What are Portland roses? They are a small group of hybrid roses named after a collector of plants, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, who was the Duchesse of Portland in the 1780s and a woman of enormous wealth. She was an enthusiastic collector of many things. Those who knew her gave her things that added to, or established, her extensive collections. One of them was a rose that became associated with her. It was the original Portland rose, given to her around 1800. It was a bright red color, and bloomed every six weeks from late spring to autumn. It is descended from two other groups of very old roses. One group is Gallicas, which are once blooming and ancient, and the other is the Autumn Damask, from which the repeat blooming genes came. It was the parent of the entire Portland class.
Portland roses were once a very large group of plants. They were the first repeat blooming roses with full blooms, and so were greatly appreciated by Europeans, who were accustomed to roses that bloomed only once a season. They were, to put it bluntly, a smash. There were approximately 150 Portland roses in commerce. Today there are approximately 16 listed, and none of them are climbers. So what happened?
In one word: fashion. Portland roses were garden roses that were excellent plants. But often, roses were grown, cut, and brought into homes. This meant that their value as healthy garden plants was minimized. A rose plant could be rife with disease - mildew, blackspot and rust - and still produce beautiful flowers. The explosion of rose exhibition contributed to this preference. The flower is exhibited, not the leaves. If the leaves are covered in black spot, you can remove them, exhibit the stem and flower, and enter it. As a result, a lot of really weak roses became popular. Consumers, lacking information about the flaws, purchased these weak roses for their gardens, experienced the significant downsides of these sickly plants, and stopped purchasing them.
The rose type most typical, at the time, of this move toward flower quality only is well displayed in Hybrid Perpetuals, and later in Hybrid Teas. Their flowers tended to be larger than those of Portlands, but many of the actual plants are problematic. There is awkward growth, more disease, and some of them grow very large and have to be cut back repeatedly. Without a large number of people demanding Portlands , their number dwindled down. I should add that the same phenomenon eventually occurred with Hybrid Perpetuals, and with a series of roses that followed. The tendency to acquire the popular explains why many All-American Rose choices of the 20th century are no longer available.
Which Portlands are best? There are several that are deservedly popular. Please let me introduce you to my personal favorites. I have five Portland roses in my garden: 'Marchesa Boccella', also known as 'Jacques Cartier', and 'Rose de Rescht'. They can be used a specimen plants, in small groups, and as hedging roses, the latter because their growth is very uniform, and because they grow no more than five feet high, often topping out at three feet.
Marchesa has delicate pink flowers that are flat and petal packed, with a delicious scent. The flowers sit in clusters above healthy, jade green leaves. The shrub is vase shaped, which allows it to fit neatly into the garden. One of the many gifts this rose brings is complete resistance to "balling", a phenomenon in which roses do not open in rain or high humidity. The flowers of this rose are formed such that rain runs right off them. In the south, according to the Antique Rose Emporium website, it blooms continuously. In my zone 5a garden in the north, it blooms reliably every six weeks.
'Rose de Rescht' is even more fragrant. It is a small, rounded to vase shaped shrub that grows 3 to 5 feet tall. It blooms almost continuously in the south as well as in my northern garden, with fully double (50 plus petals) of elegant fuchsia-crimson. Its origin is a bit of a mystery but it is definitely pre-1900 and is it is believed to have gotten its name from the Persian city of Rescht.
They are available primarily online, but through several sources. They can be purchased bare root or containerized, establish easily into the garden, and will bring many years of pleasure. So if you are seeking the ease of culture that modern roses promise, but want it with a beauty of bloom, lesser cost, and fragrance, consider the Portland rose.