The old rose is a living testament to history and to man’s quest for beauty. The term, “old rose” means a rose with ancient ancestors, one that has not been hybridized but has been vegetatively propagated—passed down through history by obtaining “cuttings” from the plant. Which means that an old rose you purchase and plant today might have been from an original cutting from the garden of a Chinese emperor; from Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison, perhaps given to her by her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, brought back from one of his many trips while attempting to conquer the world; or maybe it’s from that slip of a rose that was carried West by an American pioneer woman. Whatever its origination, it has more than likely touched many hands and been lovingly tended by many rose lovers throughout history. Unlike a painting or a piece of furniture, old roses are ties with the events of human-history, which makes them the ultimate antique.
Modern hybrid roses have been developed over the years primarily for their striking colors—often bolder than old roses—and long bud forms. Along the way they lost some of the rose’s most appealing characteristics, still found today in old roses—the unforgettable “true rose” fragrance, the classic bush form, and the ease of maintenance.
Long before the extensive hybridization of roses in an attempt to develop “showy blossoms” and “extended-season blooms,” old roses have survived in gardens throughout history without heavy fertilizing, spraying and hours of attention from the gardener. In fact, many have been found in old cemeteries and abandoned homesites, still thriving, seemingly without care from human hands.
Growing Old Roses
A bewildering amount of advice has been given about growing roses, but roses are not difficult to grow—especially old—or antique—roses. Too much perplexing advice takes the pleasure out of anything. And that’s what roses bring to mind—pleasure. The sensuous beauty, the captivating aroma—and with antique roses, the sense of maintaining that chain of human history, of knowing that others in the past once grew this very same rose that you are planting today. To grow these roses, just remember the basics of life. Like most living things old roses need food, water, sun and shelter. And it’s always advantageous if you throw in a huge amount of love.
Antique roses can do well if left on their own with little care, but they’ll thrive if they’re planted in a good location with good soil. The soil should be rich and well-drained. Add organic material, such as compost, dried leaves or pine bark to the hole before planting. This will enrich a sandy soil and help to break up a heavy or clay soil so that it will have better drainage.
The best place to plant roses is in an open area that gets at least six hours of direct sun a day. Roses don’t like tight quarters; allow plenty of room around them to promote good air circulation. This will help to keep down black spot and powdery mildew. Note that old roses are disease resistant, but rarely completely disease free. The good news is that none of the fungus diseases will really affect them adversely. They will usually shed any infected leaves and continue to grow and bloom with vigor.
Aphids, thrips and other insects will rarely severely affect a healthy rosebush, but they could damage the tender new growth and buds. You can find mild, safe products in the garden marketplaces to control infestations, should they occur. Also, ladybugs, praying mantises and other beneficial insects can be purchased and set lose to patrol your garden and pursue these pests.
Old roses will be a delight to grow in your yard. They are available as climbing roses, roses in containers, rose hedges, and specimen roses. Listed below are a few mail-order companies that specialize in antiques roses.