But there is a variety of old rose that meets most of this these requirements, and it seems familiar because one particular Bourbon rose, 'Zephirine Drouhin', is widely available and very popular. So let’s have a look at the Bourbon Rose.
What are bourbon roses? First, an alert – they do get some blackspot and mildew, although I prevent this with sulphur sprays, which are organic, once a month. But, unlike a lot of roses, they laugh off blackspot (which they do get) and bloom from springtime or until a sharp frost. And, as a bonus, some of them are thornless, making them a pleasure to handle. They also have gorgeous flowers and an intense and pleasant fragrance. They are so stunning that a neighbor of mine, who has a hedge of red Knockouts, referred to one of my bourbons as “a pink explosion” and asked where he could purchase one.
Another alert. They are supposedly only hardy to zone 6. However, I am in zone 5a and have been growing them for 15 years. I did this at the advice of a rosarian who told me to disregard the hardiness ratings and go for it. And he was right!
Bourbon roses originated on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius, back when Réunion Island was referred to as Ile Bourbon. They have a complex ancestry that may include damask (once blooming and cold tolerant) and China roses (reblooming but tender – at least zone 7). They were a smash from about 1830 to 1850 in their colors ranging from red to pink to white. A few were introduced later (I will show you pictures of two of them). I am avoiding the really fussy ones and focusing on just a couple that are, to me, indispensable in my garden.
'Zephirine Drouhin', (pictured above) hybridized in 1868 by Bizot, is a Bourbon rose typically sold as a climbing rose. It is noteworthy that this rose is completely thornless, making tending to it quite pleasant. It also has a strong and delightful scent. It also has a reputation for shade tolerance, and is often grown successfully on north walls, but I believe that it produces best in full sun. You will find that if you water in the morning, you can avoid disease. But you should know that this is a rose that can get blackspot and mildew and still bloom through till frost - most roses that get these diseases keel. When I neglected watering or watered at night and got a bit of black spot, I simply cut the leaves off, and they were quickly replaced. The really unique thing about it is that black spot or not, it blooms very well. And good air circulation greatly diminishes any tendency toward disease.
Zephirine grows six to ten feet as a climber, with a spread of three to six feet. She is usually described as a moderate grower, but in my experience she matures in about three years to close to her mature size.
I have discovered from personal experience that many climbing roses can be grown as shrubs. The laxness of stem that makes this rose a climber allows it to do something I personally refer to as a no labor version "self-pegging”. Pegging is a practice of taking a rose with long and flexible stems, bending them over and attaching them to the ground. The reason you peg a rose is to overcome apical dominance, which is expressed when a plant, in this case, blooms only at the end of stems because the stem secretes a hormone that suppresses growth below the stem. Some people attach stems to other stems to bend them in the same fashion, and that’s called “self pegging”. In my version of it, I allow the weight of the growing plants to pull down the stems, with no interference from me. If a rose throws out really long stems, I find, it will tend to bend over, which overcome apical dominance, and allows the rose to bloom at multiple spots on a single stem. Apical dominance can be described simply as the tendency of a plant to bloom from the top.
But perhaps the color of Zephirine is too strong for you. Not to worry, because it has not just one, but two sports. The first is a soft pink sport called ‘Kathleen Harrop’, which was hybridized by Dickson in 1879. This rose has in every way all the virtues and flaws of Kathleen, but I must confess that I find it even more beautiful. I found it because I ordered ‘Kathleen’ at a time when it was unavailable, and this was suggested as a substitute. The rose is about the same size as her parent, Kathleen. Some say she is a little less vigorous, but I have not found that to be the case. The third sport is called Martha, an even paler sport discovered by Knudsen in Denmark and introduced in 1919 after he discovered it in around 1912.
Kathleen is definitely a more delicate version of 'Zephirine Drouhin', but it exhibits the same climbing habit that can also serve as a shrub, and is similarly large. In this picture, it is accompanied by peony 'Edulis Superba'.
While these roses require a little more care from you in the form of spraying a little sulphur on them once a month if you do not water them, I hope that you will find them as pleasing as I do.