Heirloom or Old Garden Roses

Heirloom or Old Garden Roses

  • By Sue Martin
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  • April 2016-Vol.2 No.4
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When I first started to read about heirloom or “Old Garden Roses,” I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone thought they needed to improve such a beautiful plant. The heirlooms are described as hardy, disease-resistant, carefree, prolific shrubs that don’t require much tending. But the show-stopper is their wondrous fragrance, mentioned over and over again. They also offer a wide variety of forms ranging from shrubs to climbers to tall, arching plants up to 20 feet in height.

The Old Garden Rose is defined as any rose that existed before 1867. After that, the “modern” rose came into existence when the first hybrid tea rose — “La France” — was discovered growing in a garden. Today, about 80% of all roses grown are of the modern classes of this rose.  Just to put these rose groups in context, keep in mind that roses are divided into three main groups: Species (wild) and their hybrids, Old Garden Roses and Modern Roses. The purpose of this article is to familiarize readers with the different classes of Old Garden Roses so that you may be inspired to experiment in your garden.

So why did the modern hybrids largely usurp the position of heirloom roses in the landscape? Many, but not all, of the Old Garden Roses offer a single bloom period whereas modern roses, i.e. hybrid teas and floribundas, are repeat bloomers. The modern rose is also a prolific bloomer and offers lots of different colors and varieties. The hybrid tea is prized for the perfection of  its bloom. They have been bred for long stems,  which are especially suitable for cut flowers. Modern rose bushes offer a compact shape that is more labor intensive to maintain, but also better suited to smaller spaces or for large displays of numerous bushes.

But, if you love history, it is hard to resist an Old Garden Rose. Who wouldn’t want to grow a Gallica rose that dates from the time of the Greeks and Romans? Or a type of Noisette that was grown by Thomas Jefferson? Or a favorite Moss rose from the gardens of the Victorian era? It’s fun to think that the Centifolia or cabbage rose you enjoy was also prized by Marie Antoinette.

The care of heirloom roses does not differ from the care of modern roses, except that there may be less pruning required for some types of heirlooms and less need for chemical sprays. For a general discussion of roses and their care, please see an article written by Cleve Campbell, “Our National Flower —  the Rose,” that appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Garden Shed. In the March 2016 issue, Pat Chadwick wrote an article, “The Ornamental Garden in March,” in which she discusses how to plant bare root roses.

Old Garden Roses

This first group of Old Garden Roses contains five individual classes and all bloom only one time a year: Gallica, Alba, Damask, Centifolia, and Moss.

Gallicas are the oldest roses, grown by the Greeks and Romans and later bred by the Dutch and French. They have a great color range that includes striped blooms, and some are intensely fragrant. They are compact in size but they sucker profusely and spread by underground runners, which means they can fill in an area quickly. Their foliage is dark green and roughly textured.


GALLICA ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension

Albas date from before 100 A.D. They are richly perfumed and can thrive under difficult conditions, even partial shade. They have a tall, slender upright growth habit  with blooms of blush pink or white, and grey-green foliage. They are also disease-resistant.


ALBA ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Exension

Damasks are thousands of years old and it’s said they were brought to Europe from the Middle East by the Crusaders. Others say the Romans brought them to England, and yet a third view is that Henry VIII’s physician gave him a Damask rose as a present, around 1540. They are very thorny but so fragrant that they are used for making perfumes. Their blooms are white, pink or red and the bush has an arching habitat of up to 7 feet tall.


DAMASK ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension

Centifolia means “hundred petals” and is commonly referred to as a “cabbage rose” because of the size and shape of its blooms. Plants vary in size from 1 foot to 20 feet. They are very fragrant, very winter hardy, but not as disease-resistant as others. They do best in full sun. Colors range from white to deep purple.


CENTIFOLIA ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension

The Moss rose is the rose of Victorian England. They have developed a moss-like growth on the sepals and calyx that smells like pine and is the result of a “sport” — a naturally occurring genetic mutation. The moss roses are very disease-resistant and tolerant of neglect; some are even repeat bloomers.

The Moss

MOSS ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension


The second group of heirlooms contains six classes and all are repeat bloomers: Chinas, Bourbons, Hybrid Perpetuals, Noisettes, Portlands and Teas.


The original roses from this class were brought from China to Europe, where they were widely bred with other classes. The results were repeat-blooming plants that changed the Western world of roses. They are somewhat tender and may need protection in cold climates. They are fragrant and disease-resistant. The flowers are smaller and come in shades of pink, copper and red and have a sweet, fruity fragrance. The plant form ranges from dwarf bushes to vigorous climbers.

Chinas Photo

CHINA ROSE Photo: Amercian Rose Society


Named for the European royal house of French origin, these roses tend to have large flowers and are richly scented with rose perfume. The flowers are often three to a cluster. Growth habit is rather leggy though some may have a chunky shrub form.


BOURBON ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension


Portlands were popular in the mid-1800s. They have a mixed heritage of China, Damask and Gallica roses. The flowers are multi-petaled, very fragrant, and usually pink with light green foliage. The shrub is small in size, usually less than 12 inches, and their blooms are petite, making them ideal for small gardens or containers.


PORTLAND ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension

Hybrid Perpetuals

This rose is the pre-20th-century equivalent of the hybrid tea. They have large, double flowers that come in pink, purple, red and sometimes white. They have a strong delicious. fragrance and a stately, upright arching growth.

Hybrid Perpetuals

HYBRID PERPETUAL ROSE Photo: University of Illinois Extension


Noisettes originated in Charleston, South Carolina, at the plantation of John Champney and are the first roses bred in America prior to the hybrid tea. They are also important for introducing the colors of orange and yellow. Their ancestry includes the China rose. They are tall. bushy plants best treated as climbers with support. They are tolerant of clay soils, are fragrant, and somewhat tender to Zone 7.

Noisette rose

NOISETTE ROSE Photo: University of Illionois Extension


These roses are similar in history and cultivation to the Chinas. They are a cross between a Rosa chinensis and Rosa gigantea. Roses in this class tend to form chunky, V-shaped shrubs and are well covered with foliage and flowers, most of which are pastel or some shade of red. Tea roses often have only five petals. This rose is uniquely scented with a perfume that reminds some people of tea. If pruned severely, the plant may sulk for a season and produce only a few blooms. This rose will grow slowly at first, but after two or three years,  it will increase in size. It’s disease-resistant but tender to Zone 8.

tea rose

TEA ROSE  Photo:  American Rose Society


Once you decide to incorporate a bit of history and fragrance into your garden by planting an heirloom rose, where do you start? I would suggest visiting one of the specialty gardens in our area to see and smell these roses in a natural setting. Many of these gardens also sell roses that they propagate.

We are incredibly fortunate to have in our backyard the Léonie Bell Rose Garden at Monticello.   The Bell Garden was designed to tell the story of rose breeding and development that ensued from the first American rose hybrid, the Noisette. The garden was made possible by an endowment from Louis Bell in honor of his wife, Léonie Bell, a noted botanical illustrator who became the center of the American rose rustling movement from the late 1960s through the 1980s. (Rose rustlers search old cemeteries, abandoned gardens and other “wild” areas in search of Old Garden Roses, from which they can take a slip and then restore a piece of history in their own gardens.) The garden is reflective of 18th- and 19th-century Rosary Gardens which were planted generally in a circular design. The Bell Garden, however, is designed in an octagonal shape in homage to one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite architectural forms. In addition to the historical ‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ and ‘Blush Noisette’, the garden includes many one-of-a-kind selections with fascinating histories, including the ‘Aunt Louisa Rose’ from the garden of President Garfield’s aunt and ‘Faded Pink Monthly,’ rooted from a slip by a slave before the Civil War. According to Lily Fox-Brugière, who is Garden and Outreach Coordinator with the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants,  Thomas Jefferson also grew roses at Monticello, as evidenced by an order for ten roses from William Prince Nursery in 1791. The order included a China rose, a Moss rose and a Scotch Briar rose. When I asked Lily to recommend some favorite heirlooms, she proposed ‘Old Blush China,’ ‘Scotch Briar’ and ‘Cecile Brunner.’ I could tell it was hard to narrow down the choices! Rose slips are available for purchase at the Monticello Gift Shop at the Visitors Center as well as at Tufton Farms. Monticello will also host the Wine and Roses Open House on May 28. Visit the Leonie Bell Garden website for more information.

A second nearby garden that features Old Garden Roses is the Gravegarden at Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg. The peak of bloom is in May, but visitors to the Confederate Section of the cemetery will find continuous scattered bloom throughout the summer until late fall frosts. The Antique Rose collection was planted in 1986 along the 500-foot remains of the old brick wall from the 1860s. The 60 varieties chosen are representative of rose history from before 1581 through the 19th century, and include the full range of classes and colors exhibited by these ancestors of modern-day roses. The plants were gathered from all over the United States and Canada, as well as from local gardens. Karen Bracco, Public Relations and Visitor Service Manager at the garden, describes the appeal of the heirlooms as “not being as fussy as the moderns and not requiring as much fussing.” Please see the Gravegarden website for a chronological listing of their roses as well as upcoming events, including the Mother’s Day Festival. Root slips are also available for purchase.

A third garden in our area is part of the Ben Lomond Historic Site in Manassas. The rose garden behind the house contains one of the largest collections of Old Garden Roses in the DC Metro area, including 200 bushes of 160 antique cultivars planted in a geometric design. This garden is significantly larger than and different from the garden that was present during the antebellum period. The garden contains many cultivars of Old Garden Roses, many of which could have been there during the antebellum period. Many of the cultivars in the garden today have been in cultivation for centuries. The garden’s main season of bloom is in late spring with some blooming throughout the summer and a second flush in the fall. Companion perennials, annuals, and bulbs ensure that the garden is in bloom all season. For visiting information see the Ben Lomond Historic Site.

In summary, I’ll leave you with a simple quote from Jeri Jennings of Heritage Roses, “The right rose in the right garden can make your heart sing.” Happy rose hunting!



“Old Garden Roses.” Oregon State University Extension, (http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/node/147).

“Roses,” University of Kentucky Extension,  (www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/id/id118/id118.pdf).

“Different Kinds of Roses.” University of Illinois Extension (http://m.extension.illinois.edu/roses/kinds.cfm).

Haynes, Jerry. “History of Roses: Damask Roses.” American Rose Society http://www.rose.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/History-of-Roses-Damask.pdf

Jennings, Jeri. “How My Garden Grows.” The Heritage Roses Group www.theheritagerosesgroup.org/articles/garden-grows-ars-2011.pdf

“Léonie Bell Rose Garden at Tufton Farm.” Monticello https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/l%C3%A9onie-bell-rose-garden-tufton-farm

Whitacre, Benjamin, “The Lioness, the Musk, and Monticello’s Bell Garden.” Monticello https://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/lioness-musk-and-monticello%E2%80%99s-bell-garden

Ben Lomond Historic Site & Old Rose Garden. Commonwealth of Virginia http://www.virginia.org/listings/HistoricSites/BenLomondHistoricSiteOldRoseGarden/

Gravegarden, Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg, Va., http://www.gravegarden.com/




      1. Susan Martin

        Thanks so much for your response to our article on heirloom roses. We would certainly enjoy seeing your super rose bush. Unfortunately, our software doesn’t allow photos to be published with comments. But thank you for offering to share!

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