Heirloom Roses, Antique Roses, And Old Roses

There are many types of rose to choose from, and exactly what each term refers to can be confusing if you’re just starting out on your rose growing journey. 

One which you’re likely to come across quickly is the heirloom rose type, also known as the antique rose, or the old rose.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is A Heirloom Rose?

Roses come in three types: wild roses, heirloom roses, and modern roses. 

Wild roses are those which have not been created by human design, they are just as they have been since nature created them.

An heirloom rose is any cultivated species of rose which has been an accepted rose species before 1867, and modern roses are those which come after this date.

It seems like a very specific date, and there is a reason for this. In 1867, the first modern rose was introduced, called ‘La France’, which was the very first hybrid tea rose.

As there have been so many cultivars of hybrid tea roses, it makes sense to class them this way.

But, as with all terms, it can become pretty loose, depending on who you speak to.  

Some people consider roses that have been around for fifty years as an heirloom or old rose, too.

How Do Heirloom Rose Types Divide From Modern Roses?

As heirloom roses have an abundance of fragrance, it may not come as a surprise that most roses which describe a scent or a drink are old roses.

Damask roses, Tea roses, Bourbon roses, and Hybrid musk roses fall under the heirloom category, along with Gallica, Alba, Portland, China, and Moss roses.

Those which describe a form or flowering habit generally are modern roses. 

These include Miniature roses, Rambling roses, Climbing roses, Shrub roses, Patio roses, Grandiflora roses, Floribunda roses, Hybrid Tea roses, and Polyantha roses.

How To Tell The Difference Between Old And Modern Roses

The biggest, visual difference you’re likely to recognize is in the roses themselves. Antique or heirloom roses feature nearly uncountable petals packed into a single bloom, and give off a spectacular, signature fragrance which is instantly recognizable.

The original antique or heirloom roses hail from the Mediterranean and Europe.

Antique roses only bloom on old growth that’s at least a year old, which can make pruning them difficult.

These roses are relatively tough, and mostly resistant to disease, but this also depends on the type you go for.

Heirloom roses are much hardier than modern roses except for the modern shrub rose, and they’re able to withstand much lower temperatures, down to 20°F (or -6°C). 

One very romantic thought about heirloom roses is that some have been around since Biblical times, and the same roses you’ll enjoy and admire in your garden, important historical figures have done the same, such as Empress Josephine. 

How Are New Roses Created?

Cultivated roses have been bred for hundreds of years, and all heirloom and modern roses fall under this category.

While you can grow new roses from cuttings, these are essentially copies of the plant you took the cuttings from, or clones. 

You’re making more of the same rose.  

New cultivars are generally grown from seed, but this does take notably longer than grafting, for example. 

It can take five years or longer raising a new cultivar, studying the traits of the plant, making sure it’s stable and healthy, bearing exactly the right characteristics, before selecting it from thousands of other new roses, before a breeder will officially register the plant.

One of the most interesting things about growing plants is that sometimes nature will do it quicker than us.

These new roses are called ‘sports’, cultivated by a current flowering rose, producing a rose in a color other than expected or a different form.

One of the most famous examples of this is on the ‘Peace’ rose (see also The Peace Rose: History And Grow Guide). While it’s known for its pale yellow color, flushed with light pink at the edges, a sport rose appeared, growing as a deep pink all the way through the flower, and it was named ‘Flaming Peace’. 

Types of Heirloom Roses

The Gallica Rose

The oldest of all antique roses is the Gallica rose, which dates back before 1240 AD, which is an incredible amount of time! 

If that sounds like just a number to you, they were popular with the Ancient Romans and Greeks, not only for their beauty, but also for their rose petals. 

The Dutch bred new varieties from the 17th century onward, and so did the French. The fact that there’s still an impressive amount of Gallica roses available today is a testament to their continued popularity, over 780 years later!

The Damask Rose

Damask roses are widely believed to hail from the Middle East, introduced into the rest of the world by the Crusaders, which will give you some idea as to how long these roses have been around (that we know of). 

Damask roses are usually highly scented, and feature neat foliage and airy clusters of large flowers.

The Alba Rose

Alba roses are believed to have been created during the Middle Ages, and as such, the flower colors are a bit more limited than some varieties.

Alba roses come in shades of pink and white, atop silvery foliage.

One excellent trait of the alba rose is that it’s probably the most hardy one available, able to adapt under different growing conditions, and are very nearly invulnerable to disease.

The Provence Rose

Also known as the Centifolia rose, or the cabbage rose, the Provence rose was created in the 1600s in the Netherlands. 

These roses often bear a hundred petals per globe-shaped flower, and these are the resulting cross between the damask and the alba rose.

This rose species is prone to mutate, which is how we got the miniature rose, and the moss rose.

The Moss Rose

Not to be confused with Portulaca, which is a succulent (see also Portulaca Care Guide), sometimes bearing the same name, the moss rose is the result of a cross between a mutated form of the Provence rose, and the Damask rose.

Depending on the variety you go for, these may be repeat-flowering roses, or once-flowering.

Heirloom Rose Varieties You Should Try Growing Yourself

Arthur De Sansal

Bearing very dramatic, deep red to purple flowers, this is a striking heirloom rose.

It’s quite a small shrub rose, perfect for compact spaces, as it reaches 3 feet high once mature, only spreading to about 2 feet wide.

These fantastic blooms have a deep perfume, and this rose grows best in places that see warm, dry weather all year round.

It was introduced to the rose market in 1855, and makes the perfect border plant, or even a potted rose, as long as it gets full sunlight and well-draining soil.

Empress Josephine

Officially introduced in 1815, Empress Josephine produces large, bright pink flowers atop rich green foliage.

It can reach up to 4 feet high, spreading about 3 feet wide.

This shrub blooms in the late summer, and while that’s the only display you’ll get all year, it will last for up to 4 weeks, blanketing your garden in fragrance.

These roses are also followed by orange rose hips, allowing for fall interest. 

Ferdinand Pichard

One of the most striking old roses you can get is ‘Ferdinand Pichard’, perfect for anyone who has trouble choosing between deep pink roses, or those in lighter shades of pink or white.

‘Ferdinand Pichard’ features large roses which are speckled in white, rose, and magenta. 

It also helps that this rose is heavily scented, with a strong citrus scent.

This cultivar grows as a shrub which will get about 4 feet high once it is mature, spreading to about 3 feet wide. While it is classed as an old rose, it was actually introduced into 1910 by Tanne. 

Souvenir du Dr. Jamain

Bred by Lacharme in 1865, this rose produces deep red flowers, and if you look carefully, you can just about see the yellow stamens in the open flower, as it is packed full of petals.

This rose gets to a maximum of 6 feet high as a shrub rose, doing well in shaded areas, which is impressive when you consider that the roses themselves can reach up to 3.5 inches wide.

It is a repeat-flowering shrub, but one thing you do need to know is that it has a bit of a leggy growth habit, and you’ll need to treat it to keep the growth vigorous.

Final Thoughts

Antique roses are a fantastic type of rose that you should consider planting in your own garden. Not only are they heavily fragrant and resistant to disease, but you’ll also be growing a piece of history, which is fascinating no matter how you look at it.

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