Heritage rose gardens are filled with the kind of old-fashioned, fragrant flowers that generations of gardeners have loved and tended. In general, heritage or heirloom roses are varieties cultivated before the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, La France, in 1867. Many heritage varieties are available today, ranging from small-flowered ground cover roses to enormous ramblers and all sizes in between. Heritage roses have stood the test of time because they are tough, relatively easy to care for and often easy to propagate.
Wild species roses occur naturally in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America. These simple roses, with five petals on each flower, gave rise to all subsequent rose varieties. At some time in the distant past, enterprising gardeners began transplanting wild roses to gardens and cultivating them. The Chinese may have been the first to do this about 5,000 years ago. The first "double" roses--those with more than five petals--were probably mutations of single varieties.
There are many types or classes of heritage roses. Cabbage-shaped Centifolias, like those in Old Master paintings, combine high petal count with great fragrance. Damasks, originally from the Middle East, are fragrant and bloom twice in a season. Gallicas, the traditional "apothecary's rose," have long been a source of rose oil for medicine and perfume. Albas are hardy, pale-colored roses that can withstand light shade. Chinas, cultivated for centuries, include some of the first yellow roses in cultivation.
Heritage roses require the same care as modern varieties. Most prefer at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Bare root or container specimens should be planted in well-drained soil that has been amended with organic matter and watered frequently until they are established.
The heritage roses available today have stood the test of time, but this does not mean that some types and varieties are not susceptible to rose diseases like powdery mildew and blackspot, or damage from insects like Japanese beetles. The same good horticultural practices used for modern roses will keep heritage roses healthy and happy.
Some traits that modern gardeners expect from roses, including repeat blooming and bright colors, are present in only some heritage varieties. It is important to check information about specific varieties before investing in them. Not all heritage roses are suitable for extreme cold-weather climates. Check USDA zone hardiness recommendations to be sure.