Old Garden Roses

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Romantic beauties with a romantic past
By Mary Gutierrez

Last month, I wrote about wild and ancient roses, the ancestors of all roses we grow today. Between antiquity and the advent of the "modern" rose in 1867, roses rapidly evolved not by natures's doing-but by the hand of man. The history of the plants we call Old Garden Roses is truly as romantic as the plants themselves.

Roses were important commercially in Europe by the Middle Ages, though it is estimated that only 20-30 cultivars were available. Dutch horticulturists were the first to establish real rose breeding programs, bringing many new varieties into commerce between 1700 and 1800.

By the early 1800s, however, French rosarians dominated commercial rose hybridization under the patronage of Empress Josephine. In 1809, Josephine permanently retired to the chateau that she and Napoleon had purchased together, Malmaison. In that year, he had divorced her to marry a woman who could bear him an heir.

Josephine's love of plants is legendary. She obtained bulbs in Holland, woody plants from the Orient-and she continued to buy plants from English nurseries even while the English and French were at war. She obtained a passport for her London nurseryman so he could accompany her plants across the English Channel during wartime.

Above all, Josephine adored roses. Her given name was Marie Josephe Rose Tacher de La Pagerie, and she was called Rose until she became involved with Napoleon (he didn't like the name). One legend says that she always carried a rose which she used to conceal her bad teeth when she smiled.

Her fondness for roses led her to spare no expense to develop new cultivars to add to her rose garden. Even as she obtained plants from around the world and employed a fleet of gardeners, her finances were rocky. It is said that upon her death in 1814, her debts totalled 2.5 million Francs. (That's a LOT of plants!)

One of the plants that arrived in Europe from China in the 1790s was a rose. Its DNA was soon integrated into the hybridization program by Josephine's horticulturists. Because of the China rose's repeat-blooming habit, Josephine is credited with introducing this trait into the roses we grow today.

The practice of cultivating roses in display gardens is another legacy of Empress Josephine. Hers is believed to be the first example of a stand-alone, all-rose garden.

The introduction of China roses represented a turning point in rose history. Repeat-blooming roses are now the norm. The descendents of those early China rose crosses comprise what we call now call Old Garden Roses. OGRs share the traits of their parents-the wild and ancient roses I wrote about last month-as well as the Chinas. Here are descriptions of some of the Old Garden Roses.

China Roses

China roses are responsible for the repeat-flowering trait of modern roses. They are derived from Rosa chinensis, brought to Europe by explorers in the late 1700s. Wild China roses have either single or loosely double flowers in shades of pink, red and peach-though only a few old China cultivars remain today.


Tea Roses

Not to be confused with hybrid tea roses, tea roses were also brought from China in the early 1800s. Tea roses are so-called because some say the flowers smell like fresh tea leaves. Tea roses result from a cross between Rosa gigantea and R. chinensis, the parents of the first tea, 'Hume's Blush Tea-scented China'. The old teas need abundant feeding and warmth. Flowers range in color from pink to peach, yellow and orange. These roses, crossed with Hybrid Perpetual roses, resulted in the Hybrid Tea rose that is so popular worldwide.

Hybrid Perpetuals

Damask roses were crossed with repeat-blooming China/Gallica hybrids around 1835 to create the class of roses known as Hybrid Perpetuals. Flowers and form are highly variable, from single to double flowers on lax or upright stems. Only a few original cultivars have survived, probably due to overall weakness. The ones that have survived, however, have excellent scent and lovely red, cerise, yellow and white flowers. Their broad, matte green leaves are prone to mildew.


Seeds from a China and a Damask cross were sent from the Isle of Bourbon to France, and the first Bourbon cultivars were introduced around  1820. The best Bourbons resemble their Damask parent, and have good disease resistance. There are a number, however that have the weakness of their China rose parent and are susceptible to mildew and black spot. Bourbons produce repeated flushes of flowers in shades of pink, magenta, fuchsia and white-with a rich, heady fragrance.


Noisettes were bred in the United States in the early 1800s when a farmer, John Champneys, grew a musk /China rose cross called 'Champneys' Pink Cluster'. A French nurseryman living in the US, Philippe Noisette, grew seedlings from Champneys' rose and selected a repeat-flowering plant he named 'Blush Noisette'. He passed 'Blush Noisette' on to his brother in France-and the Noisette class was born. Noisettes are vigorous plants to ten feet or more; some are climbers. They carry clusters of double flowers in shades of white, pink and  yellow, and are almost always in bloom. Noisettes are very disease-resistant but are not very hardy.

Grafted vs. Own-Root Roses

When shopping for roses in catalogs and on the internet, you'll sometimes see roses described as "own-root" roses. Grafting roses became a popular commercial practice because it increases the cold-hardiness and vigor of weaker roses. Grafting allows the people in Alaska to grow some of the same roses we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest.

Old-rose purists often prefer plants grown on their own roots. As a gardener, you just need to make sure that an own-root rose is hardy in your climate zone. One advantage: if an own-root rose is killed to the ground in winter and it resprouts, it will be the same plant. Grafted plants that are killed to the root may resprout from the rootstock, so you lose the cultivar that you planted.

Even though many–not all–OGRs bloom only once, the effect is so spectacular that you must include at least one in your garden.

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