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History of the Rose

The rose is undoubtedly the worlds favourite flower and is probably grown in every country that the climate allows. Roses have a long and colourful history, and according to fossil evidence the rose could be 35 million years old. Today there are well over 30,000 varieties of roses world wide and they have quite a complicated but interesting family tree.

There are so many types of roses that the choice can often be bewildering. In the UK the most commonly grown are the Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Miniatures, and Dwarfs. (The smaller roses are now often all commonly known as Patio Roses.) There are Climbers, Ramblers, Patio Climbers, Shrub Roses, Modern Shrub Roses, Old Fashioned Shrub Roses, English Roses etc. The choice is huge and the novice rose enthusiast can find it all most confusing. By understanding a little of the history of the rose it should help you choose the most suitable rose for you. Most roses today derive from about 100 species of rose, few of which are grown today. Most of our modern garden roses are hybrids but there are still a few species roses in cultivation.


The banksia rose (R.banksiae) is probably the best known, this Chinese native has a brief spring flowering season but is quite spectacular in full bloom. It is a near thornless climber that can grow up to 10mx10m and the most common being, var. lutea (yellow) and var. Banksiae (white). Others widely grown are Rosa Rugosa and Rosa Chinensis Mutablis which is an attractive two tone pink and yellow variety. Also still quite popular is Rosa Multiflora Platyphylia which is probably an old Chinese variety introduced in 1816 and also known as the 'Seven Sisters Rose' Many of the old species roses are still grown for their red or orange hips which are used for medicinal purposes even today.


R.banksia lutea


R.chinensis mutablis

Early Hybrids

Wild roses were used in the production of rosewater, scented oils and other fragrances long before they were cultivated. Many uses can be traced back to Iraq in 2000 BC. Deliberate cultivation of roses was well under way in China by 500 BC and undoubtedly the Romans and other early European civilisations also grew large quantities for commercial use. Some Roman emperors filled their swimming baths and fountains with rosewater, and sat on carpets of rose petals for their feasts and orgies. Roses were used as confetti for celebrations, for medical purposes, and as a source of perfume. One Roman emperor used to enjoy showering his guests with rose petals which tumbled down from the ceiling during festivities.

Roses became synonymous with the worst excesses of the Roman Empire when the peasants were reduced to growing roses instead of food in order to satisfy the demands of their rulers. Early European roses were probably forms of R.gallica, a native of Europe found from France to the Caucasus. Gallicas are compact roses with fragrant flowers that occur in a variety of shades from white to pink to red and in single and double flowered forms. The exact geographical origin of R.gallica is unknown, but there are references to it by the Persians in the 12th century BC where they regarded it as a symbol of love and commitment.

Among the first and still widely grown is 'Oficinalis' a pink semi-double introduced into France from the Middle East by 13th century crusaders. Also known as 'The Apothecary's Rose and 'The Red Rose Of Lancaster' 'Versicolor' or Rosa Mundi is a pink and white flowered sport of 'Officinalis' that dates from around 1580. 'Charles de Mills', a deep red double with distinctive flat. Circular flowers is typical of the gallica style and among the most popular. The damask roses (R.gallica x R, moschata and R.gallica x R. Phoenicea) and the bicolour form of R, kokanica known as the yellow rose of Asia are generally regarded as the ancestors of most of the European hybrids. The significance of the yellow rose of Asia lies in its colour there are no deep yellow roses native to Europe and the fact that it readily produces bicolour yellow and red forms.


Rosa Gallica Officinalis

There are two basic forms of damask rose: the summer damask (R.gallica x R. Phoenicea) which has a well defined spring and early summer flowering season, and the autumn damask (R.gallica x R.moschata), which continues blooming sporadically into the autumn. This recurring flowering habit was a feature lacking in many early roses.

The damask roses were extremely important because of their fragrance, a tendency to produce double flowers and because their flowering season extended into autumn. All are now the features we have come to expect in a garden rose but which were largely lacking in many early roses.

Kazanlik (aka Trigintipetala) was among the very first damasks (the name means thirty petalled). This large 2m rose has a superb perfume with loose mid pink double blooms, has long been grown for the production of attar of roses. Other damasks grown today include 'Ispahan', a fragrant, soft mid pink double raised before 1832 and 'Quatre Saisons' which is also pink and highly scented. Also 'Versicolour' or 'York and Lancaster has been in cultivation since around 1550 and is still popular today among serious rose collectors but needs plenty of TLC.


Quatre Saisons

Rosa Alba a rose of uncertain origin that may have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. The rose is thought to be the White Rose of York of Wars of the Roses fame and was crossed with existing gallicas and damasks to produce hybrids with very scented flowers-the alba roses.

The Centifolia (one hundred petalled) or cabbage roses date from around 1550. Although once regarded as forms of a species, they are now thought most likely to be hybrids between the autumn damask and an alba. Centifolias are usually compact bushes with heavy double flowers which often droop under there own weight. The colours varied from white to deep rose red plus striped and spotted varieties. They were much featured in the paintings of the Dutch masters and came to be known as "The rose of the painters" 'Cristata' ('Chapeau de Napoleon' or 'Crested Moss') is one of the most popular centifolias.

It has fragrant, mid pink, double flowers, the buds of which are covered in fine tubercles or filaments known as moss. Mosses are natural mutations which first occurred on Damask and Centifolia roses. They were very fashionable in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when several hundred forms were raised. Many are still grown today such as the deep red flowered 'Nuits de Young' and the beautiful creamy white flushed pink 'Alfred de Dalmas' both available from specialist rose nurseries.


Alfred de Dalmas

Next: Arrival of the China Rose

The Arrival Of The China Rose

Development of the damask roses and their close relatives continued slowly. Unfortunately the roses such as the Portland roses, were destined to be overshadowed by major developments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that resulted from new material obtained from China.

Perpetual flowering semi-dwarf bushes were cultivated in China well before that start of European rose breeding. The parent of many of these , R.chinenis, was introduced around 1752, followed by some hybrids in 1792. According to Graham Stuart Thomas' China roses are the class upon which modern roses are built. Tradition holds that four or five 'stud China' roses were brought to Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and this brought about the creation of the first classes of repeat flowering Old Garden Roses and later the Modern Garden Roses. China roses as these early hybrids are known, are still available.

Among the most popular are 'Old Blush' a fragrant rose with silvery pink blooms was among the first introductions and is also available as a climber. The most widely grown China rose is probably 'Mutablis' an interesting rose as the flowers change from yellow to red as the season progresses. Another China rose that has stood the test of time is 'Cecile Brunner often known as 'The Sweetheart Rose' and 'The Maltese Rose'.

A very pretty free flowering rose with small delicate soft pink blooms which are ideal for button holes. This is also still available as a climber. Bourbon roses originated around 1817 from a chance natural hybridising between R.chinensis and an autumn damask on a French island now known as Reunion-an island between Madagascar and Mauritius. Seed of the original plant was sent to France and crossed with gallicas and damasks to produce the first bourbons. These roses, which are long blooming and strongly scented are still widely grown today. The most popular being, 'Mme Isaac Periere'.

A superb old rose with huge shaggy blooms of mauvy crimson and an intense perfume. 'Zephirine Drouhin' a climber with large cerise pink blooms . A very popular rose as it is one of the very few thornless roses. 'La Reine Victoria' A slender erect bush with beautiful lilac-pink blooms and a wonderful perfume.


Zephirine Drouhin


La Reine Victoria

Noisette roses were the first hybrid group to originate from the USA, Originating in the early 1800s from an 'Old Blush' x R. Moschata cross' they are strong growing bushes or climbers with clusters of small blooms in white or pastel shades of yellow or pink. Noisette climbers have recently become very popular again. Among the most popular are 'Mme Alfred Carriere' which has large white-blushed pink double flowers and a wonderful perfume. Grow this lovely old rose up your house wall and the perfume will penetrate into every room. A very useful rose as it will also grow on a North wall. 'Crepescule' A very attractive climber with superb double shapely blooms of a mixture of orange and apricot and a very pleasing fragrance.

Tea roses or tea-scented roses are another development of R.chinensis. These roses which flower in shades of white pink and yellow, are hybrids of R.gigantea x R.chinensis., a cross known as R.x odorata. They enjoyed a period of popularity around the 1830s, but the real significance of the tea rose to modern gardeners is that it was crossed with the other styles to produce the hybrid perpetual roses, which were the direct predecessors of the most popular modern roses the hybrid teas. Hybrid perpetuals were by far the most popular garden roses of the 19th century.

They were originally introduced in 1835 and were very popular for over 50 years. Quite a few are still grown but they are now something of a rarity. They often have very large, strongly scented flowers and variable sizes from compact plants to vigorous shrubs. A few that are still popular are. 'Baroness Rothschild' 'Ferdinand Pichard' 'Paul Neyron' and 'Reine des Violettes'. They have varying degrees of perfume and most will repeat flower.


Mme Alfred Carriere


Ferdinand Pichard

Next: Modern Roses

Modern Roses

Hybrid Teas

The hybrid perpetual roses were strong, healthy plants that made the tea roses appear rather week and spindly, but tea roses had beautifully shaped buds and flowers in shades of soft yellow that were not available in the hybrid perpetual. It was an obvious move to cross the two and in 1867 the first hybrid tea 'La France' appeared. A highly scented rose with soft pink blooms which took the rose world by storm and is still available today from specialist nurseries.


La France 1867

La France was followed by further pinks and some pale yellows, but a lack of bright colours meant that hybrid teas did not appear to offer any great improvements over existing forms so they did not initially cause any great excitement. It was not until the bright yellow, double flowered Rosa foetida var. Persiana was introduced into the breeding programme by the French breeder Pernet Ducher that hybrid teas started to become the dominant roses. His first bright yellow, 'Soleil d Or' was exhibited in 1898 and is still available today. Unfortunately the early hybrid teas were rather tender for European gardens. This was remedied by the introduction of R.wichuraiana into the mix in the mid 1940s and most of our modern hardy hybrid teas date from after this period.

There are now hundreds of hybrid teas to choose from and most of them are very heavy flowering and have large blooms on long stems that are ideal for cutting. New hybrid teas arrive every year and the choice is now amazing with a wide array of colours and perfumes. Many of the new hybrid teas now have multiple blooms on one stem instead of the single blooms of years gone by.

'Peace' is probably the most famous of all the hybrid teas. It was developed by French horticulturist Francis Meilland in the years 1935 to 1939. It was named 'Peace' in 1945 as the second world war came to an end. Later that year 'Peace' roses were given to each of the delegations at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco each with a note which read "We hope the 'Peace' rose will influence men's thoughts for everlasting world peace"Peter Beales, rose grower and expert said in his book Roses.

'Peace', without a doubt is the finest Hybrid Tea ever raised and it will remain a standard variety forever" Awards. Golden Rose of the Hague 1965. World's Favourite Rose 1976.




Around the same time as the first hybrid teas were appearing, the polyanthas were introduced. These compact roses bear their small flowers in large clusters and were produced by crossing dwarf forms of R.multiflora with either a dwarf China or a small hybrid tea. Polyanthas have continued to be grown and new introductions appear occasionally. They were very successful but their flowers tended to be small and poorly formed. The logical step was to cross polyanthas with hybrid teas.

The first to do so were the Danish Poulsen company and they were an instant success. Floribunda (Latin for many flowering) roses are compact and heavy flowering with several blooms per stem. As cut flowers they cannot compete with the hybrid teas, but for sheer colour they are hard to beat. Again there are hundreds of varieties to choose from with almost every colour imaginable. Both floribundas and hybrid teas are now budded onto upright single stem stocks to produce Standards in a wide range of colours and form.

Climbers and Ramblers

Both climbers and ramblers are not true vines such as ivy or clematis, as they lack the ability to cling to supports on their own and need to be tied or trained to to cover walls or structures such as arches etc. Many old shrub roses and modern bush roses have climbing forms, whereby the canes of the plant grow much longer and more flexible than the normal bush forms. Most modern climbing roses will grow anywhere from 3m to 6m and most are repeat flowering. Rambling roses are distinguished from climbers in two ways. They have longer and more flexible canes and can reach up 10m or more.

The majority of ramblers are a once blooming habit in spring or early summer. They produce a wonderful show in early summer but the show is usually over in about a month. Over the last few years growers have introduced ramblers that repeat flower all summer and always seem to be in bloom. The flowers on ramblers are usually smaller than most climbing roses, and the repeat flowering varieties do not seem to reach the great heights of Kiftsgate or Paul's Himalayan Musk etc. However the new rose breeding programmes are now moving on at such a rate, it will not be many years before there will be repeat flowering ramblers with larger flowers that reach new heights.


Paul's Himalayan Musk



Other types of roses

Miniature roses can be traced back to the small China rose, R. Chinensis 'Minima', particularly the form 'Rouletti'. It is only recently that miniatures have become very popular as new colours and styles have been produced by crossing the old forms with some of the smaller floribundas.
Not all the miniatures are small bushes. They may have small flowers but many of them can now reach 60cm or more. Some forms are budded into vigorous rootstock to produce "patio roses". Others are budded onto tall stems to produce miniature standards and weeping standards.

Ground Cover roses

Ground Cover roses are becoming increasing popular and were produced from a wide range of breeding stock. They are great value roses in the garden as they are capable of covering a wide area and many have similar flowers and foliage to the miniature roses. The recent 'Flower Carpet' range are particularly useful with a wide spectrum of colours and reported to be completely disease resistant.

Next: Mixing old with new

Mixing the Old Roses with the New

For many years hybrid teas and floribundas were the most popular types of roses, but in recent years old roses are making a revival. What constitutes an 'Old Rose'? Strictly speaking old roses are those which were in cultivation before 1867 when La France (the first hybrid tea) was produced. No doubt the charm of old roses will always be there, and the nostalgia factor always plays a big part, but a new group of roses that look like old roses have undoubtedly re-kindled the interest in the old rose. The new group raised by David Austin in Shropshire and first introduced in 1961, are the result of crossing gallicas, damasks and centifolias among themselves, and with hybrid teas and floribundas.

The crosses have produced roses with the flower form and perfume of the old roses, with the added bonus of a repeat flowering habit throughout the season. David Austin has called his new group 'English Roses' and what a success they have been. They are now grown and sold around the world and have become an established and firm favourite with many rose enthusiasts. The group now contain over 100 varieties with a wide range of colours and perfumes. Every year he introduces a few more new varieties onto the market which are eagerly awaited by English Rose fans. Our own favourites are 'Graham Thomas' the best known of the group, and named after the late Mr Graham Thomas who was one of the most influential rosarians of our time. A big strong vigorous bush with masses of cupped shaped blooms of rich yellow which flower almost continually throughout the summer months and well into the autumn, and as with most of the group the perfume is delightful. 'Gertrude Jekyll' is another we have fallen in love with.

A tall upright bush with an abundance of rich pink blooms plus a lovely Old Rose fragrance. This lovely rose was named after Gertrude Jekyll the famous writer and garden designer and was voted the nation's favourite rose by BBC viewers in 2006. Although both roses are regarded as shrubs they can be also grown successfully as short climbers.


Graham Thomas


Gertrude Jekyll

The Future Of Roses

The popularity of roses dipped markedly in the 1950s and 60s and very few new roses were bred. The interest was rekindled in the 1980s and there has been a steady rise in the new roses launched each year. The popularity of the rose has reached an all time high in the last few years with dozens of new roses being bred. Breeders around the world have put all their efforts into improving the health of roses in recent years and seem to be winning the battle. Many of the new introductions are now stronger and healthier than ever before, and who knows, we may just see the end of the black spot problem in the next few years, plus the introduction of a 'Royal Blue Rose'.

The future is definitely looking rosy.

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