The Origin Story: Old Garden Roses

What is an Old Garden Rose?

Historically, it is a rose being of a class in existence before the year 1867. Why 1867? It’s simple. This is the year a rose named “La France” was introduced. The line is completely arbitrary, when you think about it. But somehow, the label stuck. So now, every class of rose defined after 1867 is modern, and any rose belonging to an older class (even if the rose is quite new) is an old garden rose.

They are not as easy to find as modern roses in the big-box world, but many large nurseries will have a section for OGRs alone in their rose department. Don’t be afraid to ask their staff members for them by name.

Many rosarians who choose them love their romantic histories, and have read up on the characteristics of the lineage. And that’s part of the fun of the OGR culture – discovering their origin stories and dating many back to Josephine & Napoleon, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, & even the Chinese dynasties. It’s a lot like connecting the dots between history, botany, & geography while enjoying them in your own garden . . .

“LaFrance” Hybrid Tea

“La France” is considered to be the first Hybrid Tea. It is the offspring of the Hybrid Perpetual “Madame Victor Verdier” with the Tea rose “Madame Bravy”from the hybridizer Guillot.

What marked “La France” as being different from other roses was the high-centered blossom we associate with the modern Hybrid Teas of today.

‘Hybrid Tea’ = Hybrid Perpetual + Tea rose.

Classes of OGRs

OGRs – Pre China Influence

Gallica – This ancient class of roses was so dominant in Europe in the middle ages, there were literally hundreds of cultivars. Many of them were used as natural medicines in the monasteries, and several retain their names: The ‘Apothocary Rose’ ( rosa gallica officinalis ) & ‘Rosa Mundi’ ( rosa gallica vericolor .) Treasured for their close-to-red colors & strong sweet scents, breeding focused on high petal counts, deep shades of pink and purple, and novelty traits like stripes and mottling on a 3-4 ft shrub.

Damask – These hold a special place in rose folklore, since they are the roses of rose petals & perfume culture since the Roman poet Virgil described the ‘Autumn Damask’ rose. They grow as an upright 6-8 ft once-blooming shrub with large flowers so filled with scent that in the morning they weigh more than the afternoon due to evaporation.

Centifolia – These are the large, globular roses of the famous Dutch painters that are complex hybrids of OGRs created by the Dutch growers of the 1600s who created the entire field of hybridizing. They are once-bloomers with colors that range from white to dark pink, & a complex sweet scent. The flowers have delicate petals overlapping to form large blooms that finish a long drooping cane on a 6-7 ft tall bush.

Moss – These are classed from one or more mutations seen as thickly growing or branched resin-bearing hairs, particularly from centifolia.  Some that have Damask roses as a parent may come from a separate mutation.

Portland (or Damask Perpetuals) – The first repeat-flowering class of rose with fancy European-style blossoms, these plants tend to be fairly short and shrubby, with a suckering habit, with proportionately short flower stalks. The main flowering is in the summer, but flowers continue into the autumn.

Alba – One of the ancient roses growing in tall, scented, & arching shrubs that bloom only in the Spring for 3-4 weeks. Unlike the Gallicas, they are not as susceptible to foliar diseases, like blackspot.

Rambler – This shrubby class is usually distinguished from true climbers in two ways: a larger overall size (20–30 feet tall is common) and a once-blooming habit. Rambling roses are not true vines such as ivy,  clematis, or wisteria because they don’t cling to any support on their own. Instead, they’re tied to a structure, like an arbor, shed, or pergola.

OGRs – Post China Influence

China – These were the ‘other half’ of historical roses and they came to Europe by way of the eastern spice trade routes. Once discovered, they became very popular with hybridizers due to their completely different characteristics: hardiness, seasonal reblooming, true red colors, & high-centered buds. Their contribution was immense & is in evidence in almost all modern roses – especially the hybrid teas. However, almost all hybrids used their European parents’ names, so the china lineage is hard to trace.

Hybrid Perpetual – The dominant class of roses in Victorian England, they emerged in 1838 as the first roses which successfully combined repeat blooming with the old European lineages. Hybrid perpetuals are something of a catch-all class derived to a great extent from the bourbons but with mixed with chinas, teas, damasks, gallicas, and to a lesser extent noisettes, albas, and even centifolias.

Noisette – The first Noisette rose was raised as a hybrid seedling by a South Carolina rice planter named John Champneys before they appeared in France & were hybridized. Noisettes are small-blossomed, fairly winter-hardy climbers with colors from white to pink that remain popular in the southern U.S.

Bourbon – The largest & oldest of the china hybrids that originated on the island of Bourbon (now called Reunion), east of Madagascar from the natural crosses of island hedges: Damask, & China.

Tea – The original tea roses that were named for their fragrance being reminiscent of Chinese black tea. They are repeat-flowering roses, with a color range of white, pink, yellow, & apricot. Due to its form, the Teas are the originators of today’s “classic” florists’ rose form.

“Tuscany Superb” Gallica OGR

Common Characteristics of an OGR

  1. Tough
    • For the most part, they are tough enough to face cold temperatures. This applies to albas, gallicas, centifolias, damasks, but not quite so much to the chinas and the china crosses (such as bourbons and noisettes).
  2. Scented
    • Many of the old European varieties (again, the albas, gallicas, centifolias, damasks) are strongly scented. Chinas tend to lack scent, but some of the intermediate classes are fragrant.
  3. Strong
    • Most of these shrubs are strong enough to grow on their own roots. I view this to be a good thing, however, some of the best rose gardens in the world choose to grow them grafted instead. That’s because some of these roses, notably gallicas, will naturally sucker and form thickets instead of tidy shrubs.
  4. Once-Blooming
    • Like the species roses, many of the old garden roses will bloom once, often in great abundance, and then set to work on developing hips and hardening off for winter. Blooms are often many-petaled, and globular, cupped or quartered in form.
  5. Durable
    • Aside from newly bred roses in the old classes, most any old garden rose is now closing in on 150 years of growing in gardens. Many are much, much older. This means that their worthiness in the garden has been tested, and the fact that they are still grown & planted means that they’ve passed every test.
  6. Red/White Palette
    • Think pink, darker pink, almost red, purplish-pink, and white. There are exceptions, but pink and white are the basic palettes of the old garden roses.
  7. Stand-Alone
    • Aside from the hybrid perpetuals, OGRs would seem out of place as bedding plants. My personal opinion is that modern roses look a bit weird in a dedicated bed as well, but at least they’re bred for it. Old garden roses are, for the most part, too large or too “shrubby” to be forced into that mold. I treat them like I would treat Pampas Grass in other parts of the landscape.

Disease Resistance

There are articles I’ve read in a few places on the internet that old garden roses are less prone to disease. Now, there are some modern roses that have serious susceptibility problems, but OGRs are far from immune to blackspot and powdery mildew in community gardens.

I’ve personally seen hybrid perpetuals that show mildew & blackspot nearly every year. However, there are also some very tough old garden roses that seem bulletproof to these fungal diseases too.

What I can say is that they all seem to tolerate their problems well, and once well-established, a little bit of leaf spot doesn’t slow them down much.

It’s really just hit and miss.

“Rosa Mundi” Gallica OGR

Try one – but in the right place

If only for the sake of interest, anyone who grows roses should try a few old garden roses – but in places where they’ll have room & time to grow & let their scent wander.

And for those who are just getting into gardening, or just considering their first rose to plant, don’t be so quick to choose 6 “bargain” modern roses at one of the big box stores – talk to your local rose society first.

Roses – especially OGRs, have an amazing history in gardens. Consider choosing something bold & grand – and with a bit of a story to tell.

‘Rose De Rescht’ Damask OGR

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