June is the month of roses. All winter long, I look
forward to the heady aroma that wafts across my garden on these early summer
afternoons. A warm, still day is best for enjoying the scent of roses, as the
sun heats the blossoms and they release their volatile aromatic compounds.
Olfaction is probably the sense we are most unaware of and take for granted.
When confronted with a fragrant rose, our sense of smell can take us on an
emotional roller coaster ride.
It is for this reason that I love old roses and their
progenitors, the wild species of the genus Rosa-though there are many other
reasons to love them. When they are not covered in fragrant flowers they have
generally healthier foliage than modern roses, making them more useful in the
garden. They have a more relaxed habit and a quaint charm that is an asset to
any perennial border. Above all, they have the full "cabbage" rose
flowers that exude the grace of an antique floral painting.
Before we get into descriptions
of the old roses, it is
important to note that numerous individuals and organizations have tried to
sort roses into logical groupings with varying levels of success. As a result,
it seems that no two rose references use the same classification system. The
only organization (that I found) that distinguishes between modern and old
roses is the World Federation of Rose Societies. Other organizations classify
roses without regard to their age or origin but rather by their growth habit
and flower. I've organized roses using bits and pieces of different
classification systems. I begin with wild roses and then move to the oldest
types of roses cultivated by man, sometimes called ancient roses. All of the
subsequent rose hybrids are grouped by their growth habit.
Species roses are the wild forms of rose that are
indigenous to regions around the world. Most ancestors of modern roses come
from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North America. They are often the
toughest, healthiest rose plants you will find-many never exhibit any of the
diseases commonly associated with roses, namely, downy and powdery mildew,
black spot and rust. Some species roses are strikingly beautiful in foliage,
stem or flower. You really can't go wrong with a species rose, though their
flowers are usually not as dramatic as rose hybrids.
roses come from four ancient rose classes. There are
numerous cultivars in each class, and they all share a few common
characteristics. Generally, you won't find yellow or red flowering roses amont
the ancients-those colors came with the introduction of the China rose and Rosa
foetida into rose breeding. Flower colors from white through cream and pink to
cerise appear in old roses. Another characteristic is that they bloom only once
during the growing season, though the flush of flowers may last several weeks.
Following bloom, many ancient roses set hips that adorn the plant through
winter. The China roses were used
to add the desirable characteristic of repeat-flowering to subsequent rose
Rosa x alba (white rose) is a
natural hybrid of Rosa
canina with either R. damascena or R. gallica. This is the healthiest group of
roses-they tolerate partial shade with nary a touch of mildew or black spot.
Albas are covered with matte green leaves and arch up to six feet in height and
spread. Flowers are double and cup-shaped with a flat top, ranging in color
from white to pale pink. They carry a rich fragrance with citrus overtones.
Alba roses were grown by the Romans and are mentioned in literature as early as
Centifolias are the original
represented in paintings by the Dutch master is the 1700s and 1800s. They are
hybrids of unknown origin but are presumed to include crosses between Rosa
canina, R. gallica, R. damascena, R. moschata and R. phoenicia. (Centifolias are
sterile.) Centifolias are somewhat prone to mildew on their matte green
foliage. Stems are lax, to five feet tall, and may droop under the weight of
the full, rounded flowers. Petals in shades of white and pink comprise the
flowers, which emit a rich perfume. Moss roses are a mutation of centifolia
(and sometimes damask) roses, where glands on the flower buds are elongated and
distorted, giving them a furry appearance.
damascena descends from crosses between Rosa
gallica, R. moschata and R. fedtschenkoana, and came to Europe from the Middle
East. (Damascena refers to the city of Damascus.) Lore says that the damask
rose was brought to Europe by returning crusaders. In its native lands, damask
roses are grown for the essential oil used in perfume, called attar of roses.
Double flowers range from white through pink to deep cerise that bloom atop
four to six-foot stems clothed in matte green foliage. These are rewarding and
easy plants to grow. To muddy the waters, some damask roses bloom once in the
summer and are called summer damasks; while another group is called autumn
damasks because they bloom in summer and again in fall. A damask subgroup, the
Portland roses, are repeat bloomers on compact plants to four feet tall. The
scent of all damasks is an intense, fruity, classic rose fragrance.
Originating in Southwest Asia and Europe, Gallicas can
have single, double or heavily double and quartered flowers. Deep violet,
cerise and pink are common flower colors-the classic Rosa mundi sports a variegated
flower. Rosa gallica 'Officinalis' is a most ancient rose, used medicinally for
centuries-its common name is "Apothecary's Rose." The flower's
perfume is heavy and spicy. Plants are medium-sized to four feet, clothed in
matte, dark green leaves.