The Roses In My Garden — wild, exquisite, and tough as nails

In celebration of Mothers Day

Just in time for Mother’s Day, the roses in my garden are starting to bloom. These are not fragile beauties; they are survivor superstars!

Possibly the old rose called “Sombreuil” … oh the perfume!
The Old Roses — Wild, Exotically Perfumed and Robust

I enjoy a traditional rose bouquet as much as anyone, but those are usually composed of Hybrid Tea Roses — formal and proper, with long stems, usually little or no scent, and more care to maintain in the garden. Any I tried in the early days long ago succumbed to soggy winters, pests, diseases or neglect.

And truth be told, my garden style runs a bit wild, and a proper Tea Rose would probably be ashamed to be seen here. So when I first happened across a mention of Old Garden Roses, my heart made a little leap. They are hardier, exquisitely scented, often thorny, and so full of petals that I just want to be a little bug and take a nap there. Actually, several bugs are napping in there now.

This is my most beloved rose–of the story below. Not only is it remarkably hardy, but it also makes a terrific high shrub, has a lovely scent in its small flowers, the leaf color appeals in its range from a perky green apple to darker forest green, and I especially love the way the unopened buds are adorned by frilly sepals. You wouldn’t call the flowers “perfect” because the edges can be highly faded, but I happen to love the look, and at a distance, the mass of darker purple-pink with the light pink edges makes an attractive contrast.
Courtship With An Old Rose

Actually, my love affair with old roses probably began back in my early twenties although I didn’t know that term then. Back then, I was carefree and CAR-free, and took long walks along country roads. Along a frequent walk of mine, there was a giant shrub, maybe twelve feet high, and covered in small purplish-pink roses. I adored this rose hedge every time I passed. It lured me in with its sweet scent and one day I hopped the ditch and plucked a little blossomed stem to smell and take with me along my walk. The sprig was no more than five or six inches long. (FYI: This behavior is not the done thing amongst courteous gardeners. Always ask the gardener if you may have a snip or not. In my defense, I was young and this enormous shrub rose was bordering a large rural farm property, so I hope my garden sin will pass as a minor one.) When I got back home from my walk that day, I stuck that tiny rose twig in some garden soil.

A rose is more than the petals for me. The scent, the leaves, the sepals around the bud, decorative thorns–all play a part in their beauty.

I don’t think I had propagated anything at that stage in my life and I think I just put it in soil just because tossing it away seemed disrespectful after the joy it had brought to me.

That little twig dropped its flower petals and leaves over the following days and weeks, but its stem remained green, so I occasionally watered it. A long time passed and its stem still remained green. Imagine my youthful delight when, one day, it sprouted new leaves!!!

My favorite little mystery rose. Yes, there are whiteflies on there, but if I killed them off, what would the ladybugs and other beneficial insects eat?!

And that was the start of a life-long love affair — many generations of that exact rose — which I’ve continued to love and propagate and plant over these many decades. We are like family now.

I don’t know its proper name, of course. I just call it by the area I got it from. To any rose expert who may happen upon this post now or in the future, I would love for you to enlighten me as to the proper name of this or any of the other roses on this post. Though the old roses and Austin roses I purchased later had name tags when first acquired, sadly they were lost over the ensuing years–probably hanging on the wall of a gopher den by now.

UPDATE: Immediately after posting this, I found the possible ID of this rose. I think it is Rosa ‘Russeliana’ aka “Old Spanish Rose”. What do you think? Research acquired from Annie’s Annuals, Roses of Yesterday, David Austin Roses, and Antique Rose Emporium.

A Few Old Rose Resources
Roses of Yesterday 2004 Catalog
Roses of Yesterday 2004 Catalog

My other Old Garden Roses were acquired through a catalog, now creased with age, that still sits on my shelf, called Roses of Yesterday out of Watsonville, CA. I should clarify that these are not all technically “Old Garden Roses” — some are included for their remarkable hardiness. Also, in the way of old rose education, I enjoy this out-of-print book on Old Roses. I also acquired some David Austin Roses many years ago. They hybridize old-world rose qualities with repeat blooming. If you have other Old Garden Rose or antique rose resources you value, please share in comments and I’ll be glad to update this post later with them.

Again, for those experts in roses, please forgive my clumsy attempts to discuss roses, as my grasp is novice. But enthusiasm to share my delight, and turn new gardeners onto the glories of old roses, prompts me anyway. If there are any corrections, let me know and I will update this post afterwards.

Growing Old Roses and Harvesting Bouquets
Madame hardy rose
Madame Hardy rose — one of my favorites

Old roses tend to bloom only once a year, in late spring, and presumably it is this reason they are not everyone’s first choice. To me, it just makes them that much more precious and I wouldn’t miss their show for anything. It also works fine for us since we garden in a summer-dry climate. The old roses bloom at the end of the rainy season, and then can conserve their energy during the dry summer.

They are often very thorny, but even their thorns seem decorative. The sepals around the bud are poetry-worthy. They are what a real rose is to me. Scented and prolific with petals — they make a truly charming bouquet. Just have some serious rose gloves before picking! I like to add rose geranium stems to the bouquet for scented greenery, and sometimes a few clematis flowers, snowball viburnum, or iris, which are often blooming at the same time.

As an aside, don’t assume guys wouldn’t appreciate a gift of a flower bouquet. One Twitter gardener shared a post once of a bouquet he enjoyed receiving from his family, but he started by saying: “As a bloke, I’d never received a flower bouquet before this….” And that hit me. Jeez! Imagine NEVER having received a bouquet of flowers! So remember your guy friends and family when giving bouquets.

If you live in gopher territory as I do, plant roses in gopher baskets, or better yet, wine barrel planters or a large container (with drainage holes). A few of my roses have survived in the ground with baskets that have likely rotted by now. But gophers ate others, or tunneled around the root ball so much that the roses didn’t thrive. Wine barrel planters with gopher wire and wool underneath are what most of mine are in at the moment. See my posts about gophers.

For the most part, I don’t treat my roses with anything. I garden organically and also have too much going on to fuss over them. If one is really suffering from black spot or rose curculio beetles, I might use a spot spray of neem, but mostly I just give them an occasional dose of organic fertilizer and/or nutrient-rich koi pond water. Those in containers are planted in an organic potting soil. Those in the ground are dealing with sandy soil and low nutrients. Some are very tough indeed. All these are alive with minimal drip irrigation through the drought (some with no irrigation). See this Master Gardeners link about the drought tolerance of the mutabilis rose. Or about the hardiness of rosa banksiae here.

Photo Gallery of the Old or Hardy Roses In My Garden

Below is a gallery of hardy, time-tested roses growing in my garden. It might be more pleasant to view from your browser if you are seeing this from an email: click here. Hope you will share if you have any hardy old roses growing in your garden, or any other comments! Happy Mothers Day!

Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’
Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’

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Read more recent posts on the Sonoma County gardening blog here.

21 thoughts on “The Roses In My Garden — wild, exquisite, and tough as nails

  1. Beautiful rose collection, you are good prepared for mothers day. Here in Antwerp we have mothers day on the 15th of august. Antwerp people always try to do different – LOL

  2. Really enjoyed this! Liked the humor about name tags decorating gopher holes. Would you believe I’ve never grown Rose’s? Or lilacs?

  3. What a lovely story about your first rose cutting! I think it is possible to have plant “friends”, you get very attached to certain plants. Kourosh is the rose carer in our garden. I think it is unfriendly producing thorns but some of his roses are finding a place in my heart. We have a Mutabalis that we like, I did not realise it was drought tolerant but that explains how it has survived here. Amelia

    1. Good insight about the plant friends we tend to have! Yes, the mutabilis is so hardy, isn’t it? And yet so seemingly delicate with its elegantly simple flowers in an array of colors. What are the French words for describing a plants hardiness or toughness? The English words are so clunky and dull. If you’ve done a post about your roses that Kourosh tends, feel free to remind me/link it here so I can read it again. Hope all is well for you Amelia!

    2. In this area they call them “rustique”. It applies especially to plants that will survive some frost in winter but also unfavourable conditions such as drought in summer (not necessary in the same plant.) I like my plants “rustique”, some have a hard life in my garden :).

  4. I have several David Austin roses – the result of me persuading my romantic husband that I preferred a rose bush to a bunch of roses! Some are now very old and a bit tatty but I just love the flowers and theirs scents.

    1. How lovely! I would enjoy seeing your roses. Did you do a post about them? Feel free to link here so I can see them. I’ve really been resonating with your recent posts about energy conservation and the realities of remaining in our gardens/homes as we evolve further into our mature years. I’ve read them with great interest.

    2. Thank you. The roses were bought long before I started writing this blog. I will be continuing to post about my ‘future proofing’ (as if proofing is possible!) from time to time.

  5. Gorgeous roses! I loved your story about your first propagation success; it’s such a good feeling to have grown your own plant, and then to have it bloom so well is very special. Here is SW France roses thrive and this time of year they are looking glorious. I have mostly David Austin roses too, my favourite is Rambling Rector – it only blooms once, but what a spectacular show!

    1. Hi Lynne! Glad you enjoyed that story. That rose has been with me through my young days until now, when I am getting older. Many decades! Amelia described it well–it is a friend. I would love to see your roses! I will look over your posts some more to see if I can see them. Or, if you have done a post specifically about them, feel free to link it here in comments so I can enjoy, as possibly others too. I will look up that Rambling Rector rose–sounds wonderful! I always enjoy reading your posts about your amazing garden. -lisa

  6. Thank you for a wonderful post. The description of your young self proagating is delgihtful. I am a black finger gardiner….so i am thoroughly enjoyingyour green finger blogs.

    1. Hi! Thank you so much! I’m delighted you enjoyed it. So funny about the black finger gardener! The fact that you are interested in it shows a gardeners heart and that is all that matters. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the variety suggestion! I will check that out. Glad you like those two roses together. It’s an unusual combo as I normally wouldn’t put pinks and yellows together, but in the early days, we wanted to hide an ugly (but necessary) chain link fence with anything that would cover it rapidly. So we sort of tried everything at once. 😉 The two colors together do rather speak of spring. I’m thrilled to have found your blog as well and am looking forward to reading more of it! -lisa

  7. Wonderful roses…I can almost smell their fragrance! And I love the way you garden, gently & organically, Lisa. That first little rose twig “cutting” must have known that you cared. It’s such a treat when a cutting decides to root and live:)

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