My Favourite Roses by Graham Stuart Thomas

Would Jove appoint some flower to reign
In matchless beauty on the plain,
The rose (mankind will all agree)
The Rose the Queen of Flowers should be.

In his book of 1894, The Book of the Rose, A. Foster-Melliar attributed this verse to Sappho, a Greek poetess who was born about 600 BC.

But even older is the flower so favoured by us all. The rose so praised was probably Rosa gallica , but we cannot know for sure. Roses have been particularly prized in Europe and in China for more than just the last 1000 years – they were revered much earlier during the Minoan civilisation in Crete (c.1400BC).

By about 1700 a few forms of certain roses were much treasured by gardeners. Since hybridising was not understood until the late 19th century these hundreds of named garden varieties then in cultivation had all occurred naturally. But by about 1920 these old named roses had become neglected in favour of the hybrids derived from the few garden roses probably of even greater antiquity – which had been brought to Europe from China.

Appreciation for ancient European hybrid roses

But a little stirring of appreciation for the ancient European hybrids was already felt by such far-seeing nurserymen as Tom Smith of Newry (Daisy Hill Nursery) and Edward A. Bunyard (famous for his appraisal of fruit trees), at Maidstone, Kent. An equal appreciation was found in the nurseries of Bobbink and Atkins of New Jersey in USA, and also in France by Pajotin-Chedane, near Angers.

Although the First World War nipped these little collections in the bud, some were saved; fortunately Constance Spry also saw their unique beauty. It was not until immediately after the Second World War that I too became aware of their beauty.

I had been brought up on Hybrid Tea roses – ‘Étoile de Hollande’ ‘Mme Butterfly’, ‘Emma Wright’, ‘Mabel Morse’, ‘Picture’ and many more. All their qualities and beauty were fully extolled in an enthralling catalogue published by R. Murrell of Shepperton on Thames which bore the same title as this little essay. In it roses were arranged according to the firm’s sales, and it was amusing and interesting to see how varieties moved up and down the list according to their popularity with customers, prompted no doubt by Mr Murrell’s pithy comments and useful recommendations about cultivation.

Invaluable rose collections

After many years of appraisal I feel I may pen these notes with something of the same confidence. It was an enthralling experience collecting these heirlooms of the past from the handful of devotees up and down this country and also abroad. Constance Spry made her invaluable collection available to me and I was similarly welcome at Nymans, (the garden fostered by Mrs Messel); at Richmond in Yorkshire, Bobbie James’ fine garden offered yet more.

Then both Bunyard’s collection (after his death) and that at Daisy Hill both came onto the market. And there were also the renowned national gardens in Paris at the Roseraie de I’Hay and Bagatelle. Sangerhausen, in what was then East Germany, did not yield its nuggets until later. Was it not fortunate that there were these collections still extant and named for us to see and use for propagating material?

By a happy coincidence I was the manager of a large nursery that could accommodate them. It was noticeable that all the collections had the same few favourites, preserved for their undoubted unique beauty; by degrees our collection was swelled by odd varieties picked up here and there. My little books Roses as Flowering Shrubs and The Manual of Shrub Roses sold by the thousand and eventually resulted in groups and societies being formed in several states of the USA, in Denmark, New Zealand and South Africa, and I’m glad to say, the country from where so many came – France.

Unequalled beauty

Much as I love a shapely Hybrid Tea rose (so long as it has a good scent), these old shrub roses are my favourites. I can explain it quite simply. They reached a style of beauty unequalled in their heyday between about 1800 and 1860; the criterion being fully double flowers so filled with short petals that they present a flat array. There is little beauty in the bud.

The colours vary from white through pink to light crimson and also mauves and grey tints to darkest murrey colour – often misleadingly called maroon (from the French “marron” and signifies the brown of the chestnut). “Murrey” calls to mind the richly coloured juice of the mulberry.

The scent is in the petals fortunately and thus it is apt to be strongest in the full double. However I am leaving out of my little list of two dozen favourites the famous fully double ‘Charles de Mills’ on account of its comparative lack of scent.

Together with the shape, colour, and scent must of course be included a sturdy growth and good foliage. The bushes are completely hardy in Britain and colder parts of America.

I have limited my list to about two dozen but my selection 10 years ago or 10 years hence could well vary. It has not been easy.

Gallica roses

I think we should all want to include Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’. The wild species Rosa gallica is in the parentage of all the old European roses though it is of little consequence today. It grows at Mottisfont. Its semi-double sport or seedling ‘Officinalis’ is light crimson, is of unknown antiquity and has a wonderful striped sport in ‘Versicolor’ (known as ‘Rosa Mundi’), in which the striping is of palest pink.

Both ‘Officinalis’ and ‘Rosa Mundi’ are splendid upstanding bushes, the latter tending to revert to the former. Seen together as in the hedge at Kiftsgate Court, Gloucestershire, they make as brilliant effect as any flowering shrub.

Another striped charmer is ‘Tricolore de Flandres’ with its murrey and grey tints, the loosely double flower has great charm and is rather more vigorous than the better known ‘Camaieux’.

I believe it is to the gallica parentage that we owe most of our grey-lilac and murrey tones and here among my favourites is ‘Belle de Crécy’. It has all the soft tints, from warm cerise to pale lilac-grey, is well scented and a reasonably sturdy grower.

The improbably named ‘Du Maïtre d’École’ is possibly the largest in flower of all gallicas and very fully double, of fairly intense cerise-pink on opening, fading in maturity to wonderful shades of grey and lilac. Also in the same tint and close runners-up are ‘President de Seze’ and ‘Gloire de France’. But ‘Du Maïtre’ has the advantage in being a sturdy, short grower seldom achieving 1m (3ft). All three have good scent.

There is a little group in strong colours – vivid cerise-crimson, magenta-tinted, headed, I think, by ‘Assemblage de Beautes’ although ‘Surpasse Tout’ and ‘Duc de Guiche’ run it a close second. Of all these roses, the gallicas, are the most compact in habit and hold their flowers aloft.

Damask roses

The Damasks are a very different matter. Although on the whole they are of taller, lax habit, my selection only includes sturdy bushes. There is first and foremost the incomparable ‘Madame Hardy’. It was the perfection of tints and shape (often with pronounced button-eye) of this incomparable rose that first made me realise what gems we were in danger of losing. No rose that has ever been raised can compete with it. A good strong grower, with handsome dark foliage, it has a perfection of flower: well filled with short petals (often arranged in groups) and with a pronounced button-eye, offset by a green pointel in the centre. It captivated me when I first saw it and I never tire of its unsurpassed qualities. For small gardens ‘Madame Zoëtmans’ may be preferred.

There are two ravishing pinks, the rather lax ‘Celsiana’, so well depicted by Redoute, and the invaluable ‘Comtesse de Chambord’ – invaluable because its beautiful flowers are repeated until autumn and it is not wanting in shape and fragrance. There is one murrey-coloured variety, ‘Indigo’ which also repeats well; no doubt a hybrid with gallica, forming a good sturdy bush.

Alba roses

We approach some of the queens of the tribe in the Alba roses. They inherit some of the vigour, greyish leaves and large prickles of R. canina , our native Dog Rose. The prototype is R. alba ‘Maxima’, a great shrub of some 7.5 × 7.5m (8×8ft), immortalised in many a Flemish painting. Creamy white, fully double, and well scented this is the Great Double White or Jacobite rose, a sport from an original hybrid which we call R. alba ‘Semi plena’, the White Rose of York, which blesses us in autumn with a fine show of heps.

For pure soft pink and greyish leaves nothing can compare with ‘Celeste’ in shape of bud and open flower, while the Damask hybrid ‘Königin von Danemarck’ strikes a high note with its greyish leaves, shapely double flowers and intense cerise-pink colouring, fading to a paler shade. I often think it is the most perfect of all these roses. For smaller gardens there is the exquisite ‘Félicité Parmentier’.

Centifolia roses

In the Centifolia group, of which the original, R. centifolia, impressed the Flemish painters of the 17th century above all others, we can choose either this or its two famed forms ‘Cristat’ (‘Chapeau de Napoléon’) or ‘Bullata’. Both have much of the gracious poise of the great, nodding, globular flower of the original R. centifolia . And what a scent! While it would be hard to make a selection of old roses without one of these, it must be admitted that they are of lax, open habit.

A more compact variant is found in ‘Petite de Hollande’, while ‘Fantin Latour’ brings us to a superlative pink rose of dubious naming. It is no doubt of later origin but in all ways well worthy of inclusion for its pure pink shapely blooms, fragrance and excellent foliage.

A rose that is difficult to place in gardens because of its lax growth is ‘Tour de Malakoff’. But 1 cannot omit it; the huge loose blooms have every shade of pink, crimson, purple and murrey found in all these roses.

Moss roses

R. centifolia produced a mossy-budded sport in the late 17th century which then gave rise to that great beauty which we call the Common Moss; it is a clear soft pink and well scented, but unfortunately is of lax open growth. ‘Gloire des Mousseux’ might therefore be preferred, while ‘General Kleber’ is a splendid upstanding bush with clear pink blooms.

Among the several with murrey tints is the giant grower, ‘William Lobb’. From rich purple it fades to a soft parma violet. It is however rather unmanageable in the garden. A more compact bush is the extra dark ‘Capitaine John Ingram’ or the smaller even darker ‘Nuits de Young’.

Bourbon roses

I am tempted to include a few Bourbons, but they owe their being in part to the China rose. So with reluctance I omit such joys as ‘Boule de Neige’ and ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’ and the bush form of ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ of 1843 and its later sport ‘Souvenir de St Anne’s’.

With this little collection outlined above most gardeners would feel they had a good introduction to the old shrub roses of the past. Reaching their apogee towards the end of the 19th century we may feel that they represent an achievement analogous to the progress of the Hybrid Teas although along different lines towards a different goal.

Excellent rose nurseries

Fortunately there are two excellent nurseries offering a wide range of these old roses: David Austin and Peter Beales. With others in the USA and elsewhere I believe that these heirlooms now have an assured future. The search for further varieties has only resulted in finding more without names, similar to those already rescued. The best and most distinct were safe in the hands of their devotees early in the 20th century.

A criticism which is often levelled against old roses is that they only flower once at midsummer. But most of our most loved shrubs, such as forsythia, rhododendrons, philadelphus and lilacs are likewise only once flowering. This is a point to put across to the unconverted.

There is often a cry today for roses to be free of suckers from their alien rootstock. Watching the wandering roots of the gallica ‘Tuscany Superb’ in my own garden, I think ‘own root’ roses, especially gallicas, is a subject best avoided !

Graham Stuart Thomas OBE, VMH, DHM, VMM (1909 – 2003) needs no introduction. Through his research, his writing and his love of roses he probably contributed more to our understanding and knowledge of the history of the rose than anyone else in the last century. Indeed he greatly enriched the whole subject of roses and enjoyed a following throughout the world.

This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue.

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