties, especially those that had disappeared from commerce. Rose lovers have found tough, hardy old varieties in abandoned cemeteries, homesteads and out-of-the-way garden spaces all over the United States and in other countries as well. In many cases, these specimens have been identified, propagated and successfully reintroduced to commerce.