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.

The 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 Roses."

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 branch 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 took 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 past.

The photo contains a wild rose that I photographed in South Dakota.

Species roses are often grouped with Old Roses. The 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 garden.

What all this means is that, for all these centuries, people had continuously to work to keep 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 which 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: 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 original one.)

One of the most beloved roses of all time is "Souvenir 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 Empress 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 Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas, and Rugosas. Bourbons resulted from a cross with the China roses 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 Horticultural 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 "Autumn Damask" brought to 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 estimates--comparatively few 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 brought cuttings 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 named Richard Harison (spelled with one "r"). It is unusally hardy, drought-tolerant and vigorous; its fragrance and semi-double, yellow blossoms are extraordinary. The rose volunteered in Harison's New York garden, although today the location on Thirty-First Street 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, happy chance 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 have ever 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.

Yesterday's Rose

Paul Barden's Rose Page

The Roserie

Timeless Roses

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.

The University of Minnesota Extension has a Web site to help people diagnose what is wrong with their plants.

My Reference List:
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

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Last Modification: September 27, 2002
URL: http://www.morris.umn.edu/~bensonka

Text and Rose Photos Copyright 2001, 2002 by Katherine Alice Benson. All Rights Reserved.

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.

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.