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History of Old Roses
by Brent C. Dickerson, odinthor@csulb.edu
author, "The Old Rose Advisor"

(Used By Permission)

(Also See: Rose Organizations below)


The Hybrid Tea Roses, accompanied at length by the Floribunda and Grandiflora Roses so influenced by them, have been at the fore of rose progress for about a century now--so long that its forebears and predecessors have become, to many rosarians, mere footnotes rather than what they should be, valid candidates for equal interest.

The modern "English Roses" by David Austin (modeled on the past; covered in another FAQ) and the ever-increasing groundswell of interest in old roses proper perhaps make it desirable for all rosarian netlings to gain some quick familiarity with the heritage of the rose. We therefore present the following thumbnail notes as something of a starting point, hoping that wiser heads will supply the necessary corrections or variant information, and hoping as well that those interested in more detail will check out the many fine books which deal with this at greater length.

General History

Various wild roses grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere in sites ranging from riparian and swampy all the way to those of the desert. Two geographical groupings which, at first, developed separately, have had--both in their separation and in their ultimate combination--the greatest importance in rose history: The European/Mediterranean group of species and their hybrids, and the Oriental group of species and their hybrids.

The European roses are primarily the following: Gallicas, Albas, Damasks, Damask Perpetuals, Centifolias, and Mosses. The mainstream Oriental groups are Chinas and Teas. The European sorts--with one important exception--have only one season of bloom per year, while the Orientals repeat bloom more or less continuously.

The European/Mediterranean roses or their forebears have been grown and loved since the earliest days of history (and no doubt before). Wreaths of Damask-like roses have been found in Egyptian tombs; seemingly the same rose--called at one time "Rosa sancta" (the Holy Rose)--has been grown down to our own days in holy places in eastern Africa. Frescoes painted during the heyday of the Minoan culture on Crete show roses. The festivals both sacred and profane of the classical Greeks included roses, and did those of the Romans. During the Roman era, a repeat-blooming variant of the Damask rose evidently appeared, the first member of a group which came to be called "Damask Perpetuals." The Romans were so sophisticated that they developed a hot-house technology which allowed them to "force" roses into more bloom; they also imported roses from Egypt. The roses of these most ancient times in Europe and the Mediterranean were seemingly the Damasks, the Albas, and the Gallicas.

During the Middle Ages, these roses retained a certain religious use, not only as decorations and adjuncts to (now Christian) holy festivals, but also as denizens of the medicinal gardens. Their medicinal associations as well as the simple human delight in their fragrance brought about the distillation-of-rose-essence industry, which still has local importance in a few areas of Europe (formerly France, now primarily Bulgaria).

With the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of the merchant class, commerce in horticultural material began to flourish. Due to their fleet of trading ships and the peculiarities of their geography, the Netherlands became (and continue) a great center of horticultural business. Alongside their trade in Tulips, Hyacinths, Carnations, and the like, came something new in Occidental rose progress: systematic growing of roses from seed (previously, roses had primarily been propagated from cuttings, suckers, runners, and possibly to a small degree by grafts). This opened up the possibility inherent in sexual reproduction: Variation. One of the great holes in knowledge of rose history concerns what roses they used in this, and how they went about it--but, at any rate, whereas previously only some tens of rose cultivars existed, now, in the period up to about 1810, one or two hundred became available, indeed a whole new group, the Centifolias, arising from the complex and possibly arbitrary breeding of the Dutch.

Around 1800, the French became interested in roses and the rose industry. This interest was fueled by the French Empress Josephine, who surrounded herself with adepts in all fields of interest to her--one was Botany--while she consoled herself at the palace of Malmaison over her divorce from her beloved Napoleon. At this palace, she collected all the available sorts of roses, and encouraged the breeding and hybridizing of new ones. Spurred by this imperial patronage, several French breeders--notably Dupont and Descemet--went to work with a vengeance, developing several hundred new cultivars in the European groups (Gallicas, Damasks, Albas, Centifolias . . . ). Descemet indeed very carefully kept notes of the results of particular crosses, and may be said to have been the first in the West to have practiced controlled cross-breeding. We must turn, however, to the Orient for a moment, leaving Europe in the throes of Napoleonic war and rose-breeding. There is alas little information on Oriental--or, more specifically, Chinese--rose breeding. One finds indications that roses were favored, though perhaps not to the extent that the Peony, the Chrysanthemum, or the Camellia were. What is important to note, however, is that by the period 1750-1824, four cultivars in particular--often called today (rather rustically) "The Four Stud Chinas"--had been developed. Two were true China roses, one pink, one red. Two were Tea roses, one blush, one yellowish. These were continuous-blooming, as the Oriental roses were, but not hardy, and their introduction into the Occident at length completely revolutionized rose progress.

The French, though their Emperor had fallen and Josephine was dead, continued their efforts with both the old material and now with the new. Due to political problems, Descemet had to flee France, but an ex-soldier of Napoleon's army, wounded in Italy, now prosperous as a hardware-shop owner, indulged his interest in roses and bought what remained of Descemet's nursery and breeding notes after the site of the nursery was sacked by invading English troops. This was Jean-Pierre Vibert, whose intelligence and industriousness working from 1816-1850 had a lasting influence on the French rose industry.

The crosses with the new material were made as work continued in all groups of roses. Never before the 1820's had such a diversity of disparate roses been available--and never since. Almost every available species, no matter how obscure, had varieties and subvarieties of varying color or form due to breeding or sports. A sport of the Centifolia, the Moss Rose, had appeared a few decades before, and now began to spread its unique array of cultivars over the rose scene as the breeders worked with it.

As the 1820's became the 1830's, however, interest was concentrated on the breeding between the Oriental roses and the Europeans. Due to the laws of genetics, the first progeny of crosses between once-bloomers and repeat-bloomers were once-blooming. As they were crossed with each other, however, and then back to the Chinas and Teas, repeat-blooming hybrids began to appear. These were crossed with Damask Perpetuals. The 1830's were a time of ferment and experimentation with these.

Meantime, on an island in the Indian Ocean (though there is some debate about this), a new cross between a China and a Damask Perpetual appeared. This was the Bourbon Rose. Its appearance at this time made it a part of the breeding going on primarily in France (though efforts were also underway in England).

The outcome of all these crosses jelled in the 1840's into the group called "Hybrid Perpetuals"--a name which implied to the people of the time "Damask Perpetuals which have been hybridized with Other Sorts." This group, taking in cultivars of all colors and forms, and (best of all to the people of the era) at least somewhat re-blooming and hardy, overwhelmed almost all the other groups. Interest in the old European sorts waned; they were gradually set aside, kept mainly as sentimental remembrances of the past by a few devotees.

The idea of rose shows and competitions was on the rise at this time. These events began for better or worse to standardize the concept of what a rose blossom should look like, and made many concentrate on the rose as a producer of exhibition items rather than a decorative plant for the garden.

Breeding experimentation continued. The original, rather weakly-growing, Teas were crossed with Bourbons to make a new, robust sort of Tea. As the search to widen the range of Hybrid Perpetuals continued, they were crossed with the Teas producing a group which came to be known as Hybrid Teas. Efforts along these lines really got underway seriously in the 1870's, though there had been a few earlier such crosses as well.

But, still experimentation continued. A strong yellow rose was wanted. The Teas had light yellows among their number, but these had a tendency to fade, and the plants were not as robust as people had become accustomed to from the Hybrid Perpetuals. A deep yellow species, R. foetida, had been used to produce a Tea 'Ma Capucine' by the breeder Levet in 1871, but the plant was weak-growing, discouraging further work. In the 1890's, Pernet-Ducher turned to the problem, and, after a long series of experiments with Teas, Hybrid Teas, Hybrid Perpetuals, and (finally) R. foetida, produced offspring around 1900 from a cross of the HP 'Antoine Ducher' and R. foetida which had a yellow/gold/coral tone that seemed to promise much. Further developments from this cross were called "Pernetianas," and at length they were combined with the original Hybrid Teas to produce what might be called "Hybrid Hybrid Teas"--the Hybrid Teas of today.


There are a number of organizations which would be of interest to devotees of old roses. We cannot know or list all of them; neither listing nor failing to list here indicates any opinion of their worth. Here are some addresses correct as of the time of writing (November 1, 1994); please write for information:



American Rose Society
P.O. Box 30,000
Shreveport, LA 71130

Canadian Rose Society
Mrs. Anne Graber, Secr.
10 Fairfax Cr.
Scarborough, Ont  M1L 1Z8
La Societe Francaise des Roses
Parc de la Tete d'Or
69459 Lyon

Verein Deutscher Rosenfreunde
Mainaustrasse 198A
775A Konstanz

The Royal National Rose Society
Chiswell Green
St. Albans, Herts.  AL2 3NR



Dallas Area Historical Rose Society
P.O. Box 38585
Dallas, TX 75238-0585

Heritage Roses Group, North-East
Lily Shohan
RD 1  Box 299
Clinton Corners, NY 12514

Heritage Roses Group, North Central
Henry Najat
6365 Wald Road
Monroe, WI 53566

Heritage Roses Group, North West
Judy Dexter
23665 41st Street South
Kent, WA 98032

Heritage Roses Group, South East
Jan Wilson
1700 S. Lafayette St.
Shelby, NC 28150

Heritage Roses Group, South Central
Karen Walbrun
Rt. 2  Box 6661
Pipe Creek, TX 78063
Heritage Roses Group, South West
(Last name A-G)
Betty L. Cooper
925 King Drive
El Cerrito, CA 94530

Heritage Roses Group, South West
(Last name H-O)
Marlea Graham
100 Bear Oaks Drive
Martinez, CA 94553

Heritage Roses Group, South West
(Last name P-Z)
Frances Grate
472 Gibson Avenue
Pacific Grove, CA 93950

Heritage Rose Foundation
1512 Gorman Street
Raleigh, NC 27606

Les Amis de la Roseraie
Roseraie Departemental
Rue Andre Watel
94240 L'Hay-les-Roses

(Used By Permission of the Author)

© Brent C. Dickerson odinthor@csulb.edu, author, "The Old Rose Advisor"






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