Old garden roses consist of classes that existed before 1867, the year the hybrid tea class was introduced. Even if a variety was discovered or hybridized after 1867, it is considered an old garden rose if it belongs to a class that predates the hybrid tea.
In addition to their interesting histories, old garden roses have other characteristics that make them appealing. Most are long-lived, low-maintenance plants with good disease resistance; many are very winter hardy. They exhibit a wide range of plant sizes, flower forms, and flower colors.
The most common categories of old garden roses are described below.
Albas are tall, dense, cold-hardy plants that resist many pests and diseases, making them especially useful in cold climates and low-maintenance gardens. They date to before the second century A.D. Leaves are blue-green, and the medium-sized blooms are either single or double. The flowers are in tones of pink or white, borne in clusters and usually deliciously fragrant. Albas bloom only once a year.
Bourbon roses are vigorous, shrubby plants that grow to about 6 feet high and have glossy, bright green leaves and clusters of small- to medium-sized, semidouble or double fragrant flowers of white, pink, red, and purple. The first Bourbon rose was discovered in the early nineteenth century on an island in the Indian Ocean that was known at that time as Ile de Bourbon (now Reunion).
Bourbons are moderately hardy and exhibit good repeat bloom. They reached the height of their popularity during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although the original Bourbon rose has been lost, many of its descendants remain. Some make good cut flowers, a trait rare among old garden roses.
Centifolias are the cabbage roses, so named because the hundred or more petals overlap and are closely packed like leaves of a cabbage. They are also called Provence roses after the section of France where they were once grown. Their origin is uncertain; they were once thought to be ancient, but they are now thought to be a product of seventeenth-century Dutch rose growers.
The globular, sweetly fragrant, small- to medium-sized flowers are white to deep rose, appearing in clusters once a year on slender, arching branches with crinkled leaves. Plants are quite hardy, and small to medium sized, making them especially useful in smaller spaces.
China roses (R. chinensis and its hybrids) have small, delicate, semidouble or double flowers and glossy, almost evergreen foliage on small- to medium-sized plants. They played an important role in the development of today’s hybrid roses, because they exhibited continual repeat bloom, something unknown when they were brought to Europe by way of China through India in the eighteenth century. They bloom reliably all season, typically producing pink, red, or crimson flowers with little fragrance. Unfortunately, they are extremely frost tender.
Best known for their fragrance, these roses are medium to large, with drooping or arching branches. They have long been grown in the Near East and Europe for the commercial production of attar of roses, a fragrant rose oil. Flowers are medium sized, semidouble or double, and appear in large clusters in shades of white or pink. They are very hardy and bloom only once a year, except for the ‘Autumn Damask’, R. damascena semperflorens, which blooms twice a year. Damask roses are descendants of R. gallica and have been known since 900 B.C.
These roses are descendants of R. eglanteria, the ‘Sweet Briar Rose’. They have a large, dense, thorny growth habit suitable for screening, and foliage that smells like apples, especially after a watering or rain. Flowers are small, single or semidouble, and pink, red, copper, or yellow. Blooms appear once a year on hardy plants and are followed by colorful hips.
The gallica, or French rose, is the class that contains the oldest identified rose. Gallicas have flowers of red, pink, or purple, and dark green foliage with a rough texture. The plants are hardy and compact, although they often look spindly and spread rapidly by underground runners, which are usually not found in roses. Flowers may be single or double and range in color from white to purple. Some varieties are richly fragrant; others have no scent at all.
Most of the hybrids of the species R. foetida are pleasingly fragrant, unlike the parent species, which has an unpleasant, fetid odor. Hybrid foetidas are tall, vigorous plants that bloom only once a year. It is because of these roses that we have the color yellow in today’s hybrids. Unfortunately, hybrid foetidas and their descendants are vulnerable to black spot disease. Flowers may be single or double.
An immediate ancestor of the hybrid tea, which was the first modern rose, the hybrid perpetual is typically a tall, vigorous, hardy plant that blooms repeatedly all summer—although less prolifically than the hybrid tea, which has now eclipsed it. Flowers are large, double, fragrant, and white, pink, red, maroon, or mauve. Of the over three thousand varieties of hybrid perpetuals grown in the first half of the nineteenth century, only a few remain popular today,
The hybrids of R. spinosissima (the ‘Scotch Rose’, which dates to before A.D. 1600) are mostly twentieth-century additions to the list of good plants for the shrub border. Although these are often classified as shrub roses, they are technically old garden roses, became the class was in existence before 1867. They are large, vigorous, floriferous (abundantly flowering) plants, and among the thorniest roses, which makes them a good barrier plant. Some bloom only once a year; others repeat their bloom throughout the summer. Flowers are small to medium sized, may be single or double, and have various colors.
Moss roses are sports, or mutations, of centifolia roses. They are highly fragrant, the fragrance being emitted from small, hairy, sticky red or green glands that appear on the sepals and sometimes on the stem and leaves. These structures are unique to moss roses. Plants are hardy and usually medium sized, with large, double, globular flowers colored white, pink, red, or purple. Most bloom only once a season, with the blooms appearing later than those of other roses. Some produce a second, light bloom in the fall.
The first hybrid group to originate in the United States, noisettes are a cross between the musk rose (R. moschata) and the China rose (R. chinensis), made in South Carolina in 1812. Noisettes are tall, bushy, tender plants that make good climbers, bearing fragrant clusters of white, pink, red, purple, or yellow double flowers throughout the season.
This class includes sturdy, upright plants that have double, very fragrant flowers that bloom all summer. They are descendants of a China rose, the ‘Autumn Damask’, and R. gallica. They resemble Bourbon roses, to which they are closely related, but they generally have smaller (3-inch) flowers with brighter pink and red coloring. The Portlands were named for the first rose in the class, ‘Duchess of Portland’, which appeared about 1800. Soon surpassed by a vast new class of hybrid perpetuals, they were never very popular, and only a few varieties are still available.