And it’s all true, sort of: I am allergic to the scent of roses and I have trouble with what are known around here as ‘rose bites’, they swell and take forever to heal. I don’t have a problem with bees, but it fits into the rhyme scheme, and to say I don’t like roses is a little strong, but they are sometimes a problem. So what, you ask, am I doing writing an article about roses? Well, I seem to have bought a nice collection of old garden roses, along with a farm

We rented this place for 22 years before we bought it, and knew that there were roses. It was the sheer numbers that came as a surprise, and the varieties. There are some very old roses here that were brought from England in the 1600s by the ancesters of the family from whom we bought the place. The bushes came across the Atlantic and then travelled through the early colonies until they landed here. Their numbers were added to over the years and when I took my first survey of all that we had, there were 21 different varieties, both species roses and old hybrid roses, and I eventually fournd that none were earlier than 1918. I didn’t count the hybrid teas that I had given to the owner’s daughter. They were actually dug and gone before we were the official owners, sad looking bushes that struggled throught the winters and drooped through the summers. I felt well rid of them, but the others! How many different ways can one say ‘rose’?


The first year that I was the owner of these bushes (or should I say, the first year that these bushes owned me?), I was mostly intent on keeping them alive. Several had been moved down below the barn by the former owners and subsequently surrounded by a stone pile. We needed that space for a driveway to the silos, and we dug the deeply rooted bushes out with Stan’s backhoe and transplanted them along two board fences we had built east of the house. I didn’t own a garden hose that year and it was an historically dry year. I carried buckets and buckets of water to those bushes, about 15 all-told, everyday for the first two weeks, then every other day for the rest of the summer. I was in pretty good shape by the end of the season.


When fall came, and we started getting some nice rains, I started to look into what I had. Those that we had moved didn’t bloom that year, old roses bloom on second-year and older wood and we had cut them down rather drastically, but there were many many bushes that we hadn’t touched and they did give me a few blooms. I knew there were a lot of pink roses, some red roses with monstrous thorns, some roses that started out peachy before they matured to a creamy white, some that started out the color of butter and ended up the color of cream, some that were striped, some that were a dark rose color and some that were a deep, velvety red. I asked the former owner’s daughter if she knew what they were, and she told me they were old, and the story about some being brought from England. As I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about old roses, I went to the library.


It turned out that the mid-1990s, when I was discovering old roses, was a time when many people were rediscovering old roses and there were several books and organizations that proved very helpful (see list at end of article). I queried organizations and sent out pictures and got some named. I scoured books and got some more named. I finally joined the information age online and got some more named. I borrowed books, bought books, bought more books. I learned how not to prune old garden roses: you don't cut them down in the fall like you do modern roses, you won't get any blooms the next year. I learned how to prune old garden roses: you trim out the dead wood and any canes that are in the way, leaving the healthy well-behaved wood to bloom. I discovered that there were people who had species roses that they were willing to share. I found people who had other old garden roses that they were willing to share. I planted rose seeds, I started cuttings, I had Stan build two more fences. I got cuttings of local native roses. I turned one of my rock gardens into a small rose garden. I had Stan build another fence. We put a long hedge of roses down below the barn by the orchard fence. I gave roses to the local historical society. I gave roses to other people who were discovering that the old roses were easy to grow. I became, gasp, a rose person!


Having admitted that, I need to back up and tell you that my knowledge of roses is very specifically limited to those that I have. I know what I know, but beyond that all bets are off.

What I found, in all my research, was that I had some fairly common old roses, and some that were not so common. Of the first and original 21 roses, there are four of which I haven’t found names. The scarlet red rose by the back door is the only one that I have totally lost. Although there have been some others that individual bushes have died, that one unnamed rose is the only one that is gone. I know only that it was our former landlady’s husband’s favorite, but she didn’t much like it.


Those that I can name from the original group are: Goldfinch’ 1907; ‘Spong’ 1804; ‘Hansa’ 1905; ’Tuscany’ c. 1600; R. harisonii, aka Harison’s Yellow, 1830; R. pimpinellifolia flore rubro multiplici, aka Dark Red Burnet (although it’s quite pink with darker rose stripes), prior to 1808; R. gallica officinallis, aka the apothecary rose, c. 1400; Rosa mundi aka Versicolor, a sport of R. gallica officinallis, c. mid-1500s; Rosa x alba ‘Maxima’, c. 1700; ‘Russeliana’ c. 1826; ‘F. J. Grootendorst’ c. 1918; ‘La Reine Victoria’ c. 1872; ‘Dorothy Perkins” c. 1901; 'Excelsa', aka the 'Red Dorothy Perkins' c. 1909; 'Seven Sisters' c. 1817; ‘Common Moss’ c. 1700. Of the four that I can’t name,one is an old pink hybrid tea, one a blowsy pale pink that has the habit of blasting and one a pink Gallica very similar to R. gallica officinallis but paler, and the scarlet rose that died.


Having gotten this far with discovering who my lot were, I suddenly found myself yearning for more, a decidedly uncharacteristic position for me when it comes to roses. At last count, I had in the vicinity of 260 plants of 40 different varieties, a rather insane number. And don't think that that total inhibits my desire any; I still have roses that I want, and I know there are roses out there that I don't know I want, but when I meet them, I will.


Some of the books that I found helpful were:

Rosa Gallica
by Suzanne Verrier

The American Rose Society Encyclopedia of Roses by Charles and Brigid Quest-Ritson

Classic Roses by Peter Beales

Old-Fashioned Roses by Orietta Sala

Roses of America by Stephen Scanniello and Tania Bayard

In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher

These sites, along with Dave's Garden Rose Forum, can be helpful:

The Heritage Rose Foundation



The roses in the photos are, in order from the top: R.gallica officinallis, 'F J Grootendorst' (yes, that's snow), 'Spong', R. pimpinellafolia flore rubro multiplici, R. alba "Maxima",'Rosa mundi', "Goldfinch', 'Hansa', and the first rose fence a few years after planting. All photos are by the author.