There is no reason gardeners should grow "old roses," but a surprising number of people ask about them -- what they are, how they differ from modern roses, where to get them and so on.
First, they need sun as all roses do. They are no answer to that bare spot under a maple. They like, and really need, the best site in the garden, but since that best site is often wasted on marigolds, weedy grass and similar objects of routine interest, there is no harm trying some of these roses to see if you like them.
I do. Here are some of the varieties available, and before anybody gets fired up he should know that many or most of them bloom only in the spring for a couple of weeks. You do not get flowers in July or in the fall, any more than you do from azaleas, lilacs, peonies, magnolias. It is too bad the old roses mostly shut up shop after mid-June.
Another thing, while the old roses often grow and bloom well without spraying, they are not immune to blackspot, mildew, canker or other woes, and if you want to see them at their best (and you may not like them even then) you have to treat them at least as well as the average modern floribunda.
Most of the old roses are flat or ball-shaped, different from the high-centered hybrid teas the florists sell. Many modern roses are beautifully perfumed -- it is silly to say they are not. But some of the old roses smell different, and give quite different visual effects in the garden, since when they bloom they are usually smothered with flowers.
Before going farther, I might ask that if anybody is growing the late Victorian red tea rose, 'Princesse de Sagan,' please let me know. I lost it some years ago and cannot replace it. A cutting would be appreciated.
I guess if there is room for only one plant (though it is no gardener who has room for only one) it might be the old gallica rose, 'Rosa Mundi,' with pale pink flowers the size of a moderate orange-slice, and an informal semi-double bloom. The blush petals are striped or blotched deep rose or light rose red, and sometimes the blush is virtually white. There are bright yellow stamens in the center and the perfume is fine. It makes a good hedge, up to about 40 inches. Its foliage is ordinary.
It is very beautiful.
Among other gallicas is the medicinal one, 'Officinalis,' which was made into conserves and powders. It is rose red, and is the plant from which 'Rosa Mundi' sported.
There are a number of purplish gallicas, including 'Cardinal de Richelieu' and 'Tuscany,' not as heavily perfumed as you think they are going to be. They and many other gallicas have weak stems and the bush will flop if you don't encourage it to start with, by a stake.
Fashions come and go, even within a limited class of roses such as the gallicas. 'Du Maitre Ecole,' and 'Belle de Crecy,' are riding high at the moment. Each is off-pink, and 'Belle' is actively violet once the sun gets to it. They are double and perfumed.
The gallicas are thought to be the oldest cultivated roses, at least in Europe, and are the ones you see in heraldry (as in Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey). The wild one had five petals; the garden varieties are semi-double to fully double. They are tough plants, often surviving when a garden returns to meadow, pasture or abandoned field.
Damask roses are often quite shapeless and even blowsy. Most of them are intensely perfumed. You make attar of roses from them. A white one called 'Madame Hardy' is esteemed perhaps above all others, probably because it is well-formed, very double with a green point in the center of the bloom. I used to grow it and never liked it, but many say it is the most beautiful of all roses old or new, so there you are. It is not a typical damask.
On the other hand I greatly like 'Gloire de Guilan,' which is not very popular. It is semi-double or double, a firm medium pink and intensely scented. It leans about, up to four feet and blooms all at once. They make attar of it in the Persian Caspian provinces, it is said.
Who can say why a rose of no particular surface luster becomes your favorite? I like the 'Gloire' very much, not understanding the million obscure correlatives that go into love.
A "better" damask, and a great favorite of all who ever grew it, is the pink semi-double large 'Celsiana,' on arching stems. It is one of the most beautiful of all flowers, not just roses.
Among alba roses, well-perfumed kinds are the white 'Semi-plena,' with maybe 10 or 12 petals and red fruit in the fall and grayish leaves. The fully double 'Alba Maxima' has no fruit but is equally lovely. The most famous alba is 'Maiden's Blush' which is a double white with blush-pink center.
A great favorite of mine is the decided but medium-strength pink 'Celeste,' and the equally pink (and a floppy bush, drat it) 'Queen of Denmark.' The last, and the equally gorgeous 'Felicite Parmentier' are fully packed with curving petals, quite unlike the usual hybrid tea. The shape of the hybrid tea is beautiful, except in some of its grosser forms such as 'Peace,' but utterly different from the shape of the albas, which incline to flat blooms that sometimes reflex almost into a ball.
Since the albas are my particular favorites, it may no doubt be said they are the most beautiful of all roses.
There are Scotch briars such as 'Harison's Yellow,' and why any Harrison spelled his name with one r is beyond me; he sounds unreliable. His rose, however, which gets its yellow color from the wild Persian yellow briar, is beautiful and scented.
Another of this class is 'Stanwell Perpetual,' a tremendous favorite of many. It is light pink, double, perfumed and it blooms all summer and has nice gray leaves and plenty of them. It is a wonderful rose, and no great favorite of mine though I liked it well enough in the garden for some years; but you should know it is THE ROSE for many sensible gardeners.
A perpetual-flowering rose I think the world of is 'Jacques Cartier,' a very double pink in frequent repeated bloom all summer. The bush stands up straight, to four feet, and the blooms are incensed. Nobody could fail to love it or the quite similar 'Comte de Chambord.' I always had trouble telling them apart.
Rugosa roses are not very old; most of them appeared around 1900. My favorite, which often turns shapeless, however, is 'Roseraie de l'Hay,' a sumptuous deep bright velvety crimson, unfortunately unobtainable so far as I know in this country. Never mind, a rose of quite equal beauty, deep red turning purplish, is 'Mrs. Anthony Waterer,' which with me has flowers of better shape, though it does not repeat bloom through the summer as well as 'Roseraie.'
The plain 'Rugosa alba' has five petals and handsome fruit like small tomatoes. 'Hansa' is much like 'Roseraie,' equally well scented and almost as beautiful. The pink 'Sarah Van Fleet' blooms repeatedly, quite shapeless in hot weather, and makes a fine globe eight feet across. 'Belle Poitevine' is mallow pink and has good fruit -- many of these other rugosa hybrids do not -- and 'Agnes' is a wonderful soft yellow-buff, sometimes almost canary. It has an odd pleasing smell (derived from one parent, the Persian yellow briar, which labors under the somewhat too-harsh botanical name of Rosa foetida) and distinctive leaves that suggest parsley without actually looking like it. It blooms all at once, has no fruit, does not bloom at all after the spring, though it always looks as if it is thinking about a new crop of flowers in September. I am fairly mad about it, though like all the rugosas it is painful to prune. The rugosas do not need a tenth the thorns they are endowed with, but then I didn't design them.
So-called hybrid musks are creatures of our own century and are nice enough, but the only one I get in a lather about is an American (hear, hear) called 'Bishop Darlington,' which reaches five feet or so, with semi-double perfumed flowers of pink-yellow-peach, beautifully poised and abundant through the season, and leaves like the China rose, so that I never ran into blackspot or other miseries with it.
Among China roses there is the charming soft pink semi-double scentless (for practical purposes) 'Old Blush.' I used to grow the quite rare 'Slater's Crimson,' equally unrewarding to the nose; but no roses old or modern bloom more freely than the Chinas. I lost the single 'Mutabilis,' which had grown 10 feet tall against a garage. I moved it and it did all right at about four feet for several years then died in an outrageous winter. It too has no perfume.
Hybrid perpetual roses, misleadingly named since they do not bloom much after the spring, are usually on the gross side like small cabbages. Some of them are marvelously fragrant and they make big bushes as a class, often lacking grace and inclining to coarseness. Yet few can gaze at the pink 'Paul Neyron' without blinking. It is enormous, scented and easy to grow. 'General Jacqueminot' is full red, attar-scented; 'Reine des Violettes' is violet, perfumed and repeats its bloom well. It likes to grow tall and appreciates support.
The bourbons are a marvelous class of roses, usually fully double and scented and reliable rebloomers. 'Variegata de Bologna' never reblooms, or only very half-heartedly, with me, but then I give it a hard time. It is white with black-crimson stripes, smells like a scent bottle and likes to reach up to 10 feet on a graceless plant. I find it utterly marvelous. The pink 'Reine Victoria' and its blush-colored sport, and the reddish-lavender-rose 'Madame Isaac Perreire' (which I have always suspected is universally misspelled -- Dean Hole called it Periere, but then his book is full of misspellings so he is no authority here) is sometimes accounted the most fragrant of all roses.
There are dozens of other old roses available, equal to these, but I would start with 'Rosa Mundi,' 'Celeste' and go on from there, once you have chopped down the trees and torn up the pavement and removed that useless breakfast room addition to the house.