Old Shrub Roses
The Old Shrub Rose
We still have with us over a hundred of the old-type species rose, and these are always catalogued and named with the prefix Rosa. They were, broadly, the first of the cultivated roses, but cultivated in a rarer, more leisurely, atmosphere of graciousness and spaciousness. The Rosa prefix is an accolade of distinction, segregating them from the mass-produced, florists’ types we grow and know under the common name of rose.
Many a large garden has one or more of them, but they are worth a place anywhere if you are prepared to allow them living room: 2m (6ft) square and high. They are generally referred to as shrub roses, and their descendants as modern shrub roses. The characteristics of some of the best known of them are worth mentioning, for they have had a great influence on the breeding of virtually all the roses in commerce today.
The old roses differ from the modern bush plants in the formation of the flowers. Mostly they are just single petals or what are known as semi-double: a further layer of petals more or less alternating, but often providing little more than a dozen in all. They open quickly and stay open for their short life. Compare that with the thirty or more petals of most modern roses, which hold their bud form for some days and do not open to reveal their inner secrets until they are on the point of going over.
I mentioned Rosa damascena as being one of the oldest. This is a semi-double, varying from white to red, and intensely fragrant (the petals are used in making attar of roses). Best known of them is Rosa damascena versicolor, which, because of its white and pink flowers, has become famous as the ‘York and Lancaster’ rose. Rosa alba (‘Maiden’s Blush’), has already been mentioned. Other favourites are Rosa canina, the dog rose of our, white and pink, and R. gallica versicolor, with red and white stripes (some catalogues describe them as pink and purple, which — because this is more accurate in this writer’s eye — is how they are described in the accompanying tables). This one is better known as Rosa mundi, supposedly honouring the mistress of King Henry II; it continues in flower longer than most of the others, often up to three months.
Rosa centifolia, popularly supposed to have a hundred petals, is known as the cabbage rose and it is not hard to see why, with its tightly packed rosettes, deep pink in colour. It is closely related to the moss rose, and they are usually listed together. One of the centifolias, ‘Cristata’, is known as the crested moss (another name is ‘Chapeau de Napoleon’) because of a peculiar ‘cockade’ over the bud.
The ‘moss’ is actually a series of tiny glands covering the flower stalks, and certainly imparts a distinctive appearance. One of the best known varieties of the moss rose is ‘Henri Martin’, over a hundred years old, heavily covered in rich crimson flowers and — naturally — delicately scented.
But for delicacy of perfume it would be hard to beat the musk rose. The original musk, Rosa moschata, is now very rarely found, and most of those available are hybrids (probably from the Himalayan musk). Two quite widely available are ‘Felicia’, salmon-pink/yellow, growing to about 1.5m (4-1/2ft) and ‘Ballerina’, slightly smaller and dual-coloured in that the pink flower has an attractive white eye.
Rosa moyesii, another species rose, is quite a modern one, dating from the turn of the century, but earns its place in the gallery of rose immortals for the number and quality of its heps: large, bottle-shaped and bright orange, contrasting with the deep red of the flowers. Rosa chinensis, the China rose, (white to red) can bloom from midsummer till early autumn. There is even a greenish-flowered species, viridiflora, and a series of miniatures, also descended from the versatile chinensis.
, the Ramanas rose, is red or white flowered, very fragrant, and also has bright scarlet heps. Rosa wichuraiana, which might be termed the parent of the ramblers, extends to about 4m (12ft) and has white flowers and dark glossy foliage. Finally there is the eglantine of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sweet briar ‘Eglanteria’, which has pink flowers and heps and even the foliage smells sweet. Small wonder that Shakespeare enthused!
There are some excellent modern versions of these old species. ‘Chinatown’, a yellow-pink, sometimes described as a floribunda shrub, grows very strongly, filling the air with perfume, and seems to thrive in difficult circumstances. I once had to plant some bushes in unprepared ground at the start of a very dry summer, and they stood up to that torture far better than any of the varieties growing nearby. The second flush is not as strongly perfumed as the first, but is still good enough, and as it grows to m (oft) it can make its presence felt in no uncertain way.
Among other outstanding modern shrubs are ‘Nevada’, with large, single creamy white to pink blooms, and ‘Heidelberg’, a bright red. For a mixture of colour there is the aptly named ‘Joseph’s Coat’ (yellow, orange and red) which makes a good climber, and ‘Ballerina’, the hybrid musk already mentioned, which is pink with a white eye.
One of the most aptly named of our roses is the species hybrid ‘Canary Bird’. That should inspire a vision of fluttering yellow wings, and the spectacle of masses of small yellow flowers stretching the length of the stem comes very close to it. ‘La Reine Victoria’ is another close to the vision: a stately, solid Bourbon type — regal, even — with masses of tight pink petals.
So many excellent roses are in cultivation that no list I can offer would do more than just cover a small proportion. I have dealt here with some of the shrub roses by way of tribute to their ancestry and in the hope that it may encourage gardeners to venture away from the monopolistic, though never monotonous, ring of hybrid teas and floribundas.