Antique Heirlooms: The Old Garden Roses

Ilona Erwin

Old Roses: New Dawn

Old Roses: New Dawn grown on an arbor in the Whetstone Park of Roses

One of the gardens I most love to visit in the late spring is the the old garden roses section of the Whetstone Park of Roses. Like valued heirlooms rescued from oblivion, these antiques are now appreciated for qualities that had been lost to gardeners for a time. Full-petaled bloom, richly nuanced fragrance, true shrub silhouettes. In this park is a display of many of the heritage types that were revived in the last century after being almost lost to modern gardens.

The Heirloom Attraction

The beauty and fragrance of these heirlooms makes them beloved for blowsy bouquets. Many have good shrub qualities, though with only one burst of bloom they compensate with superior abundance.

I have come to love and appreciate these qualities and the longevity in my temperature temperamental cold climate garden… here is an introduction to this group of fine old roses.

Categories & Characteristics

Like other popular flowers, roses are divided into categories. Ordering the sequence for this post is a challenge.

Should I list by color, by age in known cultivation? By hardiness? In a rather arbitrary way, the list presented here is neither complete nor scholarly. It is a gardener’s presentation and commentary.

alchymist rose in my garden

Alchymist Rose

I have grown a number of these in my garden, others are those that experts such as Gertrude Jekyll gushed over. They have a place in history, and some, I hope, will find a place in your landscape for their lasting qualities and great beauty.

Most of the roses I now grow are heritage roses of the hardiest sort. If you own a cold climate garden, the majority of roses will need some protection, but if you are blessed with more welcoming temperatures, a bevy of these roses would enhance your outdoor spaces.

Saunter through this garden of roses and their profiles. Only one of each category is featured.

The Albas

Alba roses are known for their pale colors of pink to white, and exceptional sweet fragrance.These are the “White Roses of Shakespeare”.

Königin von Dänemark

alba rose Photo © Robin Stott (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Photo © Robin Stott (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The ‘Königin von Dänemark’ is one of the hardiest and has pale pink petals in full quartered form. Many say it can be grown in partial shade, but in my experience the plant will do much better given proper sunlight (full sun). Traced to 1826, appropriate for period gardens after that date.

Gallica Roses

Reputed to be the oldest form grown in Europe, these shrubs often form thickets. They have beautiful flowers that range in colors of deep reds or even striped. They are fragrant and bloom once. The variety I grow does well in Northern gardens like mine.

Rosa Gallica ‘Charles De Mills’

The blooms aren’t large as roses go, the plants form a spreading thicket, but when in bloom they are supremely lovely. Sometimes the leaves rust a bit, but this shrub rose is very hardy and survives our worst winters in Central Ohio. The beauty of this rose is one reason to grow it, fragrance, another, and the hardiness factor clinches it for me.


These are the roses used for fragrance, oils, and cooking purposes. It’s very old history may be hard to trace, but the usefulness of these flowers is not. In the garden

Many heritage roses are available for sale both online and in local nurseries. This one was available from David Austin Roses, check for availability during the spring season.

Rosa Damascena ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’

If you want larger flowers of the Damask varieties this is the one to look for. These types are not quite hardy for me, although given an okay for Zones 4-9. In a protected spot, the Damask types would be a welcome addition to the medicinal garden. It has full blown flower heads in a delightful medium pink hue.

Musk Roses,

Rosa Moschata

photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking on Flickr C.C 2.0

The species is an ancient one, and gives rise to both a single and double flower form that is hybridized to give us “Hybrid Musk” roses. The specie may be available from Monticello’s Online Shop, check there for seeds or plants.

Shop heirloom seeds and plants at

These were always on my wishlist, but their hardiness limit is Zone 6 (possibly 5). Like the hybrid Teas, this indicates that they are best grown with protection in cold winter climates.

 ‘Buff Beauty’

Alas, not hardy for me, but perhaps for you. I attempted to grow this desirable shrub rose, and for the time it remained in the garden its tender apricot blossoms were so delightful. I wish I still had it! Try it in a protected spot, or if you garden in warmer zones. Hardy from warmer parts of 5 to zone 9.

Buff Beauty‘ rose is a Hybrid Musk bred circa 1939. It has the color of tender apricots in a good shrub form.

China Roses

For fans of Gertrude Jekyll, her love of these roses makes them familiar. for most residents of my area of the USA, they are are too tender to survive. Zone 6 is the limit of their known cold hardiness. If you can grow them, check into the Monticello Shop, my affiliate, during spring season for availability of ‘Old Blush’ plants.

Rosa Chinensis ‘Old Blush

This is chosen for its historical repute, grown for thousands of years in china, and for its modern capabilities: it blooms almost continuously in warm climates.

Hybrid Perpetual Roses

As the quest for longer bloom season and variation was sought in roses, they were hybridized  and produced this precursor to the modern plants of today. This class was popular with Victorians, with their large flowers and repeat bloom. They tend to be more hardy than the most tender classes, usually up to Zone 5.


Rich perfume, full luscious flowers make the Bourbons plants of romance. I tried growing them, but an extra cold winter wiped them out, along with most of my other rose plants at that time. Suffice to say that they should be protected if Zone 5 temperatures (10 below zero Fahrenheit) are expected.

Rosa bourboniana

Named varieties that will seduce you:’Louise Odier’, ‘Mme. Pierre Oger’, ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’,’Souvenir de la Malmaison’. these plants make garden writers wax eloquent in praises, which is why I felt I had to have them. The flower forms are fully packed with petals in the most voluptuous way.

‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, alone, survived my winters. I highly recommend this climber, which has the distinct asset of few thorns. It has a very pretty pink, loosely semi-double bloom.


While the bourbons have voluptuous flowers, the Centifolias have almost too much of a good thing. ‘Fantin Latour’ is one of the most refined of them, and many gardeners love this variety for its great beauty in the garden.

The “Cabbage” Rose

If the Bourbon roses are French, the Centifolia are Dutch. They are often featured in the Dutch still life paintings with hundreds of petals in perfect perfusion.Their heavy heads are what people often picture when thinking of “Old Roses”. Sold as “Cabbage rose” or “Provence rose”

Moss Roses

Beloved of the Victorians, who could not want a rose that perfumes the hand that holds it? Called “moss” rose because of fine hairs, scented leaf glands that give a moss like appearance to the flower calyces. These roses can be very spiny.

Rosa centifolia mucosa ‘William Lobb’

This crimson variety is hardy to zone 4. It comes highly recommended by Rosarian David Austin, and is available on the company’s rose site. A candidate for a period garden, it was introduced in 1855, but I would love to own one for the delight of the strong perfume (described as pine, or resin-scented) and beauty of the buds.


Many Rosarians have ‘Gloire de Dijon’ as their favorite all-time choice. Other named varieties are: Céline Forestier, Maréchal Niel, Rêve d’Or. These old roses will often be mentioned by English garden writers for their scent, and the outstanding repeat blooms. They are vigorous and healthy growers (large climbers for the most part), but not hardy north of Zone 6. Best for gardens of Texas and California.

Noted here just for information sake.


Usually small in stature and spreading in form. The diminutive flowers are borne in clusters, modern floribundas came from the parentage of this class. They are hardy and repeat blooming.

Polyantha “The Fairy”

One of the most famous and useful roses for modern gardens. The Fairy Rose was introduced in 1932, and is a very reliable rose that is commonly available. It has some fragrance, and is covered with small, pretty pink flowers throughout the growing season.

Buy “The Fairy Rose” at Nature Hills Nursery online.

Ramblers & Rambler Hybrids

These are the roses of my childhood. Grown on trellises, beside porches, Americans of the fifties and sixties loved the long June flowering season. A remnant of their parents gardens, favorites were the varied forms of ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (different colors and selections), ‘American Pillar’, and the fantastic ‘New Dawn (pictured at the introduction of this post).

‘Dortmund’ Rambler

I grow the ‘Dortmund’ Rambler. It is a single flower in the prettiest cherry red. Very hardy, I am surprised it survives the neglect it suffers in my garden. If you give a modicum of care it will reward you with striking blooms and graceful draping over fences and supports.

Rosa spinosissima,  R. pimpinellifolia

Also called the Burnet or Scotch briar rose, these are very hardy and form thickets. The blooms are small and single, turning into rosehips for later interest. Often used as a hedge plant.


Rosa rubiginosa is the romantic rose of poets and prose. It is considered invasive in Australia, but is contained in my garden and sends wafts of sweet fragrance from the foliage all summer.

Rosa eglanteria, R. rubiginosa

My Eglantine rose plants had to be cut back extensively when we repainted the house, but are now reviving. The flowers are single, small to medium size, blooming only in June. They are hardy plants surviving with no real care.


I have so many favorites in this group. The Rugosa category is hardy, beautiful, and garden worthy in every sense. Originally from the Far East, it gets its name from the crinkled look of its leaves. One of its features would be the large rosehips, but autumn foliage color, and gorgeous, fragrant flowers are part of the allure, as well.

Rosa Rugosa ‘Hansa’

Hansa rose and peony

Rosa ‘Hansa’ with single pink peonies below.

On my property this holds up well in partial shade, cold winds, and general neglect. It flowers dependably and produces large rosehips.
Read more of the Hansa Rose, how to grow in the garden.

Modern “Old Rose’ Versions

The revival of the heirlooms that were plucked from graveside plantings and abandoned homesteads raise interest in their forms and characteristics. Modern breeders began to turn their talents and attentions to giving us new varieties with more choices in color, along with a range of scintillating scents: myrrh, spice, classic rose, and musk.

David Austin is probably the most famous, with so many new roses which hark back to the intoxicating rose gardens of the past.

My Stroll Around Whetstone Old Rose Garden

Are these Old Roses For You?

May of the growing information for roses carries the caveat of “with protection”. This usually means some form of bundling them up against the weather and winds. Traditionally, modern rose gardens have used rose cones or some sort of cover. Mounding up soil or mulch over the crown is another method.

This is a labor intensive chore. Perhaps you have a microclimate, a spot protected by landform or building which is better for plants which are nominally hardy for your area.

Otherwise, pick your plant choices with hardiness that matches your garden planting zone.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.