Ursula's Cambridge Garden

Freelance gardener, plantswoman and garden-designer writing from my small urban garden in a great city

Romantic Old Roses


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.








14 thoughts on “Romantic Old Roses

  1. Very much enjoyed reading your blogs and seeing the beautiful photos of your flowers and plants. Looking forward to reading more of your insights into the wonderful world of gardening.

  2. I came fairly late in my gardening career to an appreciation of roses. Right now I have two wild North American roses, Illinois Rose and Carolina rose. The Illinois rose just started blooming this year (its third summer). Carolina rose has been a disappointment and I’m gradually getting rid of it. I also have several shrub and climbing roses that I think qualify as old roses: Darlow’s Enigma, Sally Holmes, Cassie, and Westerland. My favorite so far is Sally Holmes: trusses of fragrant single cream flowers. It reblooms, so maybe it isn’t an old rose. Anyhow, I like your blog – enjoy.

  3. Oh, those roses are just gorgeous – I do wish I could grow them like that!

    Found you through Blotanical, BTW – hope you find it useful…

    • Hi there Kate – thank you, I’m glad you liked the roses. As I intimated in my article, I used to feel disappointed I couldn’t get roses like that myself – now they are thriving on neglect, I have them!! Ironic. I’ve only just found Blotanical to join, it’s all a new world of blogging to me at present, but getting the hang of it!

  4. Louise Odier is one of my favorite bourbon roses. I love your photo’s. Thanks for sharing your lovely garden.

    • Hello there – thanks for your kind comments. I haven’t grown Louise Odier before but it really is a very reliable and tough old rose and absolutely beautiful. Thank you for commenting – please visit again! Ursula

  5. I love Louise Odier ..its one of my favorite bourbon roses. Roses are a passion of mine. Thanks for the sharing your lovely garden.

  6. Ursula, This is a very reassuring post for those of us who are a bit intimidated by roses. I just discovered your blog at Blotanical, and I’m enjoying it very much.
    I do a monthly feature on my blog where I review and recommend newly discovered garden blogs that I think my readers would enjoy. I just wanted to let you know that your blog is one of three I am highlighting this month. My post reviewing the blogs just went up, and your blog will be featured on my sidebar throughout the month.

    • Dear Jean – thank you so much for your very kind words, and very complimentary review on your blog – I am thrilled! This is a very new world to me, but a very exciting one, especially having feedback and discussions with so many enthusiastic gardeners, it really is a whole new experience! I’m so pleased you like my blog and look foward to following yours aswell. I haven’t had a minute to post properly this week, but when I do I want to create a proper blogroll of all my favourite new sites, including yours. My administrative powers are being challenged with a new enviroment of the dashboard to master, but I’m getting there. Thank you again for your most valued support. Ursula

  7. Ursula,
    I read about your blog on Jean’s Garden and had to take a look! I lived outside of London for a couple of years and enjoy reading about English gardens great and small. I also love roses. You can see some of my David Austins on my blog, http://www.thedirtdiaries.com. Cheers! Lynn

  8. The old roses are one of my great loves, and I have written and agonised about mine over the years… problem is – our rainy season starts as the roses bloom, and often they are quite washed out. Yet still I persist, part of a very small minority in South Africa who actually bother with them… Wish you joy with yours as their season wanes… Jack

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s