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Golden Oldies in the Rose Garden
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

December 21, 2008

It’s probably close to twenty years ago that I read an article in a magazine, lamenting the disappearance of old fashioned or heirloom roses. The author, whose name I’ve forgotten, was concerned that the marketing of finicky, hybridized modern varieties was causing the more blowzy, relaxed and fragrant old fashioned roses to lose popularity. I wonder, as old roses continue to make a tremendous comeback in the gardening world, if the author of that article today sits among a profusion of old roses in the garden and smiles in quiet satisfaction.

Peter Harkness, writing in The Rose, An Illustrated History, traces humanity’s love affair with the thorny flowering shrub back over four thousand years. The rose’s lineage traces back millions of years, and over 200 species have been identified. There’s something exciting about regarding a Gallica rose in the garden and knowing that its ancestry stretches back to France of the Middle Ages, or to realize many of the yellow roses in our gardens can both thank and curse Rosa foetida for its colour--and its inherited tendency to blackspot. Nothing, it seems, is without a price.

Trying to explain out the parentage and characteristics of ancient rose species and lines can be daunting, and would take more pages than my patient editor is able to give me per issue. But often, we hear certain roses referred to as antique, ancient, heirloom, old-fashioned or simply old garden roses. Experts agree that there are four classes of especially beautiful wild roses which over the centuries were integrated into domesticity by enthusiastic gardeners, and these are considered the most ancient. These include Rosa alba, R. damascena, and R. gallica, as well as the somewhat mysterious R. centifolia. While the region of origin, parentage and growth habit of each of these classes is different, what they do have in common is that they are once-flowering, and most have spectacular fragrance.

When plant explorers brought back repeat-blooming species of roses from the Orient, an explosion in new hybrids between the ancient, known species mentioned above and these newly discovered species dazzled the rose world. Suddenly, rose enthusiasts could have flowers for longer periods of time, although often this floral profusion came with the price of reduced plant vigour and more disease susceptibility. Over the years, however, certain varieties and hybrids stood the test of time, and many of these remain popular today for their outstanding bloom and fragrance and their disease resistance.

One of the easiest rules of thumbs for determining a rose’s suitability for bearing the moniker “heirloom” is when the variety was developed. Generally, any rose bred before 1867, the year the first hybrid tea rose was achieved, is considered to be an antique or heirloom variety.

The great rose enthusiast Rayford Reddell observes that the older the rose variety, the less care it is likely to need. A species that has been around for hundreds or even thousands of years has developed its own survival techniques, and the less we try to pamper them, the happier they will be. But any plant will do its best when given a good growing site in which to establish itself.

As with any rose, heirloom roses like as much sun as they can get, although there are certainly varieties that will accept a few hours of shade each day without sulking. Protecting your plants from wind, especially the damaging blasts of an Atlantic winter, will also help to minimize winter dieback of canes in the more tender types. Make sure your site has good drainage, as even the hardiest of old roses will languish in cold, soggy soils, but at the same time the rose blooms best that has an adequate supply of water during the growing months.

Purchasing roses that are grown on their own roots rather than on grafted rootstock will ensure that you have hardier plants. Young plants may be smaller than grafted cousins of the same age, but after several years they will be well established and vigourous. They also will not have any chance of dying back at the graft, or of having wild shoots from the rootstock variety intermingling with the main plant.

Some Golden Oldies to try: These are certainly not all the oldest of the old, but all bear proud parentage of old roses in their lineages. All are hardy in my zone 5 garden, where blustery winds off the Bay of Fundy and freeze thaw cycles in winter can be a challenge to even the most experienced gardener.

  • ‘Father Hugo’s Rose’ Rosa xanthina, sometimes referred to as R. hugonis. This species rose from China is about as tough a plant as you can ask for. Its fernlike foliage is lacey and the plant can easily reach 8 feet in height. A once blooming rose, its flowers appear in late spring, and are soft yellow, single roses with little fragrance but exquisite beauty. As an added bonus, it is not susceptible to black spot, a disease too often found in yellow or red roses.
  • ‘Charles de Mills’ This hybrid gallica is of obscure parentage but was certainly grown by the great rose enthusiast Empress Josephine at her Malmaison rosarie of the mid eighteenth century. The shrub grows to about four feet tall and often produces suckers, and features blooms so packed with petals that the flowers appear quartered and flattened. Some commentators say the rose has little fragrance, to which I and others reply that they must have no sense of smell, as ‘Charles de Mills’ is among the most fragrant in my summer garden.
  • Rosa gallica versicolour, better known by ‘Rosa Mundi’ is a fragrant dazzler blooming in early summer. The oldest rose cultivated in the western world is thought to be the species Rosa gallica, and this variety is centuries old. A naturally occurring spontaneous mutation or sport of the apothecary rose, (R. gallica ‘Officinalis’) the low shrub produces flowers that are striped and stippled in carmine, pink and light purple over a creamy white base. No two flowers are identical, though occasionally a branch will bear solid coloured flowers.
  • Harison’s Yellow. Despite having as one of its parents Rosa foetida persiana, this sunny golden rose is only mildly susceptible to blackspot. Its fully double, sulphur-yellow blossoms put on a showstopping display for several weeks in early summer and while not fragrant, are so lovely that they can be forgiven for having no scent
  • ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ This hybrid of two species, R. damascena var. bifera and R. spinossisima, is not a giant among shrubs, but it is a delightful, fragrant and repeat-blooming specimen. Its blush pink blooms cover its arching canes, which can reach a height and breadth of five feet, and it’s oblivious to disease into the bargain.
  • ‘Tuscany Superb’ I’ve been besotted by this rose from the moment I first saw it in bloom at Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens a few years ago. This Gallica rose, an improvement of ‘Tuscany’, is as close to being a deep purple as you can possibly get. Add to the fact that the petals have the texture of velvet, and the fragrance delicious, and you have enough reasons to add this low growing shrub to your own gardens.

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