Just what is an ‘Heirloom Rose’? When referring strictly to ‘roses’ an heirloom roses are also known as “antique” or “old garden” roses, which include those that existed before 1867. Why that particular date you ask? “La France” the first hybrid tea rose, was discovered growing in a garden patch and introduced in 1867 which marked the start of a new era. All classes of roses in existence before that time were deemed ‘old garden roses’ or ‘heirlooms’. Hence new classes were called modern roses. The actual heirloom varieties are hard to pinpoint and fall into several categories; Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas and Moss roses. These antique varieties are as simple to grow as the modern roses we find today. Admired for their fragrance and large beautiful blooms every garden should have a few.
Gallicas are the oldest of the old garden roses, having been grown by the Greeks and Romans. They have been involved in the development of all four other classes of ‘old garden roses’ and have influenced to at least some small degree nearly all garden roses down to the present. Later they were bred by the Dutch and French as many of the names indicate. Their great colors range from shades of pink, reds, purples and even crimson- red with stripes. The single, double or semi-double blooms held either singly or in threes are mostly very fragrant. The bushes are easily recognized as low suckering shrubs with foliage that is oval, pointed and have a rough texture that is typically dark green in color. These roses can be grown in poor, even gravelly soil and demand a minimum of attention.
The Damask rose dates back to Biblical times. They originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and were introduced to the Europeans by the Crusaders. Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Romans all grew this extraordinarily fragrant, perfume-like rose. Damasks have a mixed parentage originating from a natural hybrid between the Gallica rose and a wild species rose. Damasks are very cold hardy as some can be grown in zone 4. They are very thorny and have a rather lax and arching growth habit reaching three to seven feet tall. Most only bloom once a year and require good fertile soil if they are to look their best.
Albas are the most elegant of all old roses with tall, slender upright growth producing flowers of blush pink or white with charming beauty set against the perfect background of grey-green foliage. Albas are very hardy and thrive under difficult conditions even partial shade. Alba roses have a strong, rich perfume that gives them special appeal in the garden and as cut flowers. Cold hardy for zones 3-9.
Centifolias are also known as ‘Cabbage Roses’ because of the size and shape of their blooms, along with many petals as the name suggests, up to 100 or more. Developed by Dutch breeders in the period between the 17th and 19th centuries they are the classic old garden roses often reproduced in artists’ prints popular today. Centifolias have lax, open, rather lanky growth with a mixture of large and small thorns. The leaves are large, rounded and broadly toothed while the flowers tend to be heavy and globular. They benefit from support to stop them bending too near the ground. They are once blooming, very fragrant and very winter hardy.
The Moss Roses are the roses of Victorian England. Moss Roses are actually Centifolias and Damasks that have developed a distinctive, fragrant moss-like growth on the sepals that has the smell of pine. The mossing adds great elegance to the flowers and is a result of a sport, or fault in the plant. The majority of Moss Roses were bred over a short period of time, from approximately 1850 to 1870. Moss Roses have inherited the strong fragrance of their Centifolia ancestors and pruning should be as recommended for the Centifolias. Moss roses come in almost all colors and some varieties are repeat blooming.
Bourbon roses originated on the Île Bourbon (now called Réunion) off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. They are believed to be the result of a cross between the Autumn Damask and the 'Old Blush' China rose, both of which were frequently used as hedging materials on the island. They flower repeatedly on vigorous, frequently semi-climbing shrubs with glossy foliage and purple-tinted canes. They were first Introduced in France in 1823. Examples: 'Louise Odier', 'Mme. Pierre Oger', 'Zéphirine Drouhin' (the last example is often classified under climbing roses).
The Hybrid Musk group was mainly developed by Rev. Joseph Pemberton, a British rosarian, in the first decades of the 20th century, based upon 'Aglaia', a 1896 cross by Peter Lambert. A seedling of this rose, 'Trier', is considered to the foundation of the class. The genetics of the class are somewhat obscure, as some of the parents are unknown. Rose multiflora, however, is known to be one parent, and Rosa moschata (the musk rose) also figures in its heritage, though it is considered to be less important than the name would suggest. Hybrid musks are disease-resistant, repeat flowering and generally cluster-flowered, with a strong, characteristic "musk" scent. The stems tend to be lax and arching, with limited thorns. Examples include 'Buff Beauty' and 'Penelope'
The first Noisette rose was raised as a hybrid seedling by a South Carolina rice planter named John Champneys. Its parents were the China Rose 'Parson's Pink' and the autumn-flowering musk rose (Rosa moschata), resulting in a vigorous climbing rose producing huge clusters of small pink flowers from spring to fall. Champneys sent seedlings of his rose (called 'Champneys' Pink Cluster') to his gardening friend, Philippe Noisette, who in turn sent plants to his brother Louis in Paris, who then introduced 'Blush Noisette' in 1817. The first Noisettes were small-blossomed, fairly winter-hardy climbers, but later infusions of Tea rose genes created a Tea-Noisette subclass with larger flowers, smaller clusters, and considerably reduced winter hardiness. Examples: 'Blush Noisette', 'Lamarque' (Noisette); 'Mme. Alfred Carriere', 'Marechal Niel' (Tea-Noisette). (See French and German articles on Noisette roses)
Hybrid Perpetuals, the dominant class of roses in Victorian England, (a misleading translation of hybrides remontants, 'reblooming hybrids') emerged in 1838 as the first roses which successfully combined Asian remontancy (repeat blooming) with the old European lineages. Since re-bloom is a recessive trait, the first generation of Asian/European crosses (Hybrid Chinas, Hybrid Bourbons, Hybrid Noisettes) were stubbornly once-blooming, but when these roses were recrossed with themselves or with Chinas or teas, some of their offspring flowered more than once. The Hybrid Perpetuals thus were something of a miscellany, a catch-all class derived to a great extent from the Bourbons but with admixtures of Chinas, teas, damasks, gallicas, and to a lesser extent Noisettes, albas and even centifolias. They became the most popular garden and florist roses of northern Europe at the time, as the tender tea roses would not thrive in cold climates, and the Hybrid Perpetuals' very large blooms were well-suited to the new phenomenon of competitive exhibitions. The "perpetual" in the name hints at repeat-flowering, but many varieties of this class had poor re-flowering habits; the tendency was for a massive spring bloom, followed by either scattered summer flowering, a smaller autumn burst, or sometimes nothing at all until next spring. Due to a limited colour palette (white, pink, red) and lack of reliable repeat-bloom, the hybrid perpetuals were ultimately overshadowed by their descendants, the Hybrid Teas. Examples: 'Ferdinand Pichard', 'Reine Des Violettes', 'Paul Neyron'.
Centuries ago, William Shakespeare’s Juliet said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”. Perhaps the saying is not as true as we would like to think. As modern rose gardening developed, so did the hybridizing of rose varieties. Today about 80% of all roses grown are from the modern classes of roses. Encouraged to produce hardier specimens with larger blooms and heavier producing plants, rose growers cross-pollinated their specimens. The results are the hybrid tea roses and floribundas so popular and prevalent in today’s gardens. Although popular and beautiful in their own right, they do not possess the heady fragrance or the big full blooms that the old garden roses are noted for. The Heirloom Rose however is poised for a comeback as the past still lures us with the full flower form and wonderful fragrance that enhances the old garden rose.