I fell in love early on with roses, particularly older varieties that have been neglected for decades, but which have been making a comeback in recent years. There is some confusion related to the term ‘old garden roses (OGR)’ – technically they are roses raised before 1867, when the first Hybrid Tea, ‘La France’, was introduced but ‘La France’ was just another rose introduced to commerce at that time – it was not until some years later the term Hybrid Tea was coined to describe this class of roses that are, for the most part, hybrids of the Chinese ‘Tea’ roses and the ‘Hybrid Perpetuals’ that had reigned supreme in old gardens before the creation of Hybrid Teas. They can also contain the blood of various other classes. Seismic shifts in society are often not noted except in retrospect.
Many ‘old’ or ‘antique’ roses were raised in the decades that followed the introduction of the Hybrid Tea class – roses that aren’t, technically ‘old garden roses’ but which, to my mind, belong in the same group as their manner of growth and flower form and colouring are very similar. The once-blooming European roses that preceded the introduction of reblooming Asian roses are the true ‘OGRs’, but so too are these reblooming Asiatics as well as the hybrids between them, prior to 1867. For that matter, if you were to cross an OGR with an OGR today, the result would be an OGR raised in 2011. Confusion enough?
The only drawback to growing these old roses (apart from the once-blooming character of many of them) would be that many, perhaps most, can reach a substantial size which can make them difficult to fit into the more modest dimensions of our modern urban gardens. The answer to that may be to grow only a few – they are too beautiful (and fragrant) to eschew completely. On the plus side, the shrub form of these roses possess a grace that is entirely missing from the Hybrid Tea and Floribunda classes that we are so familiar with – in dormancy, these two classes ore often referred to as ‘sticks’, a reference that would never be applied to the grand old ladies of the garden.
An excellent website for these old roses is http://paulbarden.blogspot.com/ (Paul Barden – see also http://www.paulbardenroses.com/main.html) where you can check out the various families of old roses. The Hybrid Musks would look particularly good in a middling to larger garden and they rebloom – the old Hybrid Perpetuals (more vibrant colours) would also fit well and nobody seems to be growing them any more – they were usually left to arch over until they approached the ground and were then tied down, or ‘pegged’, causing them to bloom all along the stem (sometimes gardeners fastened weights to the canes to cause them to reach down to the ground). They get very large but if you have the room to let them grow they would match very well the scale of the larger garden.
The Albas are quite aggressive and can manage to grow in woodlands and can take a fair bit of shade – they bloom only once, unlike the other two, but are spectacular. I grow one, ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’, which can be very beautiful in its 5 or 6 week period of bloom. The French call it Cuisse de Nymphe émue, or Thigh of the Aroused Nymph, with quaint French panache; the French, incidentally hold the honour of being the raisers sans pareil of these old roses. I have it growing up against a fence which crowds it somewhat – allowed to sprawl any way it likes (with very little pruning) it is beautiful. They usually have a blue-green foliage that is very attractive when out of bloom. These are presumed to be spontaneous hybrids of escaped Damasks and the native European ‘Dog Rose’ (Rosa Canina). Various other possible natural hybrid combinations have been suggested so your guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.
The Damasks are also ancient shrubs and are the main class for extracting attar of roses (mostly in Bulgaria) to make perfume, and would likely perfume your garden for weeks and for many yards around – they too are once blooming (with one delightful exception – the Autumn Damask, or Quatre Saisons).
Another once blooming family, very old European roses, are the Gallicas – they come in much more vibrant colours with flowers of amazing grace and usually sucker to enlarge the shrub over time. The Noisettes make supremely beautiful climbers, requiring a bit of a warmer spot and they rebloom. Think about planting roses to climb up into your trees – very beautiful after a few years. The ‘Ramblers’ are very good for this, mostly once blooming, and will also handsomely cover a fence or wall.
The Rugosas are very tough plants from northern Japan, China/Korea and Siberia that have attractive pleated foliage, rebloom all summer and have a very strong fragrance – I grow 2 or 3 and they are perhaps the easiest roses to grow on the planet – they will grow right up onto the beaches, salt-spray and all, of their home range (they will drop their leaves if sprayed – but will recover fairly quickly. There is really no need to spray any of these old roses, an important consideration in this day and age).
Most of these old roses require very little pruning and are healthy and easy to care for. The ones that are once blooming put on a fabulous show, unequalled by reblooming roses, and aren’t around long enough to become boring. Many others rebloom and, aside from the Gallicas, are often of soft colouring that would go well with a natural woodland environment. Once you try growing some of these older roses you will never feel tempted to return to Hybrid Teas or Floribundas. The website above (http://www.rdrop.com/~paul/main.html) is very good for sorting out the differences between the classes of old roses – another good site for finding any type of rose is http://www.helpmefind.com/rose/index.php.