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An Introduction to Roses

Roses, the “Queen of the Flowers,” have been enjoyed for thousands of years.  Cultivating of roses dates back to at least Greek and Roman times, and many varieties are descendents from ancient garden plants in China, Persia or Turkey.  While the idea of roses conjures up the form and fragrance of a dozen long-stemmed roses to many, the world of roses is indeed varied and diverse.  Wild roses grow in all corners of the world, and many habitats:  in forests, along coastlines and rivers, and even high mountain elevations.

True roses belong to the genus Rosa, but this itself is a subset of a larger family known as Rosaceae.  The Rose family includes a tremendous number of blooming and edible plants, including:  fruit trees (Apple, Pear, Cherry, Peach, and Plum), Hawthorn, Strawberries, Raspberries, Cotoneaster, Firethorn, Potentilla, Serviceberry and Spirea, to name a few.  Indeed, even Photinia, Laurel and Himalayan Blackberry are kin to Roses.  Delicate rose blooms, therefore, mask a resiliency that is shared throughout the rose family; these are tough, durable shrubs that will live for decades if given the right home. 

In general, all roses like full sun (at least 6 hours a day) and average garden soil. In most areas of the country, they will survive on annual rainfall, but during the summer months most benefit from supplemental irrigation (on average 1” of water per week).  Drainage and fertilizing is where true roses require slightly more maintenance than some of their ornamental bretheren.  With few exceptions, roses require good drainage; if the soil is soggy, they may develop root rot.  In addition, in order to maximize bloom potential, most roses need additional fertilizer during the main growing season.

Roses are divided into three main categories:  Species roses, Old Garden Roses and Modern Roses.  Within these categories are at least 20 separate classifications that further describe groupings of roses with similar characteristics.  Each rose class varies slightly in cold hardiness, disease resistance, color selection and overall size, so knowing your roses will help you select the most appropriate variety for your garden.

Bonica Rose

Main types of roses include species roses such as R. glauca (left), generally single flowers with 5 petals; Old Garden Roses like Mme. Hardy (middle), often fully double and shades of white, pink or purple; and Modern Roses, represented by the Hybrid Tea Brandy (right).

Species Roses

These are the roses just as nature made them.  Many species roses grow quite large, may form thickets, and set wonderfully colored hips in the fall.  They typically have five-petaled, single flowers; a few have 25 or more.  Species are very hardy and can tolerate cold winters.  Most are once bloomers and are typically referred to by their botanical name (i.e. Rosa moschata).

Old Garden Roses

Old Garden Roses were popular prior to the 20th Century.  A true Old Garden Rose predates 1867 (the year that La France, the first Hybrid Tea, was introduced).  These are generally tough, durable shrubs that have stood the test of time; many are considerably more fragrant than their modern counterparts.  Most (but not all) are once blooming, and would be used in the landscape similar to a Lilac or Hydrangea.  They often grow quite large, but can tolerate severe pruning every few years to maintain lower growth.  Different classes of Old Garden Roses include:

Alba – Dating back before 100 A.D., Albas are the most elegant of all old roses, with tall, slender, upright bushes producing flowers of blush pink or white with charming, delicate beauty set against the perfect background of grey-green foliage.  An arching shrub with an average height of 5-7 feet, Albas are very hardy, disease resistant and thrive under difficult conditions.  Most are once blooming and extremely fragrant.  Albas produce wonderful displays of large red hips in the fall.  They can thrive in partial shade and are hardy to Zone 4 (-20 degrees F).

Bourbons – Discovered in 1817 on the French Ile de Bourbon when a seedling from the Damask rose ‘Quatre Saisons’ and a China rose (believed to be ‘Old Blush’) sprouted up between the rows.  This wonderful seedling was the beginning of the Bourbons, which were popular in Victorian England and are vigorous shrubs with a compact or slightly climbing habit.  They produce exquisite, large, full rose blooms that vary in color from white, pink or red to deep bluish-purple, and have a wonderful, heady fragrance.  All Bourbons are repeat or continuous bloomers; most have a profuse bloom in the spring then intermittent blooms of high quality into the fall (on old wood, so it is best to wait 2-3 years before pruning).  The foliage is a delightful deep green with a touch of gray; sometimes with red edges.  Bourbons do not have a lot of thorns and some are considered thornless, but they are susceptible to Black Spot.  Hardy to Zone 5 (-10 degrees F).

Centifolias – First bred in the 1500s, the word Centifolia means “hundred petals.”  Also known as the Cabbage Rose because of the many thin, overlapping petals that are closely packed like the head of a cabbage.  Alternately called Provence roses after the section of France where they were once grown.  These roses are extremely fragrant with blooms that tend to nod, and come in colors ranging from white to deep purple.  Plants are once blooming and vary in size from one to 20 feet tall.  Not as disease resistant as other varieties, best in full sun. Hardy to Zone 5 (-15 degrees F).

China – The China Roses play a great part in the history of our modern roses, having given them their everblooming abilities. The plants are somewhat tender and may need protection in cold climates.  China roses are rather compact, bushy plants ideal for small spots in the garden or containers.  Most are fragrant and very disease resistant.  The flowers come in all rose colors are somewhat smaller than other roses.

Damask – Damask Roses are some of the oldest roses in the world, having been grown in Biblical times and brought to Europe by the Crusaders.  They are known for their distinctive, strong fragrance and are used for making perfumes.  The foliage is a pale green and the canes have many thorns.  Damasks produce beautiful blooms of white, pink or red on elegant, upright spreading plants to six feet.  Most are once blooming with stiff, sometimes arching canes; hardy to Zone 4 (-20 degrees F).

Gallicas – Gallicas are the oldest of the garden roses, having been grown by the Greeks and Romans.  Later they were bred by the Dutch and French, as many of the names indicate.  They have a great color range for old roses, coming in red, pink, purple and striped blooms.  Some are intensely fragrant and show bright yellow stamens followed by bright red hips.  The bushes are stiffly upright or arching with deep, dark green foliage.  Their compact size makes them suited for small gardens, though they sucker profusely and spread by underground runners.  These are once but heavy bloomers and range from 3-9 feet tall; hardy to Zone 3 (-30 degrees F).

Hybrid Perpetual – A wonderful group of roses popular at the time of Queen Victoria, prior to the development of Hybrid Teas, due to their repeat blooming qualities.  They have very large double flowers with great fragrance in shades of pink, purple, red and sometimes white.  Most have stately, upright arching growth; vigorous plants hardy to Zone 4 (-20 degrees F).

Moss – Moss roses are actually Centifolia Roses and Damasks that have developed a distinctive fragrant moss-like growth on the sepals.  The “moss” (small hairs with scented glands on the bud) has a rich scent when rubbed or on a warm day.  The double flowers come in almost all colors and are very fragrant.  Early Moss roses are once bloomers, the more modern hybrids have good repeat.  Hardiness varies.

Noisette – The first roses to be bred in America; their blood lines include the China roses.  Noisettes are historically important for their contribution of the colors orange and yellow to modern roses.  Tall, bushy plants that are best treated as climbers with support; they bear fragrant clusters of blooms in a wide range of colors.  Most are continual or repeat bloomers; somewhat tender to Zone 7 (10 degrees F).

Polyantha – Compact roses that are forerunners of the modern Floribundas.  The most prolific bloomers of all roses with large clusters of small flowers similar to ramblers (about 1” wide).  Polyanthas are generally 2-3 feet high with foliage that is small, narrow and disease resistant; winter hardy and ideal for small gardens or pots.

Portland – A small, but lovely group of roses that were popular in the middle of the 1800s, loved for their repeat bloom and very fragrant, multi-petaled flowers.  They have a mixed heritage with China, Damask and Gallica roses and are fairly compact.  Portland roses are usually pink, with beautiful Old Rose blooms set off by light green foliage.  Slow growing and ideal for small gardens; hardy to Zone 4 (-20 degrees F).

Tea Roses – Tea roses originated in China and are the ancestors of our modern Hybrid Teas.  They are the result of a cross between a China rose and Rosa gigantea, and were imported on the Tea Clipper ships to Europe, where they were an instant success.  The flowers are large, fragrant, and many have a delicacy of form and color that is not found in today’s roses.  The plants are disease resistant but tender to Zone 8 (15 degrees F).  Tea roses often have only 5 petals.

Hybrids – A somewhat miscellaneous category that is often grouped with modern shrub roses; Hybrids include a wide range of roses that were generally produced in the 1900s but have mixed parentage of OGR classes.  Important groups include:
Hybrid Musks:  bred in the early 1900s; a mixture of Hybrid Teas, Tea and China roses plus some of the early ramblers. They tend to be large, bushy plants with arching canes; some may be treated as climbers.  Most are disease resistant, tolerate shade and poor soils. Prolific bloomers, very fragrant; hardy to Zone 6 (0 degrees F).
Hybrid Rugosas:  Originally from coastal Japan; valued for their hardiness, spicy scent, crinkled foliage and disease resistance.  Mostly single flowered (5 petals) these unusual beauties come in white, pink, red, purple and yellow.  Renowned for fall display of colorful hips the size of cherry tomatoes; Rugosas are rare and unusual in that they thrive on neglect.  They do very well in areas not suitable for most roses.

Hybrid Kordesii:  Important for northern climates, these are extremely winter hardy roses with dark glossy foliage; believed to be a cross between Rugosa roses and Rosa wichurana.  Usually short climbers; named for German breeder Reimer Kordes.

Modern Roses

These are the roses that most people envision when thinking about roses.  Modern roses are nearly always repeat blooming and come in just about every color imaginable (except blue, that color still eludes rose growers).  Modern Roses are led by the Hybrid Tea class, whose popularity coincided with the rise of suburban gardens in America.  These roses were bred for their large flowers and continual bloom; as a result, not all of them have fragrance.  Modern-day growers like David Austin are backcrossing modern roses with Old Garden varieties to breed fragrance and disease resistance back into these roses.  Modern rose classifications include:

Climbers – includes large-flowered climbers, climbing sports and ramblers. 
Large-flowered Climbers:  Have clusters of flowers on stiff, arching canes that generally reach from 8-15 feet high.  The key word here is stiff:  climbers want to go up and will not do well on a 3-foot fence.  Many climbers can be grown as large, sprawling shrubs without support.
Climbing Sports:  Are generally named for the variety from which they came (such as Cl. Iceberg, Cl. Gold Badge).  They produce the same flowers as their shrubby parent but on longer canes.  Some sports lack the vigor of traditional climbers.
Ramblers:  Not an official ARS classification, but still often used as ramblers tend to have a distinct growth habit.  Ramblers are vigorous climbers to 20 feet or more with pliable canes and smaller flowers than climbers.  Ramblers may be either once blooming, repeat or continuous.  Without support, ramblers will travel along the ground and cover anything that gets in their way (buildings, cars, other plants…)

Hybrid Teas – These are the florist roses.  Flowers are produced mostly one bloom to a stem, not in clusters.  Most are 3-6 feet high; they tend to lack foliage at the base of the plant due to susceptibility to foliar diseases.  The plants are open rather than bushy, with long, straight, upright canes; the least cold hardy class of modern roses.

Floribundas – Are a cross between Hybrid Teas and Polyantha roses.  Flowers are produced in large clusters like Polyanthas but with bigger flowers.  Plants are usually compact, 3-4 feet high, and can be upright or spreading.  Floribundas generally have good disease resistance and are bushy, making them good choices for containers.

Grandifloras – Can be treated like a Hybrid Tea but are generally taller and more upright.  Large flowers are produced on long stems, either singly or in clusters.  Hardy and vigorous, these bushes can reach 7 feet (such as ‘Queen Elizabeth’).

Shrubs – While technically all roses are shrubs, this class is defined by the ARS as “hardy, easy-care plants that encompass bushy roses that do not fit in any other category of rosebush.”  As such, this is a very diverse group that includes the David Austin English Roses and winter-hardy roses produced by Griffith Buck of Iowa State.  Shrub roses tend to have more canes than Hybrid Teas and produce a well-foliaged, rounded bush in the 3-7 foot range.  Most shrub roses are repeat or continual bloomers, though there are a handful of once bloomers in this class.  Bloom style may be single, cabbage-like or anything in between.  Fragrance varies.

Groundcover/Landscape – Not an official ARS class, this designation is often used to describe shrub roses that tend to grow wider than they are tall.  They are useful plants that tend to be disease resistant, and can be planted in mass groupings as groundcovers or hedges.  Groundcover roses may root themselves along the ground and help prevent erosion on a steep slope.  Do not prune these roses in the middle of the cane, as it encourages them to grow up instead of out.  Instead, remove runners that are too long at the base of the crown.  Also may be described as short ramblers.

Miniatures – Descendants of Rosa chinensis minima, these plants range in height from 3 inches to 2 feet or more (some climbing).  The stems, leaves and flowers are all petite.  Miniatures come in a wide range of colors and are repeat or continuous bloomers.  “MiniFlora” or “Patio” roses are somewhat bigger in growth and flower

Who is the True Rose?

Apple Blossoms Rose

Apple Blossoms

Himalayan Blackberry Rose

Himalayan Blackberry

Cotoneaster Rose

Cotoneaster

Dunwich Rose

Dunwich Rose

Strawberry Rose

Strawberry

Rosa moschata (Species)

Rosa moschata (Species)

Queen of Denmark (Alba)

Queen of Denmark (Alba)

Louise Odier (Bourbon)

Louise Odier (Bourbon)

Cabbage Rose (Centifolia)

Cabbage Rose (Centifolia)

Louis Philippe (China)

Louis Philippe (China)

Leda (Damask)

Leda (Damask)

Rosa Mundi (Gallica)

Rosa Mundi (Gallica)

La Reine (Hybrid Perpetual)

La Reine (Hybrid Perpetual)

Comtesse de Murinais (Moss)

Comtesse de Murinais (Moss)

Alister Stella Gray (Noisette)

Alister Stella Gray (Noisette)

The Fairy (Polyantha)

The Fairy (Polyantha)

Indigo (Portland)

Indigo (Portland)

Gloire de Dijon (Tea)

Gloire de Dijon (Tea)

Cornelia (Hybrid Musk)

Cornelia (Hybrid Musk)

Night Light (Climber)

Night Light (Climber)

Deep Secret (Hybrid Tea)

Deep Secret (Hybrid Tea)

Chihuly (Floribunda)

Chihuly (Floribunda)

Starlight (Grandiflora)

Starlight (Grandiflora)

Memories (Shrub)

Memories (Shrub)

Pink Bells (Groundcover)

Pink Bells (Groundcover)

Popcorn (Miniature)

Popcorn (Miniature)