What are Heirloom or Old Garden Roses?

We love the older, long established roses so much that we are even named after them! While all roses make our world and gardens beautiful, these Old Garden varieties hold a special place in our hearts and have places of honor in gardens all around the world.

Heirloom roses are often referred to as Old Garden roses and are known for their deep fragrance and large, beautiful blooms. The term “Old Garden roses” refers to roses that existed before 1867. In 1867, ‘La France’ was introduced as the first hybrid tea rose, introducing a new era of “Modern roses.”

Today, 80% of all roses grown fall into the Modern class of roses and the varieties have increased through the hybridization of the Modern rose resulting in hardy and heavy producing plants with large blooms. These hybridized results are the Tea Roses and Floribundas you find in most gardens today.

While Modern roses are stunning and have their own wonderful characteristics, they do not have the same heady fragrance or the big, full blooms that set Old Garden roses apart. Old Garden roses are the nostalgic scents you remember from your grandparents’ garden, the picture you think of when you imagine the perfect bouquet, and the focal point in art pieces in every museum. They are nearly perfect. This is the reason we work hard to preserve and share these treasured varieties.

With a return to the simpler things of life and the focus on organic, sustainable, classic gardening, Old Garden roses are making a huge comeback. This is the addition any gardener needs to brighten up that one space and fill the whole garden with a sweet scent. They are simple to grow and perform well year after year with abundant blooms.

Actual Old Garden rose varieties can be difficult to identify and fall into five different categories: Gallicas, Damasks, Albas, Centifolias, and Moss roses.

GALLICAS are the oldest of all Old Garden roses and have influenced nearly all Old Garden roses even to today. They were originally grown by the Greeks and Romans and later by the Dutch and French, as reflected in their names. Gallicas range from shades of pink, red and purple to deep crimson red with stripes. The single, double, or semi-double blooms are held alone or in groups of three. The bushes are low suckering shrubs with oval foliage that is pointed and rough in texture. It is typically dark green. Gallicas require very little attention and can grow well in poor, gravelly soil.

DAMASK ROSES originated in the eastern Mediterranean and were grown by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans. They are extraordinarily fragrant and have a parenting mix from a Gallica rose and a wild Species rose. They are cold hardy, even growing in zone 4, but are very thorny and have an arching growth habit. They reach about three to seven feet tall and most only bloom once a year. Damask roses, unlike Gallicas, need good fertile soil to thrive.

ALBAS are the most elegant of the old roses. They produce tall, slender growth with blush pink or white flowers and gray-green foliage. Albas are cold-hardy for zones 3-9 and can survive even in partial shade. Their rich perfume makes them a favorite cut flower.

CENTIFOLIAS are sometimes called a cabbage rose due to the shape of their blooms, which contain up to 100 or more petals. They were developed by Dutch breeders between the 17th and 19th centuries and are the classic image of an Old Garden rose. Centifolias have lax, open, and lanky growth with a mixture of large and small thorns. The flowers are heavy and globular while the leaves are large, round and broadly toothed. Centifolias will need some support to keep them from bending to the ground. They are very winter hardy, fragrant, and bloom once.

MOSS roses have a pine-like fragrance and a stunning moss-like growth on the sepals. They are actually Centifolias and Damasks that developed this mossing as a result of sport, or mutation. These roses were bred over a short period of time, between 1850 to 1870, and were very popular in the Victorian era in England. They retain the strong fragrance of the Centifolia and are found in almost all colors with some varieties as repeat bloomers.