Katherine's Old Roses Page
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My Love for Old Garden Roses
One of my personal hobbies is Old Garden Roses, though you need to
understand from the outset that I am not an authority on the topic. My
interest is personal and I'm learning as I go, so please interpret the
information on this page within that context. The purpose of this page is
to share something of my personal interests with people on campus or
elsewhere who may have an interest.
story of Old Roses is really a love story. Old Roses are varieties that
were popular in centuries past
before the Hybrid Teas were developed.
Many of them bloom for only one period a year, (often in June), although a
few are "remontant," which means
they undergo multiple or constant blooming throughout the season. Old
Roses tend to be very hardy, and in our severe Minnesota climate this is
a necessity. Other names that have been used for Old Roses include
"Old-Fashioned Roses," "Antique Roses," "Heirloom Roses," and "Heritage
Most roses--old and otherwise--are not
grown from seeds, although new varieties can be hybridized
through seeds. Most roses must be propagated by taking a cutting of a
or root and going through the process of encouraging this fragile living
specimen to root into a separate plant or graft
onto another rose. For most roses, according to Christopher (1989), if you
one single rose, obtained 100 seeds from it and grew 100 plants from
them, you would have 100 different roses. Only the
"Species" roses, as
they are called, can be grown true from seed. An example of a Species
rose is the
Cherokee Rose, which has an interesting mystery and legend in its
wild rose that I
photographed in South
Species roses are often grouped with Old
oldest roses--the original roses--were Species roses; they are thought
to have evolved roughly 165
million years ago near the end of the Dinosaur Age--in the Cretaceous
Period, (if I remember my Biology 101 accurately).
"A Living Link With the Past" Most Old Roses have
remarkable histories: the so-called "Damask" roses were brought back to
Europe by the Crusaders from Syria (Damascus), and many of these roses
are still available for purchase (or from other Old Rose
growers who will propagate one for you, especially if you trade one
of yours). Someone has just finished propagating the
"White Rose of
York" (Rosa alba semi-plena)for
me--this was one of the roses caught up in the famed "War of the Roses"
in England, (depending on which source you read), with the opposing
faction's rose being
the "Red Rose of
Lancaster." I hope within 2 to 3 years to have both flourishing in my
What all this means is that, for all these centuries, people
had continuously to work to
the particular varieties alive; their seeds wouldn't produce
offspring similar to themselves.
Thus, when I someday hold a blossom of the
"White Rose of York" in my hand, it will be not a relative or descendant of
the rose reputedly
enjoyed by James II, but a piece of the **very same** rose. That's why
Christopher called Old Roses a "living link with the past," (Christopher,
1989, p. 10), and that's
why I referred to the story of Old Roses as "a love story." Individual
people have, on their own initiative, kept these roses alive down through
history because they loved them.
More Historic Roses The
"Eglantine" rose to
Shakespeare referred in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is still available,
according to some accounts. For those of you who know the play, when Oberon
describes the bower of Titania, the fairy queen, he says:
know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the
Quite over-canopied with luscious
musk-roses, and with eglantine."Poet though he was, Shakespeare
seems not to have known his roses; Graham Thomas,
an Old-Rose grower and "detective,"
presented a good case that the "musk rose"
to which Shakespeare referred could not have been
a Musk rose. In
point of fact,
it was more likely "Rosa arvensis," the Ayrshire rose native to
England. (Note: if
you set out to purchase an "Eglantine" like the one Shakespeare enjoyed,
don't be confused by David Austin's
"Eglantyne" which is a "New" Old Rose,
although Austin's "Eglantyne" is a beautiful
rose. I gather there are many modern hybrids produced from
"Eglantine," so you will need to do your research if you want the
One of the most beloved roses of all time is
de la Malmaison," a
rose that grew in the gardens of Napoleon's wife, Empress
Josephine, at her
house La Malmaison. One story is that a visitor admired the rose, and the
gave him a cutting to take with him. This is how the rose got its
name: the visitor's cutting was one that managed to survive
through the years. A Bourbon rose, they
tend to be less hardy in a Minnesota climate than other classes like the
resulted from a cross with
that bloom repeatedly throughout the growing
season, but which are less hardy. Another less hardy old rose is the Moss rose.
I'm thinking of trying to grow "Souvenir de la
Malmaison" in a protected
place, regardless, because it is such a beautiful rose by all accounts.
Every "Souvenir de la Malmaison" is a piece of the same rose
enjoyed by Empress Josephine. If you would like to know if a particular
rose would be winter-hardy in your area, consult the
Zone map. Currently, my favorites are the Gallicas, which are very
winter hardy in our area.
Other roses have histories going back thousands of
years to Greek and Roman times, such as the
Europe from North Africa circa 50 B.C. Although many thousands of Old Roses
were cultivated in the past--perhaps more than 10,000 varieties by some
still survive, because many Old Roses disappeared during the
20th Century when the popular Hybrid Teas were developed. People
stopped propagating the Old Roses. Thomas Christopher's book, In Search
of Lost Roses, tells the story of the effort to rescue these beautiful
plants and keep them from extinction.
How I Came to Know and Love Old Roses
My interest in Old Roses began when I inherited one from my son's
great-grandmother, given to me by her daughter, and which
has a particularly interesting history. I've not had it authenticated by
an expert, but my research tells me it must be a "Harison's Yellow,"
which originated as a
spontaneous hybrid circa 1830, and which is famous because the pioneers
west with them. The rose is sometimes called "The Yellow Rose of Texas,"
but actually it originated in New York City in the garden of an attorney
Harison (spelled with one "r"). It is unusally hardy, drought-tolerant and
fragrance and semi-double, yellow blossoms are extraordinary. The rose
volunteered in Harison's New York garden, although today the location on
between 8th and 9th Avenues--with its garment warehouses--would be
unrecognizable as a country garden, according to Christopher, (1989).
One of the parents of "Harison's Yellow" was a
"Scotch Briar," ("Rosa Spinosissima"), but the other was an unknown,
that spontaneously produced this lovely and very tough plant. Offshoots
of Harison's Yellow can be
found growing wild the entire length of the Oregon Trail, and one of them
found its way to the garden of the little yellow farmer's
cottage outside of Correll, MN, where my son's great-grandmother lived 100
years ago. Wild
"Harison's Yellow" plants have grown into enormous thickets, and the one at
the Correll farm was nearly as big as the cottage when
last I saw it.
That is my (copyrighted) photo of my yellow heirloom
"Harison's Yellow" (probably) rose.
My second Heirloom Rose is a very pale pink one that I am still trying to
identify; it has quartered blooms
and an extraordinary fragrance--probably unlike any rose scent you
enjoyed on a living rose unless you have been in a garden with Old Roses.
Most often, I have thought it was a
"Rose de Meaux,"
but it also bears a
strong resemblance to
"Banshee" which is
known to be common throughout
the region and a very hardy plant--which my rose is. However, maybe
my rose is
neither. In any case, I enjoy the mystery.
It, too, was a gift from my son's grandmother. My photography skills
haven't been up to the challenge of getting a good photograph of my pink
rose, but I'll try again this spring when it blooms.
Old Roses Have Character
Old Roses tend to be very fragrant, with fragrances and forms of bloom
that are different from the Hybrid Teas with which we are most familiar
today. Old Roses have far more varieties of fragrance and form than do the
Hybrid Teas--the latter bred all to the same standard. Lately, many
Hybrid Teas grown for florists have no fragrance at all. The Old-Rose
breeders all had their own idiosyncratic notions about what constituted the
most beautiful rose qualities--whether form of blossom, fragrance,
color, size, configuration of petals, number of petals, foliage, or
shape of plant--so they were all working towards different ends. (Hmmmm,
sort of reminds me of the work of scholars...) Consequently, Old
Roses have more "character" than the Hybrid Teas, because their developers
pursued varieties of beauty--all of them beautiful in
their own way.
Below are some links to sites of Old Rose propagators and
collectors. By the way, some rosarians are breeding new varieties of
roses for commercial sale using the Old Roses as their primary stock. David
Austin is one of
the better known, and he calls his roses "English Roses." They
are also referred to as "New" Old Garden Roses. My favorite site so far
is Paul Barden's Rose Page.
Paul Barden's Rose Page
A Woodland Rose Garden
The Texas Rose Rustlers
is an organization dedicated to the discovery and rescue of the Old Roses and
whose site will tell you about ways to join the effort.
I invite you to check them out.
University of Minnesota Extension has a Web site to
help people diagnose what is
wrong with their plants.
My Reference List:
Christopher, T. (1989). In Search of Lost Roses. New York:
Christoper's book has been "picked up" by the University of Chicago
Press. They have a site with an interview
with him and an excerpt
from the book. You might want to check them out. ISBN: 0226105962
Have a nice day!
Since May 3, 2002
on the mailbox to send mail to me.
Last Modification: September 27, 2002
Text and Rose Photos Copyright 2001, 2002 by Katherine
Benson. All Rights
The views and opinions expressed in this page are
those of the
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or
by the University of Minnesota.
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.