What’s the Fascination with the Old Garden Roses?

By Rosalinda Morgan

A sepal, a petal, and a thorn

Upon a common summer’s morn-

A flash of Dew – A Bee or two –

A Breeze – a caper in the trees –

And I’m a Rose!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I’ve been growing roses since 1971 and joined the American Rose Society the following year when they were still in Columbus, Ohio. I started with five modern roses because that was the only thing I knew about roses. But as I began to love the history of anything and everything, I read about Old Garden Roses and began to explore its fascinating history. I started to plant some old garden roses after I moved to our third home in the ‘80s. I still had some modern roses in the garden because it seemed like everyone who visited my garden was looking for hybrid teas. But Old Garden Roses have a beauty all its own, heavenly fragrance, longevity, and fantastic history. Modern roses have their place in the garden, but nothing can surpass the unique beauty of old garden roses in their different forms and scents.

The history of the Rose is interwoven with the movements of civilization. Roses have been cultivated in many civilizations for thousands of years, prized for their beauty and perfume and medicinal and culinary virtues. It is a scientific fact that roses are among Earth’s earliest plant denizens. Fossil finds go back to the Tertiary, i.e., about twenty-five million years. Roses had long been resident when the upstart man came along. According to an early legend mentioned by St. Ambrose, the roses of paradise had no thorns. It was only when Eve sank her teeth into the forbidden fruit that they developed thorns. However, they were allowed to keep their scent and beauty to proclaim eternal salvation to mankind. The rose varieties of the Near East included the strongly scented double blooms, which constituted the ancient roses from which all varieties of rose obtainable today were derived. Herodotus, the much-traveled historian of antiquity, tells of flowering double rose bushes in the garden of King Midas of Thrace, the scent of which surpassed all roses known hitherto. He called them centifolia (i.e., hundred-petalled). The Far East is the homeland of perpetual-flowering roses. In India, China, and Japan, the cultivation of roses is known to date back millennia. The intense red Rosa chinensis, which continues flowering into the autumn, reached Europe directly only in the seventeenth century via the new trade routes and plant-hunters. Wild forms of the genus Rosa occur naturally only in the Northern hemisphere in Asia, North Africa, North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

There seems to be no limit in our appetite for the varietal proliferation of roses and the growers’ willingness to experiment, starting with the first ancient types – Rosa gallica (apothecary’s rose or red rose of Lancaster), Rosa damascena (damask rose), Rosa centifolia (cabbage rose), Rosa alba (white rose) and Rosa canina (dog rose). The rose has undergone too much and too frequent manipulation by human hand, and that the rose today is too far removed from that which nature intended.

With the onset of the twentieth century, blooms get larger and larger. The colors are more brilliant. The new roses lost their scent, their soul, and their mystery. The age of the tea roses dawned – the ‘parvenus’ among roses, as grower Wilhelm Kordes called them. Quantity and mass followed size as quality criteria. Roses became industrial products. Many an old rose variety was lost, surviving only in the watercolors of rose painters. But they came back. Their rebirth is associated with names such as Gertrude Jekyll and David Austin.

The wild rose of this world, Rosa canina, is considered a symbol of eternal life. The Sacred Rose harbors the memory of the mystic cinquefoils of the wild rose. In their original shape, they tallied with the age-old symbol of the pentagram, the five-pointed star, which Pythagorean philosophers venerated as a profoundly mystic symbol of healthy and understanding, and which is still considered a symbol of life. In medieval times, the pentagram was thought to ward off demons. Its five points symbolized the five wounds of Christ. Five was also associated with the Virgin Mary because the rose displayed five petals and stood for motherhood, fertility, rebirth, and eternal life. R. sericea is the only species with four petals.

Regardless of whether it’s the rambler of which a single stem can grow to cover a whole tree with flowers and clouds of fragrance, the rough dog rose, or the brilliant and ever-flowering Rosa gallica officinalis, the magic of Old Garden Roses seduces everyone. Old Garden Roses provide a scent that is still unrivaled. We still take the old varieties as standards for scent: the Damask, the Centifolia, and Alba are standards toward which modern roses aim to achieve. The Damask and the Cabbage Roses take first place in any scale of perfumes. Their vigor, hardiness, and freedom from disease put them well ahead of their modern descendants. Their longevity, in most cases, and tolerance of neglect are the best of their virtues. My Blush Noisette thrives in total neglect.

Many of the old varieties may be seen in cottage gardens, ignorant of the culture, or the pruning shears, thriving, apparently, upon neglect and often on the poorest of soils, often the only witness of habitation of which all traces are lost. These are all practical reasons. To them, we shall add, according to our several tastes, softness of coloring, associations with the past, and look of fitness in an old garden. In color, the most disputable subject of all gardening discourse, the Old Garden Roses are restrained and never garish. The curious purple-reds affected by some of the Gallicas are not for all tastes, but this particular color and its variations toward blue, as in Veilchenblau, is finding more admirers today. Of the rich crimsons of the Gallicas, the soft pinks of the Albas, there will be no two opinions, the one rich without harshness, the other delicate without feebleness.

Although the cultural history of man is reflected in the history of roses like no other plant, roses are never conquered. In every cultivated rose, there is a relic of untamable wildness that sometimes leads to the death of the cultivated rose. They have kept for millennia something of their mystery even from all those who would delve into their history. They rock gently with the current of things, teaching lessons of life and death. They stir the longing for happiness and love inside every person. They conjure up dreams. They are a passionate intimation, a challenge from the depths of the human soul. The queen of flowers, the Rose, is a paradox!

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