A Collection of Heirlooms: Antique Roses, Part 1

A Collection of Heirlooms: Antique Roses, Part 1

by Carol Wallace


Unlike it's haughty cousin, the hybrid tea rose, which takes endless tending, spraying and deadheading, an antique rose is almost carefree. Some, like the rugosas, object to sprays and pampering almost more than they object to pests and diseases. Their easy care, often superior fragrance and amazing variety has caused a huge resurgence in the popularity of the old garden rose.

Some are singles, with a dainty 5-petal array, and some have literally hundreds of petals in a single bloom. Some seem large as cabbages, while others are barely the size of a dime. Some will cover small buildings in a single bound, while others are small enough to grow in quart pots. In the next few weeks I will try to cover the various classes of antique roses, so that anyone who has ever longed to grow roses but been intimidated by their bad press will be sure to find one or more that they can proudly grow in their yards.

Rose, Old European Antique Alba 'Madame Plantier' (1835) Rosa alba is often considered to be the most elegant of the old roses. They come almost exclusively in shades of pale pink or white, with grey green foliage. Albas are rarely troubled by disease, and can even bloom in part shade. Best of all, they are wonderfully fragrant. Unfortunately, they are once bloomers. This means you get one knock-out performance in early summer, and then only foliage the rest of the year. Alba maxima is one gorgeous example -- double blooms of white, sometimes tinted pink and growing from 6-8 feet tall. Like most old garden roses, it produces fall hips that provide winter color and food for the birds -- or you can harvest the seeds and try to grow your own. Albas are hardy from zones 3-9.

Rose, Antique Bourbon 'Madame Isaac Pereire' (1881) If you've seen Victorian wallpaper scattered with fullblown roses then you know what a Bourbon rose looks like. Bourbons are large and very full, flowering in every shade from deep red to silver pink to striped. And Bourbons, unlike the albas, are repeat bloomers. You get a spectacular early show, and intermittent blooms throughout the growing season in zones 5 through 10. Most Bourbons are also spectacularly fragrant. If asked to choose just one Bourbon I would be hard pressed to choose between Variegata di Bologna, a striped wonder that can be trained up a pillar, or Zepherine Drouhin. The latter is one of the few climbing Bourbons, and is nearly thornless. Extremely popular now, because it was featured in several garden magazines as being shade tolerant and hardy, it is unlikely to perform as flawlessly in my northeastern climate as in the Pacific Northwest; nonetheless, it is a lovely rose, well worth owning.

Talk about survivors! The Centifolias have been around since 400 B.C. If you're familiar with those Dutch flower paintings with roses as big and fully petaled as cabbages spilling from vases, then you know what centifolia looks like. With few exceptions they bloom once, in summer, and are normally extremely fragrant. Although some modern roses are fragrant, it's hard to beat the aroma of an old garden rose, as you'll see if you try any of the varieties recommended in this article. If you're in zones 4 through 9, just stand back and sniff. The colors range from white through pink through deep red and striped. Moss roses are a form of Centifolia that has fragrant mossy growth on its buds. Rose de Meaux is a miniature Centifolia, growing only 18 inches high. Most of this class are large shrubs with rather lax canes that can be trained as pillar or climbing roses. All are fragrant; most are once-bloomers.

Rose, China 'Martha Gonzales' (1984) To my intense regret, I cannot grow China roses; they are hardy only from zones 7 through 10. Modern, everblooming roses can claim Chinas as part of their heritage. They are usually rather small plants, suitable for container growing. Most are fragrant and extremely disease resistant. Some bloom with many colors on a single plant. Mutabilis is one of the roses I would most like to have in my garden, flowering in shades of flame red through copper, honey and yellow all at the same time -- and that is most of the bloom season for this lovely rose. As with most Chinas, the effect is in the whole shrub rather than the blossom form.

Marie Louise Damask RoseThe most amazing rose in my garden is a Damask, Celsiana. Mine started its life in poor soil, yet, depite being in the stranglehold of a runaway wisteria, grew quickly to 8 feet. In June it is literally covered with thousands of blush pink roses of amazing fragrance.

Damasks are really old garden roses, having been grown in biblical times. Renowned for their fragrance, they normally bloom in white or shades of pink. Once-bloomers, some have a bloom period of up to two months, while a few, like Kazanlik and Quatre Saisons repeat. Kazanlik, by the way,is the rose grown in fields all over Bulgaria to produce the famous attar of roses so important to the perfume industry. York and Lancaster is another famous damask (remember the War of the Roses?) which has blooms of white, pink, and a mix of both all on the same shrub. Most damasks have arching canes and flowers that bloom in small clusters.

These are only five of the many, many types of antique roses you might want to try in your garden. Once you see how easy they are to grow, and how glorious they are in bloom, you'll undoubtedly want to try still more.

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author