Choosing Antique Roses for Your Garden

Species roses and old garden roses — both sometimes referred to as antique roses — are the roses that preceded modern varieties. These roses are an incredibly diverse group of plants, with great variety in plant habit (the size and shape), flower form, and fragrance. Some have historical importance; others were useful to hybridizers as breeding stock to create modern rose varieties. Still others, such as the rugosas, are still used in breeding today to create new and better hybrids.

Species and old garden roses have always been popular because of their ruggedness, beauty, and intense fragrance. With these qualities come some drawbacks, however. For example, some species and old garden roses are very vigorous plants that literally can take over a small garden. Others are shy bloomers. In fact, many bloom only once a season. And some are extremely prone to disease.

The size and habit of species and old garden roses dictate how you can use them in the landscape. You can train vigorous types to a fence or arbor like a climbing rose, or leave them to sprawl over a slope as a ground cover. Shrubbier rose types make excellent hedges, or you can mix them in with perennial borders. Even though many bloom only once, in the spring, old roses often make up for it by producing colorful hips that last long into winter. Others have attractive foliage that looks good throughout the growing season. Most antique roses have very interesting flowers. They’re usually flat-topped, rounded, and rather cup-shaped, with many petals. If you like cut flowers, antique roses are tops. Although most don’t have the strong, straight stems of modern hybrid teas, their beautiful flower form makes for a unique bouquet. And oh, the fragrance! It’s not always there, but when it is, it can be overpowering.

Just remember one thing about many species and old garden roses: They usually grow on their own roots, so they often spread like crazy, forming dense thickets. Make sure that you plant these roses where they have plenty of room to grow.

Many species and old garden roses need less care than modern roses do. In fact, many seem to thrive on neglect. However, where summers are dry, regular watering is necessary to keep the plants healthy. And almost anywhere, applying fertilizer regularly keeps the plants growing vigorously. Prune your plants to keep them within bounds and remove dead branches. But, other than that, less pruning is probably better than more. Prune roses that bloom just once in spring after they bloom, if at all. If you prune in winter or late spring, prior to blooming, you remove branches that would otherwise produce flowers. You can prune repeat bloomers in winter to early spring as with other types of roses.

Few nurseries and garden centers carry a wide selection of species and old garden roses. For the best selection, you have to order plants from a catalog that specializes in antique roses.

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