Old Roses are Tough and Gorgeous
Cherry Parfait is the only hybrid tea rose that survives my -20F winters. That’s why I started planting old or antique roses.All photos by Doreen G. Howard
The only hybrid tea rose that will survive in my -20F winters is ‘Cherry Parfait’. It’s beautiful, but has no fragrance. What does survive and thrive are old or antique roses.
They’ve been around for thousands of years and are known for their intense perfumes.
What exactly is an old rose?
It’s one that was in existence prior to 1867, when the hybrid tea, La France, was bred. Most bloom only once a year, in late spring or early summer. A few are remondant, meaning they flower on old and new growth, resulting in flushes of roses during the growing season.
My favorite is Rosa gallica officinals, the oldest rose in existence. It’s also called the Apothecary’s Rose, because herbalists such as Benedictine monks and the fictitious Brother Cadfael concocted potions with it to cure everything from hangovers to the plague.
Rosa gallica officinals is the oldest rose in existence and the most fragrant in my opinion.
I treasure its heady perfume, the ultimate in rose essence. Rose oil is distilled from it commercially. I use the petals to make potpourri and rose tea, mixing dried buds and petals with oolong tea. Rosa gallica is a species rose; they have long stamens which are easily pollinated by insects. The rose sets seeds, drop them and new plants sprout. I always have plenty tiny plants to share with friends and neighbors.
Another species rose, Lady Banksia, is a vigorous pale yellow climber that seeds prolifically, too. That’s why Tombstone, Arizona has the world’s largest Lady Banksia, at 8,000 square feet. Intertwined plants grew during the last 130 years to form a gigantic plant with a huge brown trunk.
Lady Banksia is a vigorous climber that does well in warm climates. You can plant it in a micro-climate in colder areas.
A remondant rose I love is Souvenir de la Malmaison, grown in Josephine Bonaparte’s chateau garden in Malmaison, near Paris and beloved by Catherine the Great, who filled the Imperial Gardens at St. Petersburg with the pale pink voluptuous flowers with strong fragrance. It’s too tender (Zone 6-9) for my climate, but I’ve planted one near the east side of my house where the north wing of my family room protects it from frigid winter winds. It receives plenty of sunshine there, too.
Souvenir de la Malmaison is temperate climate rose that can be grown in the north with protection.
Green Rose (Rosa viridiflora) is also planted there, as it, too, is tender. The Green Rose is a love-it-or-hate flower. Blooms have no petals, only pronounced red-striped, green sepals that smell of black pepper when stroked. It’s a China rose from the 16th century.
The Green Rose has a spicy fragrance that smells like fresh black pepper.
Little or no fertilizer needed.
Take it easy on the fertilizer. Old roses like other heirloom plants don’t need large amounts of nutrients. They are used to taking what they need from uncultivated soils that are full of decomposed plant matter. Many gardeners find that organic fertilizers or slow-release foods are best for old roses. Feeding plants large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, found in commercial rose fertilizers, results in excessive amounts of foliage and few or no flowers.
Old roses that bloom only once a year will flower without any fertilizer. Only a small amount of nutrients are required to maintain healthy leaf color and cane growth. To gauge how much is needed, feed roses a little and watch what they do.
See the Almanac Rose Guide for more tips on rose care.