“I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday, sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.” – L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915).
R. spinosissima ‘Altaica’ — Cream to white blooms with yellow stamens. Flowers form along the entire stem (instead of at the ends). Blooms early in the spring season and will cover the entire bush, resembling a mound of snow. The plant is upright, bushy, prickly and will reach 4 to 6 feet.
What is an antique rose? Sometimes antique roses are called heirloom, heritage, vintage or old garden roses. Whatever your preference of terminology, they are a wonderful class of roses whose date of introduction precedes 1867. They are extremely fragrant, grow without chemicals, and are adaptable in a wide variety of growing conditions. They can create a mood of romance, or nostalgia, stirring up sentimental memories of your grandmother’s yard with sprawling roses on the fence or trellis.
‘Alba Maxima’, also known as the “the great double white,” can be grown as a climber, reaching 8 to 10 feet high. Being disease resistant, hardy and beautiful, it is a lovely addition to any garden.
‘Königin von Dänemark’ is one my favorites. Beautiful, light pink, very double blooms that are fragrant. The bush is disease free and winter hardy.
Antique roses are a delightful piece of living history. They have endured the trials of time—found growing in old cemeteries or abandoned homesteads, surviving decades without human care or maintenance. While momentarily forgotten or replaced by newer remontant varieties, antique roses have prevailed.
As we move towards a “greener” earth, antique roses are making a strong comeback in modern gardens. They are easy to care for, resistant to disease, winter hardy with nice floral performance and fit comfortably in borders and perennial beds without seeming out of place.
There is great diversity in the antique rose classes: Understanding their personalities will help you choose the right rose for your garden. All rose recommendations are well known and suitable in USDA Zones 5 and 6. In addition, they all can be planted in the early fall.
Old Roses: Species (wild or native) and their hybrid counterparts
Species are wild flowering shrubs. Generally, they have a simple flower form of four to eight petals and drench themselves in blooms from late spring to early summer. Environmentally friendly, the flower provides pollen for bees and their prickly stems provide safe havens for the birds to build a nest. Rose hips (seed pods) produced after flowering provide winter interest for landscapers and a healthy food source for various wildlife. Because of their role in the food chain, species roses are often included in food forest and land restoration projects.
R. gallica versicolor ‘Rosa Mundi’ is an eye-catcher in the garden with semi-double pink flowers, striped with white. The bush is compact and suitable for smaller gardens. It is a sport or a mutation of the R. gallica officinalis ‘Apothecary’s Rose’.
‘La Belle Sultane’ is less known than some other Gallica roses, but provides a striking color contrast of violet to deep-crimson blooms. Long canes and attractive foliage provide movement and contrast in a mixed perennial border.
Gallica roses (Rosa gallica) are native to southern and central Europe, being one of the oldest classes of garden roses. They were cultivated by the Greeks and Romans for their medicinal benefits and were used to treat nearly everything from war injuries to common headaches. Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife (in the early 1800s), managed a magnificent rose garden at her Chateau de Malmaison. The empress collected roses from around the world with two-thirds being Rosa gallica.
Gallica roses tend to be smaller shrubs, 2 to 4 feet tall, and once blooming. They are semidouble to very heavily petaled (100 petals), pink to brilliant purple and wonderfully fragrant. They are extremely winter hardy and actually prefer cooler climates over temperate Zones. They are easy to grow in poor or gravely soil and full sun.
Dating back to biblical times, Damask roses (Rosa × damascena) are the queen of fragrance. With their delectable perfume, it is no surprise Damask roses are regarded as symbols of love and beauty. Flowers are utilized by the perfume and cosmetic industries for their “attar” or essential oils. In Eastern cultures, they are often used as culinary spices, herbal teas, jams or desserts. Because of their remarkable qualities, Damask roses have been used extensively in hybridization programs and have given rise to thousands of new rose varieties.
Damask roses in the right climate may grow 7 feet tall — definitely much taller than Gallica roses, but are just as hardy. Their growth habit is sprawling with open airy branches and small clusters of blooms. Their colors range from shades of light to medium pink, with a few light reds. A few varieties will bloom twice a year with the first flush being the most spectacular.
Alba roses (Rosa hybrid) are a small class of antique roses, dating back to the Roman Empire. Alba roses are the easiest to grow, even tolerating some dappled shade. They are very winter hardy, have good disease resistance and are deliciously fragrant. They are vigorous, growing 5 to 8 feet in one season. Their canes can be lanky. As their name implies, Albas are mostly white to very pale pink.
‘Fantin-Latour’ is an outstanding “cabbage rose” or centifolia. It captured the hearts of the Dutch Master painters, displaying large, light pink and heavily petaled blooms. Blooming in the spring on a hardy bush with few prickles, it emits a lovely fruity fragrance.
Centifolia roses (Rosa × centifolia) are closely related to the Damask roses, Intensely fragrant, but not nearly as old. They are thought to be the product of Dutch breeders in the 17th and early 18th century. Resembling peonies, these antique roses have about 100 petals. Much revered for their beauty, Centifolia roses were found in the paintings and art works of the Dutch Masters. Typically appearing in various shades of pink, the blooms tend to be heavy, globular or cup-shaped. Having a rather lanky growth, their canes will arch and flower heads may nod. A little support with a peony cage will help keep them off the ground, especially if it rains.
Moss roses (Rosa hybrid), not to be confused with the annual plant rose moss (Portulaca grandiflora), are thought to be mutations or sported Centifolia or Damask roses. They display a fuzzy growth (moss-like) on their sepals, calyx and a portion of the stems. The reason for the genetic mutations is a mystery. This fascinating characteristic was then crossed and bred into new varieties. A Moss rose in the garden is destined to become a conversation piece.
The original five
These five types are the original antique roses. They have some color limitations, with only a few yellow and no orange varieties. However, their calming array of pink colors and relaxed growth habit allows them to blend easily into most modern gardens. Some claim it is a disadvantage that most of these original antique roses only bloom once per season. They provide a lot of bloom all at once for three to four weeks in the spring, strutting a spectacular display. We don’t ask, nor expect more, from our rhododendrons or viburnums.
Beautiful antique roses used as a hedge give privacy, versatility and striking nostalgic charm.
My favorite antique roses
R. rugosa ‘Alba’
R. spinosissima ‘Altaica’
R. gallica officinalis ‘Apothecary’s Rose’ — blooms are a semi-double deep pink to fuchsia with a strong fragrance.
‘Celsiana’ — is a semi-double light pink with bright yellow stamens.
‘Madame Hardy’ — is a classic Damask, very double, pure white with a green button-eye center.
‘Madame Plantier’ — blooms are white, very double with a green eye. Resembling ‘Madame Hardy’ in color and center, except the flowers are smaller and tend to cluster.Moss roses
‘Salet’ — is one of the best Moss roses on the market. It is fully double, bright pink with strong fragrance and will repeat bloom. A sweet compact shrub that is suitable for smaller gardens.
Antique rose care
Antique roses are easy to grow. Some old garden roses have survived for years with complete neglect. However, the more you put into the rose plant, the more you can expect to get back. Antiques or modern roses all perform better in full sun (a minimum of six hours, with eight hours or more preferred). They love morning sun, but will do well in southern and western exposures. When picking a garden site, avoid nearby trees, shrubs or aggressive plants, whose roots may become invasive and compete with the rose for water and nutrients.
Antique roses can be planted in the early fall or spring. Whether bare-root or potted, the same principles apply. Preparing the garden beds in advance is recommended, but not required. Add a generous supply of organic matter, such as compost, well-rotted horse manure, shredded leaves or grass clippings. Almost any soil type will benefit from adding organic matter. Roses prefer well-drained soils. By preparing beds in the fall, the soil and added amendments have a chance to blend, while beneficial soil microbes have time to mature. Fall planting is perfectly acceptable and preferred by many rose growers. Plant early, about six weeks before the first frost, so the roots have ample time to get anchored. Provide a little extra winter mulch for protection.
Budded or grafted roses should be planted at the union, just below the surface of the soil. For an own-root potted rose, the rose should be carefully removed from the pot with as much root and soil intact as possible. The soil line of the potted rose should be even with the natural soil line of the garden bed.
Mulch after planting. A 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch is recommended. Mulch will help to suppress weeds, reduce the spread of fungal diseases and retain soil moisture. Organic mulches (such as hardwood fines, pine straw, compost or shredded bark) will break down over time, adding humus and nutrients to the soil.
Antique roses require minimal pruning. Most antique roses bloom on second-year growth. Thus, pruning should be done shortly after the spring bloom, otherwise you will cut off next year’s roses. Of course, dead or nonproductive stems can be removed anytime.
A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2016 edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Linda Kimmel, Teresa Byington, and Carol Tumbas.