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GARDENING : A Rose Is a Rose . . . but What Constitutes an Old Rose?


Since old roses seem to be coming back into favor, you'd think there would be more agreement about what an old rose is.

Oh, there's an "official" consensus. The American Rose Society is clear enough. Old garden roses (also known as heritage roses) are ones introduced before 1867. That's the year the Hybrid Tea arrived on the scene and stole the show. Hybrid Teas--until recently--have pretty much dominated the field ever since.

Ask gardeners for their definitions of an old rose, and the dividing line get fuzzier. What makes a rose "old" to its owner isn't much different from what makes a desk an "antique." If it evokes the past--regardless of its age--it classifies. That's why blooms that tug on our sensory memories--like the flowers our mothers and grandmothers grew--are labeled as old roses, even though they might technically be moderns.

So there probably weren't many rose devotees horrified to see Sunset magazine illustrating its November story on mail-order suppliers of old roses with a picture of Dainty Bess, a Hybrid Tea that only dates back to 1925, a comparative newcomer on the scene.

Dainty Bess may not qualify as a Dowager Queen, ARS's title for winning roses in the pre-1867 category, but she has a way of turning up among old roses anyway because of her sweet, old-fashioned charms--a simple, five-petal shape, dainty mauve-pink shade and frilly, burgundy-colored stamens.

Likewise, Clair Martin, curator of the rose garden at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, is entirely unapologetic for including Iceberg, a Floribunda not hybridized until 1958, among his heritage roses. The pure white, double blossoms of the Iceberg are more at home among the similarly open-shaped and pastel-hued old garden roses, Martin insists, than among the high-budded, scrolled forms and Kodachrome colors of the modern Hybrid Teas. The decision may not be correct historically, but it is aesthetically.

Add modern roses that were bred to look antique to the picture, like David Austin's English roses. These roses combine the shape, fragrance and shrub form of heritage roses with the recurrent blooming characteristics of modern Hybrid Teas and Floribundas. Or add miniature roses from hybridizers like Ralph Moore who are trying to achieve the same look on a dwarf scale, and the definition of an "old" rose gets even tougher to pin down.

Having been crossed with heritage species, many of these plants literally have their roots in history, and yet as roses go they're rookies.

So how does a nursery like Country Bloomers in Orange, which specializes in old-fashioned roses (both true heritage roses and modern "olds" like Austin's) decide what to carry? Owner Mike Morton looks for:

Antique forms--either multipetaled, quartered shapes or the single form of the wild rose.

Old-fashioned colors--more pinks, mauves and blushes than crimsons, sulfur yellows and oranges.

That element all too often missing in modern roses: intense fragrance.

The bottom line, though, according to Morton, is that an old-fashioned rose is whatever constitutes one in the eyes--and nose--of the beholder.

Fortunately, with so many appealing choices, there's no necessity to be a purist. Heritage roses and modern old roses are perfectly compatible--with each other and with other moderns--as long as sizes and shades are complementary. Good thing, too, because if you have a passion for roses you're going to want them all anyway. And if you don't, maybe it's because you haven't seen old roses.

To narrow the field a little, here are some recommendations from experienced gardeners.

"One old rose that everyone should have--it's small and does beautifully in a barrel--is Souvenir de la Malmaison," says Sharon Van Enoo, coordinator of the Huntington Garden Volunteers Workshop, president of the South Coast Rose Society and rose garden consultant. "It's got hundreds of petals, a wonderful rosette shape, a pretty soft pink color and incredible fragrance. It's just a fabulous rose."

Demonstrating that heritage roses are not prima donnas and don't need to be segregated, Van Enoo combines in one large container her Souvenir, a Bourbon rose dating from 1843, with Reichsprasident von Hindenberg, an old, but not heritage class, Hybrid Perpetual, and Geisha, a modern Floribunda.

Another old favorite of hers is Barrone Prevost, a Hybrid Perpetual introduced in 1842, with large blooms of a deep rose color that open flat with a small button eye. Beautiful and reliable, Barrone is a frequent ARS Dowager Queen winner, says Van Enoo.

One of Mike Morton's favorite heritage roses, Jacques Cartier, a bloom with many short petals at the center that gives it a charmingly ragged look, is also a Hybrid Perpetual (though sometimes classified as a Portland).

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