Introduction to Roses
Roses, the “Queen of the Flowers,” have been enjoyed for thousands of years. Their cultivation dates back to at least Greek and Roman times. Many varieties are descendants from ancient garden plants in China, Persia, and Turkey.
While the idea of a dozen long-stemmed roses may be the first image that comes to mind for many, the world of roses is varied and diverse. Wild roses grow in all corners of the world, in many habitats ranging from forests, along coastlines and rivers, to high mountain elevations.
The Family Rosaceae
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)
- Strawberries and raspberries
- Photinia, Laurel, and Himalayan blackberry are kin to roses, too.
Delicate rose blooms 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.
Give Them What They Want
- Full sun (at least 6 hours a day), for most
- Average garden soil
- Annual rainfall, supplemented during the summer (on average, 1 inch of water per week)
- Good drainage (soggy soil may cause root rot)
- Fertilizer during the growing season
The Big Three
Roses are divided into three main categories:
- Species Roses
- Old Garden Roses
- Modern Roses
Within these categories, there 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. Knowing your roses will help you select the most appropriate variety for your garden.
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 single flowers with 5 petals; 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 to 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. They 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. Because they flower on old wood, it is best to wait 2 to 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. 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”. They are known as the Cabbage Rose and have many thin, overlapping petals that are closely packed like the head of a cabbage. Alternately, they’re called Provence roses, after the section of France where they were once grown. These roses are extremely fragrant with blooms that tend to nod. Colors range from white to deep purple. Plants are once-blooming and vary in size from 1 to 20 feet tall. Not as disease resistant as other varieties, they’re 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 ever-blooming 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, which come in all rose colors, are somewhat smaller than those of 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 in height. Most are once-blooming with stiff, sometimes arching canes; hardy to Zone 4 (-20 degrees F).
Gallicas – are the oldest of the garden roses, having been grown by the Greeks and Romans. Later they were bred by the Dutch and the 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 to 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 bloodlines 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 – These compact roses are the forerunners of the modern Floribunda. They are the most prolific bloomers of all roses, with large clusters of small flowers similar to ramblers (about 1” wide). Polyanthas are generally 2 to 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, and 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.
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, a color that 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:
Large-flowered Climbers: Have clusters of flowers on stiff, arching canes that generally reach from 8 to 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, or other plants).
Hybrid Teas – These are the florist roses. Flowers are produced mostly one bloom to a stem, not in clusters. Most are 3 to 6 feet tall; 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 – 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 to 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 rose bush.” 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 heavy foliaged, rounded shrubs in the 3- to 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. They may also 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.