September 20, 2012

Ancient Roses



In my novel it is May 1791. Madame Rosalie de Leval, the main character, arrived from France and explored Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along the way her daughter Saraphine, about ten, spotted some flowers growing at the home of William and Ann Willings Bingham. What should these roses be?

Ancient roses are varieties of rose bushes that were known to be in existence prior to 1867 when modern hybridization techniques were introduced and began to gain momentum. These beautiful roses fell out of favor in the 20th century but are quickly regaining popularity as people discover that  old rose varieties are easy to grow and elegant.2

I discovered an Internet site listing old roses and made a list of those introduced to the United States prior to the 1790s—ten varieties. Next, I researched whether the roses bloomed in the Philadelphia gardening zone, if they roses bloomed in May, and if they required sun or shade..

All the roses on my list grow in zones 4-9.

My search for the zone qualification was surprisingly challenging. I recall once seeing a simple zone map with temperatures listed.. Now there are planting zones, climate zones, and hardiness zones.

Zone maps are tools that show where various permanent landscape plants can adapt. If you want a shrub, perennial, or tree to survive and grow year after year, the plant must tolerate year-round conditions in your area, such as the lowest and highest temperatures and the amount and distribution of rainfall. The USDFA provides a 1990 Hardiness Zone Map. To find my information I had to know the zip code of downtown Philadelphia. I chose 19112, along the Delaware River, which is zone 6B.3

Another site provided the information that in zones 4-9 the low temperatures range between -25 and 30 degrees F.Pretty safe for any of the roses on my list.

Which roses on my list bloom in May? I started researching the four roses that bloomed repeatedly. Since I thought pink was an appropriate color to attract a ten-year-old French lass, I sorted them out to research first: Quatre Saisons, Rosa Rugosa Rubra, Old Blush. The fourth rose was white: Rosa Rugosa Alba.

I typed Quatre Saisons, a.k.a. Autumn Damask and Rosa Damascena Bifera, into my search engine. It’s listed as ancient plant bred of unknown origin before 1633. Recent research in Japan indicates that both summer and autumn damask roses originated with (R. moschata X R. gallica) X R. fedtschenkoana.

The Quatre Saisons was praised by Virgil and Ovid, and was widely known and grown in Roman times. This is one of the few repeat blooming roses recorded in ancient history—itblooms almost continuously in the spring and fall (perhaps in the summer too, it wasn’t clear). When it was brought to the new world by the Spanish, this rose with its intense damask fragrance was known as the Rose of Castile.

Middle Easterners prize the Quatre Saisons for its perfume, which makes it valuable for use in rose oils and potpourri.

The Quatre Saisons has a double bloom form containing 17-25 clear pink petals. It is thorny with light yellowish-gray-green foliage. It grows to a height of 4′ to 5′ (120 to 150 cm) and a width of 3′ to 4′ (90 to 120 cm).

The second rose I researched was Old Blush, first officially introduced to Europe, from Calcutta, in 1752. Long before that it was brought to Calcutta from China. Its delightful blossoms are semi-double two and a half  inch clear flowers borne in clusters, their color deepening in the sun, which is characteristic of most China and Tea roses. They are one of the first roses to appear and one of the last “left blooming alone.”

On further examination I noticed that Old Blush didn’t arrive in the Untied States until 1793. Too late for my purposes, so I disqualified it.

The next contender to be mentioned in my novel was the Rosa Rugosa Rubra, which blooms repeatedly. However, its date of introduction to the United States is uncertain—some time before 1799. Perhaps it wasn’t here by 1791. Disqualified.

Finally I investigated the Rosa Rugosa Alba, with its pristine white single blooms that have ivory stamens in the center. It not only has a marvelous fragrance that attracts butterflies, it has edible hips very high in vitamin C. This extremely thorny plant, with its crinkly rugose foliage, is extremely hardy and blooms from spring to autumn.

I decided to go with the Quatre Saisons and perhaps comment on the Rosa Rugosa Alba.

I did no further research on the flowers that only bloomed once each season (and when—spring? or summer, autumn? This wasn’t made clear in any of the sources). However, since they are on my list I think they deserve a mention: Rosa Gallica Officinalis (Apothecary Rose), before 1300; Rosa Mundi (Rosa gallica versicolor) Gallica, prior to 1591; York and Lancaster (R. damascena versicolor) Damask, 1551; Rosa Damascena Trigintipetala(Kazanlik) Damascena, prior to 1700; Celsiana Damask, prior to 1750; Celestial Celeste. Alba, 1759, and De Meaux Centifolia, 1789.


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Photo of Rosa ‘Quatre Saisons’ at the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, taken October 2004 by User:Stan Shebs {{GFDL-self}} ( )  Quatre saison rose Rosa rugosa photograph   Rosa rugosa sketch




    Comment by Joan — September 20, 2012 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  2. From Diane Cipa via E-mail:

    I am lucky to have my grandmother’s rose bush. I have no idea how old the bush is. It may have been on their little farm when the purchased it back in 1925. When the family sold the farmhouse, my father transplanted it to our childhood home. When my father died, I transplanted it to my home here in Ligonier. It certainly is the old style rose.

    Diane Cipa
    Ligonier Living

    Comment by carolyncholland — September 20, 2012 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

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