The admirers of Old Roses are legion, and I count myself happily among them. A close up look at my first bunch of cut blooms shows just why so many gardeners are devoted to their charms. (Gallica rose Empress Josephine on the left, Bourbon rose Louise Odier on the right.)
Historic roses (known as Old Roses) were once the preserve of the slightly eccentric enthusiast, but times have changed and this is no longer the case. Thanks to the excellent catalogues of Peter Beales and David Austin, these roses are readily available to all, and have become as deservedly popular today as their early supporters would have devoutly wished for. I can well remember, over twenty years ago, coming across my first Austin catalogue of roses, by accident, and being immediately hooked.
These are the original roses bred from the wild species roses that have been cultivated for thousands of years, and were grown all over England in profusion over the centuries, often surviving neglect and difficult conditions with their elegance and beauty undimmed. They fell from favour when the modern repeat-flowering roses began to appear at the end of the 19th century, but when people began to tire of serried ranks of bright ‘bedding roses’, many gardeners began to advocate a return to the older forms, always beloved of both the stately home and the humble cottage garden alike.
The famous supporters of the Old Roses have been numerous – most famously Vita Sackville-West, and Graham Stuart-Thomas (whose early interest in the genus, incidentally, was sparked during his early working life at my local, and very well-loved, Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.)
Their outstanding qualities include long-lived vigour; knock-out perfume; perfection of flower formation; elegance of form of growth; (making large well-shaped airy shrubs); and subtlety of flower colour, mingling well with other gentle perennials such as nepeta, aquilegia and hardy geraniums. Most have their big moment in June, after which they don’t flower again (but some exceptions do). This is sometimes levelled as a criticism, but I don’t have a problem with this. Like strawberries or asparagus in June – we must appreciate that these are the moments to cherish for this particular plant, and then we must look forward to awaiting their return another year. There is no necessity to be sated all year round, when you can have perfection for a limited amount of time.
They also have great romance, which is only truly aquired with antiquity. Who could fail to be moved by such glorious names as Belle de Crecy, Cardinal de Richelieu and Maiden’s Blush? All this is a world away from the stiff propriety and harsh, plastic colours of many modern hybrid- tea roses.
For many years, when I first became a gardener, I obsessed about Old Roses to the detriment of many other summer flowers, whereas now I feel I enjoy all the different seasons for all the many plant highlights rather than pining away just waiting for one month of roses! Old Roses therefore have been relegated to my allotment, where seven bare-rooted bushes were planted in December 2010. This is the very best way to establish roses in the coldest winter month, when they are dormant.
Ironically, these seven are now doing so much better fending for themselves in the semi-wild conditions at the allotment, than they ever were in my previous gardens, where I think they were over pampered! This just goes to show their tough wild origins – they are true survivors – weathering war, neglect, pestilence and dereliction to come down to us through the centuries to bewitch us as surely as the very first rose lovers.