"The red rose whispers of passion, And the white rose breathes of love; Oh, the red rose is a falcon, And the white rose is a dove." - John Boyle O'Reilly
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 27, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Historically, the white rose has stood for purity. In Roman mythology, white roses grew where the tears of Venus fell when she was mourning her beloved Adonis. Another myth tells us that when Venus sprang forth from the sea, the seafoam that fell to the ground formed the white roses. White roses are often used in wedding bouquets for the same reason. They symbolize the purity of the couple's love and the innocence of the bride.
In this article in my 'Roses of Color' series, I will be looking at some white roses from the top 20 cultivars in each category in the American Rose Society'sHandbook for Selecting Roses 2008. Each one has a rating of 8.1 or better. These ratings are determined by member voting in various categories and do not mean that the rose will grow well under the conditions in your garden.
'Moondance' [Zary, 2007], in the photo at left and in the opening thumbnail, is a floribunda that was high on the list and also grows in my zone 6a garden. A classic floribunda, it has the pointed, ovoid buds of a hybrid tea and the clustered blooms of a shrub rose. The bush will get to a height of about 5', is hardy to zone 5 and has good disease resistance. It's moderate, raspberry scent is pleasant, but the big, 4", ivory porcelain blooms are the real show here. I wouldn't be without it.
Here is an older floribunda that no rose garden should be without. 'Iceberg' [Kordes, 1958] has withstood the test of time with good reason. It has a lovely fragrance, is very disease resistant, blooms all season long and is hardy to zone 4. Of course, I have it in my garden, and it doesn't 'brown', that is turn brown on the edges of the petals as it ages, as some white roses tend to do. It is a nice size bush, 3-5' tall at maturity and 2' wide. Covered with it's very double blooms it can be quite beautiful.
Included with the floribundas on the ARS list, polyanthas are an often overlooked category. 'Marie Pavié' [Alégatière, 1888] is one you should consider. 'Harkness Roses says this rose is one for the connoisseur, and a great favourite of the late Jack Harkness...'  It has a strong fragrance and is very disease resistant. This one will also take some shade for those of you who don't have a lot of sunny space in your gardens. And it is listed from zone 4b-10b. With very full, smallish (1.75") blooms on a bush only 2' wide by up to 4' high, there should be a place for this rose in almost any garden.
Another polyantha with a sweet little name, 'Lullaby' [Shepherd, 1953] is for those who like a full rose with packed petals. It has 75 petals in each 2" blossom. Like 'Marie Pavié', 'Lullaby' is shade tolerant. At a height of only 2.5', this one is a candidate for a pot. Hardy to zone 6.
Few white hybrid teas made the list. One is 'Pristine'® [Warriner, 1978]. It grows to about 4', is mildly fragrant, reblooms throughout the season and is very resistant to disease. As hybrid teas have a history of being prone to disease, the latter is a prized trait.
The outstanding white climber is 'Sombreuil' [unk, c. 1880]. I know it is a favorite on the Rose Forum here at Dave's Garden. The blossoms have an old-fashioned bloom form, large and very full, with 41 to 60 petals and a strong tea fragrance. It will reach a height of 8-13' by about 5' in width. 'Sombreuil' will tolerate some shade and is said to grow in zones 6b-9b.
The very best white shrub rose is a single with clusters of 3.5" blooms in flushes all season. 'Sally Holmes' [Holmes, 1976] "has a lovely fragrance... and with a little pruning will grow into a beautiful 6 foot shrub."  It is suitable to grow from zone 4-9.
I always enjoy talking about miniature roses. There are a handful on the ARS list, so I will have to share more than one. 'Gourmet Popcorn' [Desamero, 1986] is very popular. It forms a small shrub 18-28" high covered with small white 10-petaled blooms. A mild fragrance, good disease resistance and hardiness to zone 5b complete the little package.
The next mini is 'Irresistible' [Bennett, 1989]. This one is somewhat taller at 22-36" with much fuller blooms at about 45 petals (1.5" diameter). The fragrance is spicy. This little rose will grow in a wide span of climates, from zone 4-11.
This one is a mini, but it's not on the ARS list. I have 'Ivory Palace' [Moore, 1990] in my garden and it is a beautiful little rose. The blooms are exactly like a tiny hybrid tea, very double, with about 60 petals. The bush grows to about 15-18". Color is truly ivory and there is a mild, but sweet, fragrance. Listed as hardy to zone 6b and warmer, I have had it in my zone 6a garden for several years now with no problems, but it is in a protected spot. Forgive me for indulging myself, but I had to include this one.
Next are the OGR's (Old Garden Roses). 'White Rose of York' [Flobert/Pelletier, 1807] is an alba that goes by many other names, the most common being 'Semi-plena.' As many albas do, this one blooms only once in the spring, but has the added glory of beautiful red hips in the fall. Mature height can be from 6-9' with a width of 4-5', so leave plenty of room. The large semi-double blooms have a strong fragrance. Hardy zones 3b-9b.
Another alba, 'Great Maiden's Blush' [unknown, before 1400] is also a once-bloomer and a large bush, 8' tall by 5'. What is unusual is that it is almost thornless and also shade tolerant. The 3", double blooms (17-25 petals) are borne in clusters and are very fragrant. It is very resistant to disease and hardy in zones 3b-9b. There is a smaller version, 'Maiden's Blush', with all of the same characteristics as 'Great Maiden's Blush', but in a slightly more compact size, 5-6' in height. It may have originated at Kew Gardens in 1797. This is the one I have in my own garden.
A damask, 'Mme Hardy' [Hardy, 1832] blooms for about 3 weeks in early summer. The flowers appear, both in clusters and singly, profusely on the large (6' x 5') bush. This rose has done extremely well on tests for disease resistance. The double, cupped-form blossoms have a green button eye and a strong fragrance. Hardy zones 4b-9b.
'Stanwell Perpetual' [Lee, 1838] is a hybrid spinosissima. It is hardy to zone 4 and "The Swedish Rose Society recommends 'Stanwell Perpetual" for northern Sweden," so I expect that this is a tough rose. Blooms are fragrant, 3.25" and very full (41+ petals). Foliage is ferny with 9 leaflets and stems are very prickly. As the word "perpetual" in it's name indicates, it is repeat flowering, which is very unusual in it's class. Other characteristics: height 6-8', shade tolerant, disease resistant. I have two photos for this lovely rose.
I expect you are wondering why so many of the 'white' roses are pink. I have a lovely white hybrid rugosa in my garden, 'Polareis' [Rieksta, 1963] that is a perfect example. This spring the week it first bloomed was very warm and the blooms were pure white with maybe a hint of pink here and there on a few blossoms. It was much cooler with the next flush and the blooms were blushed with a glorious deep pink. Quick stats on 'Polareis', aka 'Ritausma', moderate fragrance, 2" double blooms, repeat bloomer, very disease resistant, hardy zones 3b-8b. The photos below are from that same plant this spring.
The last group is species, roses that have not been hybridized. I have two examples. 'R. rugosa alba' [unknown, 1784] is, obviously, a rugosa, which means that it will not need spraying. In fact, rugosas can be harmed by spraying. Also, you should not dead head (remove the spent blooms). So there are two annoying chores that aren't necessary with this rose. However, before you buy it you must be prepared for a very large (about 6' by 6'), bushy, thorny plant that will sucker on it's own roots. The suckers can be dug up and planted elsewhere or given away for new plants. If left in place, they will grow into a thicket that can be intimidating. That said, if you decide to buy the rose, you will get a single, five -petaled blossom with a wonderfully strong fragrance. This rose repeat-blooms occasionally during the season. Appropriate for those of you in zones 2b-8b. It produces gorgeous, large orange hips in the fall.
'R. spinosissima' [unknown, before 1781], aka 'Wild Irish Rose' or 'Scotch Rose', is also a large bush 5-6' high by 3-4' wide. It is shade tolerant, so you may find a spot for it out of the way, perhaps at the back of a large border. It is a spring-only bloomer, so you will want to provide other color around it for the remainder of the season. The 2.25" single blooms are white with a large circle of yellow stamens in the center. They can also blush pink with the weather conditions. Post-bloom you will be left with dark-red to black hips. Other desirable traits are a strong perfume, good disease resistance and hardiness from zone 3b-9b.
No rose lover should be without at least one of these pearls of pure poetry. They contrast and give richness to the other colors in the garden. If you have not yet found the one white rose that lifts your heart, there are many enticing cultivars available that might. Forget the ARS ratings and go exploring at PlantFiles, the huge plant database here at Dave's Garden, or try browsing through HelpMeFind - Roses where the sheer numbers of roses will boggle your mind.
Please note: much of the factual information in the article was taken from HelpMeFind - Roses, Botanica's Roses and Dave's Garden's PlantFiles.
Photo credits: with gratitude to the following talented DG photographers: bebop2 ('Mme Hardy'); Calif_Sue ('Sombreuil', 'Irresistible', 'Lullaby', 'Marie Pavié', 'Sally Holmes', 'Stanwell Perpetual' [pink]; earlymorn ('Gourmet Popcorn'); hortensia ('Great Maiden's Blush', 'Stanwell Perpetual' [white]); kell ('Pristine'); kniphofia ('R. spinosissima'); louisa ('White Rose of York'); rebecca ('R. rugosa alba'). The following were taken by the author and are from the author's garden ('Moondance' [including opening thumbnail], 'Iceberg', 'Ivory Palace', 'Maiden's Blush', 'Polareis' [white and pink].
 Opening poem, excerpt from "A White Rose" by John Boyle O'Reilly (1844-1890), PoetryArchive
I'm a 'dabble' gardener. Been gardening since I was a child. I will plant anything that will grow for me and some things that won't, indoors or out. Outdoors I have theme gardens: roses, butterfly/hummingbird, heathers/dwarf conifers, a rock garden (in progress) and a new English-style cottage garden with an herb garden at it's 'heart'. Indoors I try to concentrate on orchids, African violets, anything that will flower or has lots of color and unusual houseplants. I try to stay organic and keep chemicals to a bare minimum. My non-gardening interests include quilting, counted cross-stitch and watercolor painting. I am a proud grandma, recently celebrated my 40th anniversary and before my retirement I was a clinical systems analyst (computer geek) for 24 years.