Ancient Roses

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Rosa mundi

Romantic favorites for the June garden

By Mary Gutierrez

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

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.

The Ancients

Old 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 cultivars.


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 79 A.D.


Centifolias are the original "cabbage" rose 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.


Rosa 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.

Recommended Roses

Species: Rosa glauca, Rosa nutkana (Northwest native), Rosa wichurana

Albas: Félicité Parmentier, Great Maiden's Blush, Konigin von Danemark, Madame Plantier

Damasks: Ispahan, Rose de Rescht, Leda

Portlands: Comte de Chambord

Gallicas: Charles de Mills, Rosa gallica officinalis, Rosa gallica officinalis 'Versicolor' (also called Rosa mundi), Tuscany Superb

Centifolias: Fantin-Latour, Paul Ricault, Petite de Hollande, Rose de Meaux, Spong, William Lobb (Moss)

Chinas: Rosa mutabilis, Princesse de Sagan

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