Antique Heirloom and Old Garden Roses: Categories & Characteristics
The Romance & Intrigue of Antique Heirloom Old Garden Roses
This page will introduce you to a little bit of the intriguing history of the rose and the major categories of antique heirloom roses used to classify old garden roses today.
There are many families of roses called antique, heirloom, and/or old garden roses. Although these terms are generally used interchangeably, technically, an antique rose is considered to be a rose that was introduced prior to 1867, which is the year that the first modern hybrid tea roses appeared.
Most rosarians and collectors, however, generally consider any rose that is more than 75 years old or displays the characteristics of antique roses to be an antique or heirloom rose. These characteristics include attractive form with healthy foliage, disease resistance, wonderful perfume, and generally more subtle tones than today's showy and sometimes gaudy colors.
It is not unusual for an old rose to be classified in more than one way. With recent advances in genetics, the taxonomy of the entire plant world is being reconfigured and it is difficult for the amateur gardener to keep up. To add to the confusion, roses may be grouped into categories in multiple ways: by appearance (like Centifolias), place of origin (like Damasks, Chinas and Bourbons), or after the person who bred and/or introduced them (like Noisettes) and some roses appear in more than one group.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in either roses or genetics and even the experts disagree about someof the classifications. I have tried to present information here as I understand it and to the best of my ability.
The rose that lives its little
hour is prized beyond
the sculptured flower.
~William C. Bryant
The Albas (possibly R. canina R. gallica)
Alba (white) roses trace their ancestry to Rosa canina (the dog rose), which is a species rose native to Europe. Albas have a delicate soft "baby-powder" fragrance and are exceptionally disease resistant.
There are some who think that Albas are a cross between R. canina and the gallicas, but as far as I could tell, there is no definitive evidence either way.
A grayish blue or green bloom on the leaves, white to medium pink blooms, and a tall arching growth habit reminiscent of a fountain are characteristic of Rosa Alba. The smooth stems have few if any thorns.
Albas generally reach a height of 6 to 8 feet. They are quite cold hardy and will survive temperatures of -25 degrees Farenheit.
China Roses: Rosa Chinensis
China roses are twiggy bushes that can either resemble a smaller shrub or grow to more than 7 feet tall in an upright, open and some-times spreading form. They can be used in borders or as hedges or specimen plants.
The "China rose" has evolved over more than a thousand years in Chinese gardens. They are highly disease resistant and can live for more than 100 years.
R. chinensis does very well in the Southern U.S. and thrive on climate conditions that make it difficult to grow newer hybrid teas. Because they do not require winter dormancy, the Chinas are ideal for warm climates, where they will bloom almost year round.
Chinas bear the name of their native country. Chinas were unknown in the West until the late 1700s and early 1800s when European botanists discovered them during travels to search for new garden plants.
Before being classified as r. chinensis, chinas were also refereed to as Rosa Indica. According to Peter Beales in his book, Classic Roses, China roses could have been cultivated as early as 3000 BCE. Beales considers Chinas the most important of the Asian roses because prior to their introduction, Europeans and North Americans only knew of roses that bloomed in spring and they had not seen a reblooming rose before the Chinas.
There are only a few climbing sports of R. chinensis. Unlike their parents, the climbing China roses generally have sparse foliage, a wiry growth habit and are less remontant than other hybrid climbers.
Hybrid China Roses
Hybrid China roses were the result of crossing repeat flowering Chinas, Teas, Bourbons and Portlands with once-flowering European roses.
Hybrid Chinas are tall, arching growers that can be used as large shrubs or as climbers.
The blooms of Hybrid Chinas resemble Gallicas, Damasks and Centifolias, but because HCs do not require a cold winter dormancy to bloom, they are particularly suited to warmer areas with mild winters. Hybrid Chinas bloom once a year.
But he that dares not
grasp the thorn should
never crave the rose.
Damask: Rosa Damascena
Damask roses are so-called because they were believed to have originated in Damascus, which is now Syria. They were brought to Europe from Constantinople by the Crusaders sometime between 1254 and 1276.
Damasks are strongly scented and have been used in the production of perfumed oils for centuries. When we think of the smell of roses, it is typically the scent of the Damasks we identify as "old rose."
Damasks are mid-size to large rose bushes with either heavy canes and a more upright form with spreading canopies or more slender arching canes that are pulled down by the weight of their blooms, creating a waterfall effect.
The Bagatelle Rose Garden in Japan
Hybrid Perpetual Roses
Hybrid Perpetuals have been bred for over 150 years. Victorians loved these roses and were as crazy about them as the 17th century Dutch were about tulips during Tulipmania.
Hybrid perpetual roses have a complex heritage, which also accounts for their tremendous variety and color range. Some sources say they were originally crosses of Autumn Damasks, Bourbons and Portlands with China roses, HPs combine the features of all of the old European roses.
Hybrid perpetuals are vigorous, disease resistant and cold hardy with long canes topped by large, fragrant, fully double flowers at the end of each one. The long canes make for excellent cut flowers but can also be a little ungainly.
Many hybrid perpetuals are, as their name suggests, reblooming, but many also flower only in the spring. Even those that rebloom do so much more extravagantly in the spring. Perpetual is a bit of a misnomer resulting from a not-exactly-accurate translation of hybrides remontants ('reblooming hybrids') in 1838.
Hybrid Perpetuals are the precursor of Hybrid Teas which unfortunately almost completely replaced their progenitors. In the 1800s there were over 3,000 new varieties of Hybrid Perpetuals. Today there are fewer than 100. Hopefully the resurgent interest in heirloom roses will result in the rediscovery of this class.
Portland: Hybrid Damask Perpetual
Portland roses are compact (like Gallicas) and Damask scented with excellent rebloom. Portland roses are often included in the Hybrid Perpetual or Damask class, which feature strongly in their lineage. Rose de Rescht (1840), for example, is classified as all three depending on which source you use.
Teas & Hybrid Teas
Hybrid Tea Roses can be difficult to grow, which gave all roses the reputation of being temperamental and hard to grow even though earlier types of roses are quite robust and not at all demanding.
The earliest Hybrid Tea roses began as crossings of Chinese Tea roses (Rosa odorata) and Hybrid Perpetuals and their offspring could lean more or less to one parent or the other, retaining many of the old rose qualities of either the Tea or Hybrid Perpetual parent.
In the early 1800s, hybridizers of teas began to use Rosa foetida. This move eventually changed the focus and culture of roses and the goal of tea rose hybridization became to create the perfectly shaped flower.
Hybrid teas can differ widely in growth habit from low broad shrubs to twiggy thin caned bushes to robust thorny or smooth stout dense forms that can grow quite tall. Hybrid teas are demanding and require a considerable amount of attention and plenty of breathing room.
Sometimes climbing hybrid tea roses are treated as a separate category, but since they are sports of the hybrid teas, I'm including them here.
Climbing hybrid teas have canes up to 10 feet long but the flowers are produced on a framework of shorter lateral branches. It can take a year or two for climbing hybrid teas to grow a framework sufficient enough for blooms.
Bourbons: Rosa bourboniana
Bourbons date to 1817 and take their name from the Ile de Bourbon (now La Runion) in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. Many 'Old Blush' (a China rose) and 'Autumn Damask' (Rosa damascena) roses were planted as hedges on the island and the first Bourbon rose was the result of a natural cross between them.
The hips from that sport were sent to the King of France and his gardener propogated what became a new type of rose and one of the most beloved.
Bourbons inherited their long flowering season from the Chinas and their fragrance from the Damasks. They have large, full, round blooms that are usually shades of soft pink. Bourbon roses have an old fashioned cupped or quartered bloom and range from the short and compact Souvenir de la Malmaison to the long arch-caned climber, Mme. Isaac Pereire.
Thanks to their China heritage, Bourbon Roses are heat and drought tolerant and do well in the Southern U.S. Old varieties are large and vigorous plants and, due to their Damask genes, many Bourbons tolerate cold successfully, although some may still require protection if the temperature drops below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hybrid Bourbons are similar to Hybrid Chinas except for their waxy gray foliage. Roses some experts consider Hybrid Bourbons are still classified as Bourbons by others. The main difference seems to be that HBs rarely rebloom while RBs bloom in multiple flushes or continuously.
The HB classification was introduced in the 19th century when attempts to categorize the plethora of new hybrids began. Hybrid Bourbons are large (or extra large, depending on variety) spreading shrubs with stout canes and a strong bloom on many smaller laterals. They are considered semi-hardy and should be fine to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder with protection or if planted along a south or east facing wall.
Fantin LaTour, Paul Ricault, and Variegata di Bologna are among the most popular hybrid Bourbon roses.
Gallica Roses: Rosa Gallica
Gallicas have an interesting history. They are native to southern Europe and have been traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, where R. gallica was used as an herb for medicinal purposes.
It is said that Edmund, the Earl of Lancaster brought the red R. gallica to England from France in 1277. It is believed that it became what is known as the red rose of the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses from 1455 to 1485.
Gallicas range from pink and red to "purple" (note that what is called "purple" in the lingua franca of the rose world is actually more red than blue or purple). They are once-blooming, cold hardy (to -25 degrees Fahrenheit) and strongly fragrant old roses.
R. gallica is a low growing shrub that tolerates poor soil and spreads by suckering, making it a strong ground cover. This rose, like the Centifolias, require a cold dormant period and can perform poorly in climates that do not have cool enough winter temperatures.
Tuscany Superba is one of the Gallicas we grow in Central New York State (z5). You can see it here. (Link will open in a new window.)
I don't know whether nice people tend to grow roses
or growing roses makes people nice.
~ R. Beowne
Centifolias: The "Cabbage" Rose
Centifolias or "Hundred Petaled" roses were first developed as a group of hybrid cultivars in the late 1600s. The first Centifolias are believed to have been a cross between the Autumn Damask and Alba roses. These impressive roses remained popular through the height of rose breeding in the early 1800s.
Centifolias were the first class of roses to be called Cabbage Roses. They are also known as Holland Roses and Provence Roses. Centifolias are noted for their multi-layered globe shaped blooms, wonderful fragrance and graceful draping form. These are the roses immortalized in the still life paintings of 17th and 18th century Flemish artists.
Centifolias can grow to more than 6 feet in height. Their leaves are full and usually have serrated edges in a strong medium green and they are among the hardiest of roses, surviving to -25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because Centifolias, like Damasks, require a winter dormancy period in order to bloom, they are not suited for some warmer climates.
The sharp thorn often
produces delicate roses.
English Roses were developed by David Austin. The first English rose, Constance Spry was introduced in 1961. The Austin English roses combine the fragrance and flower types of antique heirloom old garden roses with the wider range of colors available in modern roses.
Although most English roses may resemble Bourbons, Portlands, and Centifolias, they grow on more compact bushes more suitable to today's smaller residential gardens. English roses have varying degrees of fragrance, large blooms, and are hardier than some of their ancestors.
English roses are available in both shrub and climbing habits and come in a wide range of forms. They may resemble as well as modern shrub roses, hybrid teas and floribundas. Some Austin roses are quite shade tolerant and disease resistant. Because they are bred in England's cooler climate, English roses do not always fare well in warm, humid conditions.
Today there are other breeders of English roses and the category has gotten even broader, with the only commonality being that they share "old fashioned" floral forms.
We grow several of Austin's English roses including Heritage, The Generous Gardener, Gentle Hermione and Crown Princess Margarita. They seem to be well acclimated to our zone 5 weather and part shade growing conditions.
Eglantine: Rosa eglanteria, R. rubiginosa
Eglantines are the descendents of Shakespeare's Sweet Briar (Rosa eglanteria) and the bane of Sleeping Beauty's Prince. Although Eglantines have handsome (Sweet) apple-scented foliage, strong fragrance, and red hips in the winter, they are also heavily clad with hooked thorns or prickles (Briar). (Eglantine comes from the Old French aiglant, which comes from the Latin aculeatus or aculentus, meaning thorny or prickly.)
Typical Eglantines (R. eglanteria aka R. rubiginosa) can reach more than 18 to 20 feet in height. They have an arching habit that forms a heavy, densely intertwined canopy or, as in the tale of Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) an almost impenetrable barrier. However, there are some Eglantine roses that have a shorter, more manageable habit and rarely exceed 4 to 7 feet in height.
Note: R. rubiginosa is considered invasive in parts of Australia and New Zealand and is prohibited in South Africa.
Miniature roses can trace their lineage to 1918 Switzerland when Tom Thumb a rose bred from a small pink rose became the first of a group of miniature roses that now includes hundres of petite plants.
Blooms range from miniscule to about one inch in diameter on plants from micro-minis (under one foot tall to about 18 inches) to four foot tall miniature climbers.
Moss Roses: Rosa centifolia mucosa
Moss roses are closely related to the cabbage rose (hence the centifolia in their name) and the damasks as the first moss roses, discovered in 17th century Holland, were sports of these.
Mosses are among the thorniest of roses and most are once-blooming. They exude a wide range of scents from fruity (apple and citrus) to woody (pine) to spicy (musk). The once blooming mosses are hardier (to -25 degrees Fahrenheit) than the repeat bloomers (to 0 degrees F without protection).
The name comes from the glandular growth that resembles a fuzzy moss on their sepals and stems. Moss roses reached the peak of their popularity in the later half of the 1800s and, although making a comeback today, are still somewhat difficult to find.
Musk Roses: Rosa Moschata
Musk roses are large upright vase- shaped spreading shrubs with huge clusters of blossoms. They are generally 6 to 8 feet tall but can be grown as climbers in as they will stretch to twice that height in the shade. Flowers can be single or double and flowering starts late but lasts through the fall.
As you may have guessed, musk roses have a strong, spicy musk perfume. True musk roses are always white. If you have a musk rose that is not white, you probably have a Hybrid musk rose.
Hybrid Musk roses are the result of crossing R. mucosa with Hybrid Teas and Polyanthas. There are about 24 roses in this class, all bred in England by Reverend Joseph Pemberton and his successors, the Bentalls.
Hybrid Musk roses are carefree and best used as a landscape rose (specimen, border, climber or flowering hedge). Most HMs have large clusters of fragrant small flowers, lustrous green foliage, and are among the most shade tolerant of all roses.
Hybrid Musk roses require little attention other than to admire them. They are a graceful group, ranging in height from about 4 feet to tall enough to train as a climber if you prefer, as au naturel they have quite a large circumference
Noisettes & Tea Noisettes: Rosa Noisettiana
Noisettes are the first American class of roses, originating in South Carolina in 1802 with Champney's cross between R. mochata and R. chinensis. Champney shared his new cross, "Champney's Pink Cluster," with Philippe Noisette, who raised several seedlings in his Charleston nursery and sent some to his brother, Louis, in Paris.
Louis crossed the Noisettes seedlings with China teas and introduced 'Blush Noisette' in 1817. Tea-Noisettes, which some consider a separate class, although the American Rose Society has not officially recognized it as such.
Many of the Found Roses discovered thriving in the Southern and Western United States have turned out to be old Noisettes. The original Noisettes have many of the same characteristics of their musk rose parent. They are upright shrubs with clusters of small blooms, good rebloom, and fair winter-hardiness. Crossing the Noisettes with Tea Roses kept the rebloom and clustered blooms of the musk but resulted in larger flowers similar to climbing tea roses, and considerably reduced winter hardiness. (My only regret as a rose gardener in the Northeastern U.S. is that it is too cold for Noisettes.)
Polyanthas: R. chinensis x R. multiflora
Polyanthas have flowers that are smaller than the floribunda but similarly borne in larger clusters. Plants are hardy, compact shrubby bushes that are relatively disease resistant. They are excellent for mass plantings and borders but not as suitable for cutting.
The result of crosses between the Chinese Rosa chinensis and the Japanese Rosa multiflora, polyanthas first appeared in France in the late 19th century.
Over time, breeding created polyanthas that were larger in stature, flower, and foliage. These were bred with Hybrid teas, creating a class of Hybrid Polyanthas, which are now known as Floribundas.
Tour Rose Gardens Around the World
Floribunda: "Many Flowering"
Floribundas were created by cross fertilization between Polyanthas and Hybrid Teas. The first floribunda rose was bred in Denmark in 1912, by Svend Poulsen who wanted to create a rose suitable to Denmark's short summers and cold winters. He named this cherry red rose 'Rdhtte' (Red Riding Hood).
Originally called Hybrid Polyanthas, Floribundas feature clusters of blooms, little if any fragrance, and many unique and heretofore unavailable colors in roses. Floribundas, like their Polyantha parent, flower prolifically in clusters on shrubby bushes about 4 feet tall. Like the polyanthas, floribundas are good for hedging,
For lovers of old roses, Floribundas peaked in the 1950s with soft subtle blended shades of color, ranging from pink and crimson to orange, peach, salmon, apricot, and tan to magenta and lavender. Now considered Classic Floribundas, these roses were more delicate in bloom and open in habit than today's varieties.
Although the original Hybrid Polyanthas were usually low (about 2 feet high) and compact. The classic Floribundas, although a little taller (to 3 or 4 feet) and with more of a spread, retained many of the characteristics of their Polyantha parents. Today's floribundas are denser and the canes are stouter and more floriferous but, at least to my eyes, these massive plants, although covered in blooms, lack the grace and charm of previous generations.
Since the 1950s, the goal seems to be to breed taller (they are now 4 to 6+ feet high) Floribundas with larger tea-rose style blossoms and tea roses with clusters of blooms like the Floribundas. Today the two types seem to have merged, so the future may see a whole new classification. Stay tuned for the latest developments.
Ramblers & Rambler Hybrids
R. wichurana, R. sempervirens, R. arvensis, R. banksias
Ramblers are long-caned, climbers that, for many, epitomize the old fashioned Victorian garden rose. Ramblers are very vigorous and produce a lot of blooms once a year, some over several weeks. Although ramblers have been sprawling over garden fences, pergolas, pillars, and other architectural garden structures for almost 200 years, most were bred in the early 1900s.
Rose shown in photo is Alexandre Girault,growing at the Rosery at L'Hay-les-Roses, Paris. It is a beautiful, carmine red, once blooming, double, large flowered hardy, fragrant Wichuraiana rambler that was introduced in 1909. It grows to 20 feet or taller and is also very shade tolerant. Bred in France by Barbier et Cie.
Large Flowered Climbers
With experimentation and cross-breeding, and the occasional sport, ramblers with very large flowers that bloomed more than once were developed. These hybrids were commercially promoted as Large Flowered Climbers. The roses and the name caught on and, ex post facto, the new class of roses became a catch-all category containing any new repeat-blooming climber with large flowers.
Large Flowered Climbers is perhaps the most confusing category as it includes a wide variety of reblooming climbing roses, including hybrid teas and others that are not sports of shrub style roses. Once blooming ramblers that have large flowers are also sometimes included in this group.
Are you with me? Good.
Now...Let me complicate this some more. The Large Flowered Climbers group of roses also includes Van Fleet's New Dawn, a reblooming sport of a once-blooming rambler that is the source of many of the best modern hybrid climbers. On top of that, there are a few ramblers that do bloom more than once and at least one climber (Cecile Brunner) that has small blooms and isn't a rambler.
So what's the difference? The lines are fuzzy and a bit permeable, but in general, climbers are reblooming, have somewhat stiff growth, "old-fashioned" blooms, and are smaller and less vigorous than ramblers. Climbers are perfect for trellises, obelisks, and arches and ramblers are more suitable for growing into trees and covering large sructures like pergolas and garages.
Burnet Rose (aka Scotch Rose)
Rosa spinosissima, R. scotica, R. pimpinellifolia
The Burnet or Scotch Roses were identified as R. spinosissima (because the stems are covered with spines or bristles and thorns) until recently, when the classification was changed to R. pimpinellifolia.
R. pimpinellifolia is a species rose native to western, central and southern Europe and northwest Africa. It forms a dense, low-growing shrubby bush covered in dark green fern-like foliage. Its flowers (usually white with some pale pinks and yellows) have darker yellow stamens and a sweet scent that people and butterflies find quite attractive.
The plant blooms profusely for a relatively short period between May and July followed by a heavy crop of shiny dark purple or burgundy-black hips which birds love to eat. The Burnet rose is extremely cold hardy and shade tolerant and can handle winter temperatures to -35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because of its suckering habit and prickly stems and its ability to thrive in any soil, the Burnet Rose can be invasive. Despite those characteristics, it has been a much loved rose with hundreds of cultivars propogated and widely grown in cottage gardens in the early 1800s and throughout the Victorian era. Butterflies also find it attractive.
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns
or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses
Species and Species Hybrid
Species roses are the oldest of the old roses. They grow wild in parts of the northern hemisphere and include many old garden favorites. Species roses usually have five-petaled blooms.
By their very survival, wild species roses are the toughest, easiest to grow and most disease resistant roses. These wild roses are the source of these qualities in hybids of species Rugosas, Banksias (Ramblers) and Eglantines.
There are over 100 species of roses. Most are seasonal bloomers and produce ornamental, edible hips. They have a wide range of forms and may be evergreen or have brilliant fall foliage. Species roses are as varied as they are beautiful, but they are in danger of being lost forever.
Hundreds of unidentified species of roses still exist in the wild, in abandoned cemeteries and elsewhere, but as their habitats are destroyed, the roses, along with other plants and animals, are lost forever.
Rugosas: Rosa Rugosa
Rugosas are among the hardiest of roses. Originating in Japan, Korea, and northern China, R. rugosa (aka R. Kamchatka) is a species rose that boasts rich dark green foliage, is naturally disease resistant, intensely fragrant, shade tolerant, and blooms from early summer until winter, followed by large edible showy hips (fruits) that ripen to colors ranging from orange to red.
Although some rugosas may sucker, all have a fairly tight growth habit and thorns. All rugosas are hardy to -25 degrees Fahrenheit and some will easily handle winters to -35 degrees F. We grow (and have grown for many years) several varieties of rugosas and have never had them sucker. Our Victorian Garden currently includes Hansa (1905), Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1899), Sarah Van Fleet (c.1920), Roseraie de l'hay (c.1900) and a few other rugosas.
Do you have a favorite rose?
A tip about rose care you'd like to share?
We would really like to know what you think.
© 2012 Chazz