Heritage Roses versus the modern Hybrids

A presentation by Ludwig Taschner at the La Motte wine estate during the Open Garden season in Franschhoek 2014

I grew up with “Old roses”.  My home town was, and still is surrounded by a magnificent mixed forest with Oak trees many hundreds of years old. Dog roses (Rosa canina) grew on the edges of the forest next to farmer’s fields. As kids we would pick the hips in autumn for grandmother to make her famous rose hip jam. This was quite a process, which involved boiling the hips, and squeezing the pulp through a sieve or strainer. We kids had great fun drying out the actual seed kernels, rubbing off the tiny hair prickles and dropping them down the neck of unsuspecting girls at school. Nasty – today, being a grandfather I know who showed us.

In the parks and especially at the grave yard were lots of Albas and Gallicas and even a hedge of Rosa rubrifolia (glauca, Hecht-Rose, Red Leaf Rose). My mother had a treasured bed of moss roses, and only she cut the blooms, cared for them and pruned them. My parents were both educated and dedicated horticulturists and even in the difficult years after the war, we as a family, were dragged to Sangerhausen – a three-hour trip by horse drawn coach.

During my three-year apprenticeship as a tree nurseryman, we concentrated on fruit trees with roses as a sideline. Our annual excursions took us, again, to the Rosariums in Sangerhausen and Forst.

Checking my old catalogues I was actually surprised to see that in 1975 we already listed 25 different OLD FASHIONED PARK ROSES. These were really all the botanical Rosa species and natural hybrids. In 1980 the list had grown to 70 and in 1984 the section became Heritage Roses and the varieties had doubled to 140. The instigators pushing me to swell this section of our varieties were Eve Jenkins and Gwen Fagan.

Roses developed all over the northern Hemisphere about 35 million years ago.

The first odd 200 rose types had 5 petals just as their family members – the apples, pears, peaches, plums, quinces, strawberries.

Without the old one cannot have the new. Let’s look at the old or Heritage Roses.

By wind, birds, bees the various rose types were spread out and natural cross pollinating took place, mostly in the Middle East, but very much so in China although nobody in Europe knew about it at the time.

The romanticism of the roses started in mythology. Stories abound such as that the original roses were thornless and developed prickles after Adam and Eve ate from the apple and it symbolizes the malignance of the humans. White roses developed from the foam of the sea and because the lotus flower closed up over night the white rose became the preferred flower. A Nightingale was enchanted with the white roses and when pricked the dripping blood turned the white rose into a into a red one.

The first practical use of roses was by mixing fragrant rose petals with oil in the period of the antique Greeks. Hectors body was embalmed with it.

The cultivating of roses started in Persia as also the first distillation of rose oil and rose water around 800 AD and it became an important export commodity to India, China and Spain.

Omar Khayyam writes that the whole country (Persia) was a rose garden. That was the region around Schiraz and Isphahan and the Nightingales were singing everywhere. Rose petals were used freely for decorating.

The Crusaders and travelling tradesmen brought rose types and rose oil to Northern and Western Europe.

In the middle ages, 500 to 1500 AD, it was the medicinal value that made the rose popular in Europe. Many acres were planted outside London and there was hardly a prescription that had not one or other remedy made of roses amongst it, be it from petals, hips or roots.

It was around 1800 that new rose types were brought from China to Europe. These were perennial flowering, but frost tender and had to be kept in greenhouses.

In Holland, France and England they were planted next to the hardy, once a season flowering types and cross pollinated by the bees. In England a cattle farmer, a Mr Bennet, who was crazy about roses , thought this was stupid, and like taking a bull to the cow, he started to collect pollen and placed it on the pistils of the roses designated to be mothers. That was the start of intentional rose breeding. It resulted in the first Hybrid Teas and in a relative short period 6000 varieties were described.

It was when a double flowering yellow rose was brought from Persia to Europe and used for cross pollinating that the by now modern colours were introduced – with it the Black Spot fungus disease.

These new hybrids had at first full double blooms also known as cabbage roses and they were replaced by newer hybrids that had an upright growth carrying the blooms more stiffly on straight stems and with a new unique flower shape with a high sharp point.

There were also some short free flowering types, the Multiflora that were brought from the East and with cross pollination it resulted in a group that became known as Polyantha roses. They were re-crossed with the Hybrid Teas and became the Floribundas.

A very small rose was found in Mauritius and brought to Europe and this was the start of the miniature roses.

The question arises – is there still a need or use for the very old, original roses?

A selection of the Dog Rose, Rosa canina is still used as a root stock in Europe. Harvesting of the hips for jam is too laborious and not much carried out anymore.

Rosa eglanteria, the apple scented roses now classified as Rosa rubiginosa was seeded by the birds in regions of the Andes in Argentina and the Drakensberg in South Africa. Although they are now declared invader plants the hips are being picked commercially and sold to Pharmaceutical companies.

Huge plantations of the Persian Oil Rose, Rosa damascena trigintipetala in various countries including South Africa, are kept up for rose oil distillation. In France it is Rosa centifolia and gallica that is used for that purpose.

The Rugosas also known as the Japanese Potato roses are being planted along motorways in Europe as natural barriers and for beautification. They spread by Rhizomes similar to Kikuyu lawn and need not be irrigated in Europe.

The South African Dog rose, Rosa laevigata as also the Macartney rose Rosa bracteata that are planted along farm fences in the Western Cape do have their uses and so also the wichuriana hybrid Alberic Barbier that is planted for kms along the roads in the Elgin region.

Not to forget the stately climbing version of ‘Cecile Brunner’ which is erroneously known as ‘Bloomfield Abundance’ that has not been improved on.

The hybrids of Rosa persica are presently becoming very popular and are marketed as Eyeconic Roses.

‘Mutabilis’ which is a single flowering Chinese hybrid that is capable of flowering all year round and does not get diseases.

‘Fortuniana’ which is used as a rootstock in hot climates.

The white and yellow Banksias that climb into trees and flower much earlier than the other roses.

Rosa indica major, also known Rosa chinensis oderata, is a rose that is performing quite in brack soils and with irrigation water of a high pH and is used as a root stock in regions with such conditions mainly on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

Obviously the answer to the question posed above is YES we still need them.

The next question is do we still need the 6000 varieties described in the late 1900?

Of the 6000 early rose hybrids there are some that have a sentimental and emotional value i.e. Souvenir de Malmaison, Mme Hardii, Camaieux, Fantin Latour, Isphahan, Mme Zoetsman to name a few, but they are not really comparable to modern hybrids. However, it is like with Vintage motor cars, they should not disappear and it is good to have some private gardens such as Fresh Wood in Grabouw, the Bedford Rosarium and municipal Rosariums such as Sangerhausen. There are keen collectors all over the world and also rose nurseries that specify in propagating plants of these varieties for them.

Finally, do we still need to keep the odd 60 000 varieties that are created since 1900?

In the period from 1900 until 1970 the aim by rose breeders was to create new roses varieties with ever more beautiful shaped blooms and extraordinary colours. The gardeners who were keen on competing with the blooms at rose shows dominated the breeding agenda.

Let me compare this again to Vintage cars. They need a lot of care and maintenance to keep them going on the roads. It is a hobby for those who love them, can afford them as second cars and have the spare time to maintain them. The normal people expect a car that needs a maintenance once or twice a year and otherwise they are filled with fuel and go.

The “exotic” roses grown for competitions fall under the same category. It is only those keen gardeners who do all the fertilising, spraying, grooming, putting on covers etc. in order for the bushes to produce champion candidates.

The modern cut roses that are being produced by the millions every day are grown in similar conditions in greenhouses with the assistance of automation and computers.

The requirement on Modern Garden Roses has changed.

Organic gardening, low maintenance, waterwise performance and a minimum use of pesticides are the preferred aspects these days. Normal gardeners want roses that once planted will perform with a major maintenance in July – The Pruning – and not allow the tank to go empty by watering and fertilising.

To create such varieties Rose breeders and selectors of new varieties had to simply consider on how the roses survived the odd 34 million years without human interference.

Obviously, some rose types must have perished and those we still know have adapted to the environment – climate and soil.

Since we do not have such a vast time span available for further adaptation we need to genetically combine the important attributes that made the roses survive.

With the exception of ONE, Roses will not perform in standing water. Fossils of roses were only found in rocks high up, not in swamps. Rosa palustris is the only one to have survived in the Louisiana swamps by letting the roots spread out above the soil surface.

In practical terms it means that if we are not likely to change the requirements of wanting to grow in well aerated soil genetically and if we do not have the right soil conditions in our gardens we need to raise beds, mix the very poor aerated soil with aeration material i.e. crushed apricot pips or peanut shells, pebbles etc.

The old roses were all shrubby with an overhanging growth which shaded and protected the roots from heat and compacting the soil by trampling around them. Earthworms and other small animals too were protected and attended to a continued aeration where the roots are active. It means to change the stiffly upright growth habit to a more spreading shape. This has already happened with groundcover roses such as My Granny, the Sunsations and Flower Carpet varieties. The next step in process are bushes with a spreading habit still producing upright straight stems with well shaped, large blooms.

Rose breeder David Austin in England was charmed with the flower shape and shrubby growth habit of the old roses and made it his goal to breed new varieties retaining the specific charm and fragrance of the old roses with a repeat flowering habit. His success in the eighties has become rose history. Other breeders took the hint and selected roses with similar flower shape and growth habit for naming and marketing.

Being once flowering only these old roses, being deciduous would flower in early summer with the strength of stored food and then awaited the rainy season as is the case in the middle east and here in South Africa.

The fungus disease Black Spot does not affect all Heritage roses. The Rosa davidii and Rosa wichuriana especially have glossy healthy foliage. In the last two decades the genetics of these have been re-introduced to modern roses.

I have been busy evaluating and releasing new rose varieties in South Africa over the past 50 years. It was obviously a steep learning curve.

At first I concentrated on finding hybrid tea roses with firm stiff petals that would hold much longer in our sun, compared to the favourites of the fifties and sixties i.e. Eclipse, Show Girl, Virgo, Charlotte Armstrong, First Love to name but a few.

My early selections are still popular 30 years later. Esther Geldenhuys, Cora Marie, Boksburg Fantasia, Johannesburg Sun. Ace of Hearts, Anne Lorentz, Black Madonna, Hanneli Rupert, Helen Naude, Andrea Stelzer. The one disadvantage was that these varieties exuded hardly any scent. This is due to the thick stiff petals out of which the oxydising alcohol could not escape.

However, fragrant roses were not kept out and indeed there are many, many modern rose varieties that have a more powerful fragrance than the old roses. Double Delight, Oklahoma, Papa Meilland, Electron, Bewitched, Snow Queen, Duftwolke, Just Joey, Perfume Passion.

The multifloras and Polyanthus of the olden days were replaced by a new group that became known as Floribunda. Iceberg must be its most prominent members. Satchmo, Goldmarie, Pernille Poulsen, Orange Sensation, Pearl of Bedfordview, Simplicity are also very popular.

Colourscape roses are the closest in growth habit to the old roses.

With this knowledge and the genetic pool of the various performances of the Heritage roses the creation of modern hybrids has only started and we can all look forward to a continuation of the Glory of the ROSE.

A note to readers in cold climates – the above is for an audience in South Africa where frost hardiness is not a consideration. Breeders in such cold regions dedicated much of their effort in creating new roses that are frost hardy.

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