Historic Paths Are Strewn with Roses

Many Names · An Historic Rose Tour · Old Rose Recipes · Books on Old Roses · Web Sites · Old Rose Dealers

George Washington grew them. So did Thomas Jefferson. TJ's very interesting gardening book lists the types he tried at Monticello: sweet-briar, damask, Cherokee, moss, monthly, musk, and "wild roses."

Beloved for centuries for their practical uses as well as their beauty, Old World roses were brought to the New World by European settlers who desired a link with their old homeland that was both useful and delightful.

When we think of roses today, we most often imagine a bouquet of red, long-stemmed beauties. In the colonial period, those kinds of roses—called Hybrid Tea Roses—were unknown. Early gardeners would have relied on musk roses, damask roses, and others. Ancient in pedigree, some were imported from China and the Middle East.

Old Roses by Many Names

What is an Old Rose? Experts say that any class of rose that was propagated before the arrival of the first hybrid Tea Roses (La France, in 1867) is considered an Old Rose. These are some of their more common varieties, dating to the American colonial period:

Species Roses:
These five-petaled wild children of the rose family have not been so much cultivated as invited in and encouraged to thrive in gardens. Prized for their simple beauty and the strong medicinal value of their hips, they include Rosa Rugosa (Japanese Rose), Sweetbriar (a.k.a. Shakespeare's Eglantine), and Rosa Blanda (Prairie Rose).

Alba Roses:
Vigorous, disease resistant, and winter hardy. Grown since antiquity. Examples: Queen of Denmark, Maiden's Blush, and Celestial.

Damask Roses:
Also ancient, and hailing from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Quite thorny and quite hardy. Examples: Ispahan, Madame Hardy, and Semi-Plena, the White Rose of York.

Gallica Roses:
Grown as early as the 12th century B.C. in Persia. Strongly-perfumed. Examples: Rosa Mundi, Apothecary Rose, and Belle de Crecy.

Centifolia Roses:
Probably originated by Dutch growers in 17th century. Centifolia means 100-leaved. Another name for it is the Cabbage Rose. Often seen in Dutch paintings of the period. Examples: Juno, Chapeau de Napoleon, and Blanchefleur.

Moss Roses:
Arriving after 1700, they are called Moss Roses for the fragrant, sticky substance emanating from glands which covers the stems, sepals, and calyx of the plant. Examples: Old Pink Moss, Salet, and Nuits de Young.

Later types of Old Roses include the Noisette (before 1811), Tea Roses (ancestors of our modern hybrid Tea Roses—they were introduced in the West in the early 1800s), China Roses (introduced in the West in the late 1700s), Bourbons (in France by 1819), Portland roses (since 1792), and Boursault roses (early 1800s).

An Historic Rose Tour

May and June are good times to go on a rose hunt. Pack some water, grab a hat, and check out the beautiful blooms at two of the area's historic sites.

Chatham Manor, a National Park Service property, is blessed with an amazing rose garden. Established by the Devore family in the 1920s on the remains of a colonial garden, the Devore's garden, designed by famed landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, was once so extensive that it required eight gardeners to maintain it. When the Pratts bought Chatham in 1931, they pared down the garden to a more manageable size. They kept the boxwood and the rose garden, which are lovely to this day. These gardens were later restored by the Garden Club of Virginia. Rose varieties you may see include:


Radiance (Hybrid tea rose, 1908) Marshall Neill aka 'Maréchal Niel'
(Noisette, 1864)
Agnes (Shrub rose, 1900)
Alfred de Dalmas aka 'Mousseline'
(Moss rose, 1855)
Alchymist (Climbing or shrub, 1956) Dr. W. Van Fleet (Rambling rose, 1908)
The Fairy (Polyantha, 1932) Crimson Glory
(Hybrid tea rose, 1935)
Hugonsis (Father Hugo's Rose) Lady Banks—Yellow
(Climber, 1824)
Lady Banks—White (Climber, 1803)


Belmont, the Falmouth home of artist Gari Melchers and his wife, has a lovely collection of roses. They have published their rose listings online here. Prized as a venue for weddings, Belmont takes excellent care of its roses as well as its other collections and encourages visitors, young and old, to learn more about them and the Melchers.


Other Local Places to See Roses

In front of Central Rappahannock Regional Library's Headquarters is a fountain surrounded by beautiful pink roses. These shrub or hedge roses have been patented by growers Jackson & Perkins under the name Simplicity. They are easy to maintain, have a slight fragrance, and bloom repeatedly through the seasons.

The next time you're grabbing a cup of coffee at Hyperion in May or June, take a walk across the street to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. They have a lovely collection of hybrid tea roses. The nearby Fredericksburg Baptist Church also has its hybrid teas on the side facing Princess Anne Street.

Old-Fashioned Uses for Roses Are Still Practical

During the 1700s and later, farm houses and plantations often had a still room where herbal ingredients from the garden were distilled into useful remedies.
Used as a facial toner and also a flavoring, particularly during the Elizabethan Age. Check out Jane Lake's recipes for rosewater and a rosewater-based toner.

The BBC's site offers a nice video showing how to prepare Petalberry Jam, where strawberries mingle with roses.

Rose Hip Tea

Vitamin C and lots of it—that's what you'll get from rose hip tea. Rose hips are the roses' fruit—what's left behind after the blossoms have passed. Sweetbriar Eglantine has strong hips (seed pods), terrific for tea. But a word of warning—it is an invasive plant! Saveur has an excellent recipe online for a tea made from fresh rose hips.

In the Library

100 Old Roses for the American Garden by Clair G. Martin

Landscaping with Antique Roses by Liz Druitt and G. Michael Shoup

The Old Rose Advisor by Brent C. Dickerson

The Ultimate Rose Book: 1,500 Roses--Antique, Modern (Including Miniatures), and Wild--All Shown in Color and Selected for Their Beauty, Fragrance, and Enduring Popularity by Stirling Macoboy

On the Web:

The American Rose Society
Intrigued by the possibilities of roses for your garden? Perhaps you would like to become a Rosicrucian—not one of the mystic order, but rather folks who might also be called rose fanciers. The ARS page is the place to go. You can find local rose organizations, such as our Fredericksburg Rose Society.

"Champneys' Pink Cluster Comes to Monticello" from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
Jefferson was a cutting-edge gardener who also loved the old roses. This article details Jefferson's roses and those of his successor at Monticello. Monticello's garden shop stocks Damask, China, and Noisette roses in containers.

Some Firms Which Specialize in Old Roses

Many companies stock some older roses, but when you're ready to buy, these people are specialists:

The Antique Rose Emporium
These growers in Texas have chosen many of their old rose varieties for their easy going ways. The site also includes the useful Guide to Antique Roses.

Classic Roses
A tremendous variety, but only bareroot roses ship outside the EU, and those only ship between November and March.

Heirloom Roses
Many choices, including patented roses which combine the best of old and new roses. They also offer year-round shipping.