Timeless Elegance: The Beauty of Heirloom Roses

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You will be surprised to learn, perhaps, that you may still purchase and grow roses that were brought to Europe from the Holy Lands by the crusaders; or that you may even possess, for less than the cost of the latest hybrid tea roses that Josephine Bonaparte herself grew in her garden at Malmaison!

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A walk through my garden may be the best way to introduce you to some of the antique roses you can own. 

If you were to walk up my driveway, the first of these you would come across would be a moss rose – perhaps you will remember that your grandmother grew these. 

Antique Roses

‘Jeanne de Montfort,’ introduced in 1851, is not so old that she still cannot blush a deep pink at your admiration. She is a lovely thing who will pour out her perfume in gratitude.

Close by is ‘Old Red Moss,’ which bristles with prickles and is hoary with moss. But you will be intrigued by his hundreds of blossoms, the outer petals carmine-pink, deepening to carmine-red toward the center, which is so vivid it seems to scintillate like a glowing ember. The rich fragrance wafting your way will haunt you.

Next to him, much lower in growth, is `Deuil de Paul Fontaine‘ with blossoms of such a dark red that it can only be termed mahogany. He made his first appearance in 1873.

One-time Rose Bloomers

Let me interject a word here concerning whether old-fashioned roses are only one-time bloomers. 

This is generally true of the mosses, which put on a splendid display in the spring, but a display that I have found, if weather conditions are favorable, may last as long as six weeks. 

Those who put up the strongest objections on this point are the very ones who blithely clutter up their grounds with forsythias and Vanhouttci spirea, of which I think there is altogether too much in this world. 

When I found the result of a year’s wait was a few stingy blooms from my forsythias, they were promptly yanked out, consigned to the rubbish heap, and replaced with moss roses. I have never regretted the change.

There are exceptions to any rule, and `Deuil de Paul Fontaine‘ is an example. While not a prolific bloomer for me, he will give scattered bloom throughout the season. 

His pink counterpart, well worth your consideration, is ‘Alfred de Dalmas.’ But the one moss rose said to be most dependably everblooming is `Salet,’ a large pink rose, heavily modded.

Royalty Among Antique Roses

And now we come to royalty among the antique roses. ‘Prince Camille de Rohan,’ a hybrid perpetual, was introduced in 1861. Truly a prince among the dark, velvety reds, certainly this must be the ‘Crimson Glory’ of the old-fashioneds. 

It closely resembles the latter, possibly because both are descendants of another hybrid perpetual, ‘General Jacqueminot,’ the famous “General jack” rose. 

And perfume, but scented dandy or not, the ‘Prince’ is no effeminate weakling, for he will throw out six-foot canes in a season after a heavy spring blooming. No wonder he rarely repeats in a season.

Novelty Striped Roses

We’ve reached the back garden now, and here is a novelty that will hold you spellbound if you are not familiar with striped roses. 

Variegata di Bologna‘ is a white rose delicately suffused with pink, heavily striped, and splashed with magenta. 

When you see your first blossoms of this centifolia, you will be reminded of peppermint-stick candy and will fully expect, as you raise it to your nostrils, to get a whiff of mint. Instead, the surprise comes when you discover that it is sweetly rose-scented.


`Variegata’ is not such an old rose, however, as it appeared upon the scene only as long ago as 1909. Your grandmother undoubtedly knew it and may have called it a cabbage rose. 

The name came not because the centifolias are so large – indeed, most cabbage roses are small compared to today’s standards, but because of the cupped, hundred-petalled blossoms. In addition, the blooms are short-stemmed, growing close to seven-foot canes, producing a spray effect.

I have another striped rose over here, this time a Bourbon. The flower is not unlike the ‘Variegata,’ blooming in clusters of threes and sixes. ‘Honorine de Brabant’s’ blooms are fully double, richly scented, and repeat her bloom.

Mrs. John Laing

Close by is a truly handsome lady, ‘Mrs. John Laing,’ probably the best known and best loved hybrid perpetual, after the white ‘Frau Karl Druschki.’ Her big, double pink blossoms, pleasingly fragrant, will enchant you.

Nor will she be stingy with her offerings, for she will reward you with heavy and recurrent bloom. Despite a prolonged drought, she bloomed heavily three times in my first year in my garden. Another blow to the theory that old-fashioned roses are but one-time bloomers!

La Reine Victoria

I have saved the best for the last – La Reine Victoria.’ This very gracious and royal lady, simple and stately as the great Queen Victoria herself, has stolen my heart. Her two-inch cupped pink blossoms fascinate me as no urn-shaped hybrid tea can. 

She gives freely of herself throughout the season. If you can have but one old-fashioned rose, let it be this truly distinguished Bourbon!

Pegging Down Method

Leaving the roses themselves for a moment, let’s consider some pointers on their culture. If you have not grown old-fashioned roses before, “pegging down” may be a new term to you. 

This is simply a method of inducing certain reluctant bushes to bloom, and merely involves carefully bending down long canes to within a foot of the ground and attaching them to a stake. 

This will force lateral shoots to break out along the canes, resulting in heavier flower production, and is particularly effective with hybrid perpetuals and moss roses.

As with your modern bushes, do not feed during the first year of planting. After that, follow the same schedule as you would with your hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras.

A Word Of Caution

Do not be carried away by the claims that you may have read or heard that old-fashioned roses are not bothered by the common ailments of modern-day roses.

 In justice to writers of such pronouncements, let me say that this is possibly true in their regions. 

But if you live in a blackspot area, your old-fashioned roses will blackspot. In 1956, here at the southeast tip of Delaware, we had a cold, wet spring followed by a cool, wet summer. 

The early part of July brought an eruption of the black spot to my roses and almost defoliated my collection of about 60 bushes. 

Only one bush of the old-fashioned kinds escaped the plague, the mosses being particularly hard hit. Only two of my modern roses – ‘Talisman’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’ – successfully resisted the disease to the end of the season. 

So when you get out the spray gun or duster to treat your modern roses, give your old-fashioned ones a good dose, too.

Help Control Blackspot

Here’s a tip to help you control blackspot, whether you grow old or modern roses. Next time you set out rose bushes, try an experimental planting among the shrubbery.

Do not jam them into crowded spaces, for roses must have air circulation and sunlight to do their best. But rather let nearby shrubbery act as a protective agency.

Orthodox Rosarians

Orthodox rosarians, who often advocate planting roses unimaginatively in rows like so many vegetables, may be horrified at such a suggestion, claiming that bushes suck up all the moisture and take all the nutrients in the soil from the roses, starving them to annihilation. 

I have not found it so. A recent summer in an unprecedented drought of almost four months when trees and shrubbery were wilting, the roses I had planted among them stood up to the heat and dryness without flinching. 

(I am inclined to think they swiped the moisture and food from the shrubbery!) I discovered little or no blackspot among roses planted in this manner, and, indeed, even in the wet summer of 1956, the fungus disease made little headway with those planted. The ones set in the open were the hardest hit.

The Explanation is Simple

Blackspot rests in the soil, and in heavy rains, the fungus spores arc splashed upwards upon the rose foliage. But the leaves and branches of nearby shrubbery act as a shielding umbrella, reducing the amount of splashing a hard rain will cause. 

Incidentally, I have found Orthocide 50 wettable sprayed upon the plants an especially effective control measure and recommend it highly.

I mentioned that one of the old-fashioned ones was unaffected by black-spot. Not only did it sneer at this dread disease, but at all other pests. This was the lovely chestnut rose, Roxburghii plena.

Don’t Form Hasty Judgements

With your first purchase of an old-fashioned rose, be not too disappointed if it does not measure up to your finest hybrid tea in looks, production, and performance. One must sometimes develop tastes for the unfamiliar. 

Above all, don’t form hasty judgments in the first growing season. I never expect spectacular results from any of my roses, be they old-fashioned or the latest introduction, until they have become established in my garden for at least a year. 

In five years – even in one year – you may alter your opinion to the point of becoming an avid collector. 

Once the bug bites, you will be casting envious glances over the fence at your neighbor’s ground – all that spacious area wasted on a lawn where you might find ample room for the many precious antique roses you would like to acquire!

44659 by Keith S. Phillips