History of Roses: Part III


With so many new things happening at once near the turn of the twentieth century, it’s very difficult to characterize the progress of rose development or of rose gardening very simply. It was developing on many fronts. Hybrid tea roses were being developed. Hybrid perpetuals still ruled the show benches. Climbers and ramblers were being planted widely in Europe and the US alike. Polyanthas and shrub roses popped up in gardens and parks across Northern Europe.

At the same time, new methods for propagating and distributing roses were being developed. Many new roses – especially hybrid teas – proved too fragile to propagate on their own roots, so the practice of budding roses onto more vigorous rootstock began. At roughly the same time mail order catalogues made the newest cultivars available to whomever had mail service. The rose business grew by leaps and bounds thanks to these innovations and to the popularity of the new roses. World War One came and went. Mechanization, unionization, and mass manufacturing drove up the cost of keeping a gardener, and the age of great gardens came to an end. World War Two came and went.

In 1946 Peace was introduced into the US market. It was a rose bred by Meilland in France and smuggled out at the beginning of the war. It took the world by storm.  New suburban gardens and new suburban homes were springing up everywhere; and each had its own tiny bit of turf and its new hybrid tea rose plant, Peace.  The plant was vigorous and well branched; its flowers huge, soft yellow, and brushed with blush at the tips. So why not?

Peace, in its full glory.

At about the same time, the chemical manufacturing industry was coming of age. Chemical substances that could kill all rose fungus infections became commonplace. The rose industry quickly assumed that this meant the end of rose fungus problems. The rose breeding houses in the US moved to the West Coast where land and labor were both cheaper and frost and fungal infections didn’t kill roses. Breeding a prettier hybrid tea rose became much easier and cheaper.

In the ninteen fifties using Peace as inspiration and as breeding stock Meilland introduced Grand’mere Jenny, Lady Elgin, Sultane, Charles Mallerin, and Papa Meilland, roses that remain in commerce. During the fifties and sixties Herb Swim released Sutter’s Gold, Montezuma, Aztec, Garden Party, Camelot, Oklahoma, Lemon Spice, Arizona, and Duet. In the ninteen seventies and eightees, roses such as Pristine, Medallion, Love, Heirloom, Brandy, and Double Delight hit the market. Meilland released other perennial favorites as Scarlet Knight, Baronne Edmonde de Rothschild, and Sonia.

Breeders Sam McGredy IV, Reimer Kordes, and Matthias Tantau bred roses in New Zealand and Germany, all starting to release their roses near the year 1960. All of these breeders lived and cultivated roses in climates cooler and damper than the climate of the West Coast. The consequence was that their roses tended to be slightly more vigorous in cool summer climates and slightly more tolerant of damp or cloudy conditions.

Tantau’s Tropicana and Fragrant Cloud have been perpetual favorites. Popular, too, have been Oregold, Polarstern and Taboo. Kordes’ Adolf Horstmann, Belami, Helmut Schmidt, and Peter Frankenfeld. They have been darlings of the exhibition circuit for decades, though they require perfect conditions and meticulous protection from blackspot even in moderate climates like those of New Jersey. Folklore, however, proves quite resistant to the disease. McGredy’s Electron and Olympiad are more resistant to blackspot than just about any other hybrid tea rose that was bred before the late 1990s, and his New Zealand puts up a pretty good fight, too.

Brandy, a rose catalogue favorite hybrid tea rose for many years.

To a significant degree these cultivars – and a few dozen more that are not too far afield from them – are the ones that most Americans have associated with the term ‘roses’ for about half a century. On much of the West Coast, they grow flawlessly with little intervention – aside from occasional watering during dry weather.  In parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas they grow well, too. Some of the grandifloras such as Scarlet Knight, Camelot, and Sonia grow well a little farther afield. Montezume is said to do well even in North Carolina.

From 1946 through at least the mid nineteen eighties, the primary goal among leading breeders was to breed the perfect hybrid tea rose in every color of the rose rainbow. Never mind the health of the plant. One might judge the ideal of the time by examining roses with names like Red Masterpiece, Pink Masterpiece, White Masterpiece, Golden Masterpiece, or Bronze Masterpiece.

Folklore, a rugged and vigorous hybrid tea rose.

This is not to say that hybrid tea roses bred since Peace have all been bad garden plants; but too many were. When a person living east of, say, Denver Colorado chose a rose based on nothing but its photo in a catalogue, the chance of complete success – given hazards associated with heat & humidity and frost – would be quite unfavorable.

When catalogue descriptions said “cold hardy” too frequently they would mean that the roses survived in the parts of the northwest occasionally touched by light frost, zone 8a or 7b.  When roses were described as being “disease resistant”  too frequently it would mean they survived in parts of the northwest where roses were occasionally touched by mildew or rust. And when they claimed to be “resistant to blackspot,” too frequently it meant that with careful bi-weekly spraying of the best chemicals available, it was sometimes possible to keep the hybrid tea rose from being completely defoliated through the whole of the growing season and dying as a result, assuming all other conditions were optimal.

rose Berolina

Berolina, a cold hardy hybrid tea rose in a garden friendly color

To make matters worse, large rose distributors viewed the US as a monolithic market to be cultivated using nothing but marketing muscle and returns to scale. Returns to scale meant choosing a dozen or two cultivars and propagating them by the hundreds of thousands or millions, in preparation for the distribution season two years out. Marketing muscle meant pampering a few special plants to within an inch of their death, photographing them in highly artificial conditions, printing  the “glam shots” on glossy paper,  sending catalogues to everyone who had either a credit card or a lawn mower, and delivering muscular plants at a price that only those producing plants on a large scale could hope to do.    There wasn’t much space in the business for specialization.

By the mid 1980s, only a tiny percentage of the hybrid tea roses in wide distribution in the US would survive a typical zone 5 winter without protection. The percentage that could withstand the onslaught of blackspot in zones 6-9 east of the Mississippi River was not much bigger. This meant that gardeners in fully half of the US could not grow most of the rose cultivars offered in trade as hybrid tea roses. Predictably, rose gardening was well on its way to falling out of favor with most of the US population. Roses were cultivated only by a small knot of the “faithful.” But the revival was started by a few of the faithful, too.


During the ninteen eighties, the wave of old rose preservation that had swept England a few decades earlier swept the US. Mostly it was confined to California and Texas; but that was where it could do the most good. It gave rise to a number of rose nurseries at least two of which survive until this day. One is the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas and the other is Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol California.

The focus of the former is to provide gardeners in Texas and in states near the Gulf of Mexico roses that a) grow well on their own roots in poor soil and b) withstand drought, searing heat, humidity, and blackspot. Roses that thrived in various parts of Texas for some years without any attention are candidates for their catalogue. There, one will find tea roses, china roses, bourbons, hybrid perpetuals, shrub roses, noisettes, rugosas, and some floribundas and minis. One will find precious few hybrid tea roses. The enterprise has been a great success and has inspired one or two other nurseries.

Vintage Gardens also offers an unbelievably large selection of old roses in the same classes. And it has a lot of climbing roses. Beyond this it also offers a huge selection of floribundas and hybrid tea roses that hail from the first three quarters of the twentieth century. This catholic embrace of all good roses that have fallen out of commerce makes a crucial point to rose lovers about how deep and rich the heritage of the rose is. The rose extends unimagineably far beyond the bounds of the latest four-color mail-order catalogue. Because Vintage Gardens is located precisely where roses do best, though,  selecting disease-resistant cultivars or very frost hardy cultivars requires a good deal of research beyond the site.

Titian, a shrub rose bred in Australia and sold at Vintage Gardens.

Change went much further than simply reviving tough old-garden roses that had fallen out of distribution. Rose breeding began to change, too. Fortunately, the seeds of a significant branch of the counter-revolution were being sown even as the revolution itself was taking off. The same breeders who bred hybrid tea roses were breeding floribunda roses. This work was started in the 1950s by Eugene Boerner. Before his work, floribunda roses had flowers with the form of polyantha roses. Boerner’s assiduous work created floribundas with flowers in the form of hybrid tea roses.

The floribunda flower tends to be about three inches across, high-centered in bud, and sometimes is every bit as pretty as a hybrid tea rose. True to its name, though, a floribunda tends to make three to six times as many blossoms per plant than a hybrid tea rose. Owing to its multiflora heritage, the plant is more cold hardy than most hybrid tea roses. And while they might, on average, be slightly more susceptible to powdery mildew, floribundas tend to be much more resistant to blackspot. This means that many floribunda roses are quite suitable for many gardens east of the Mississippi River. Occasionally they do better there than they might  in California.

Gardeners ignored them in droves, nevertheless. Perhaps it was because they were sold by the very companies that failed to point out how unsuitable hybrid tea roses were for their gardens; and this lack of candor affected their credibility with floribundas. Or perhaps it was because only a dedicated rose gardener could distinguish the floribunda from the hybrid tea rose and use that distinction to predict the level of care required to be successful. Floribundas were not a failure, but they certainly failed to inspire in proportion to their garden merits.

Starting as early as 1960, new rose breeders had observed many problems with mainstream rose breeding and were working to solve them. Griffith Buck, a horticulture professor at Iowa State University, took up rose breeding to addresss the issues of cold hardiness and blackspot resistance. Roses susceptible to either problem perished quickly from his Iowa testing fields and were eliminated from the program. His work was inspired by Pedro Dot whom he met in Spain. When he needed help in breeding vigor into his roses, Kordes provided a cutting of Joseph Rothmund.

Brass Band

Floribunda Brass Band


Buck released Iobelle in 1962. A year later he introduced Applejack, a rose with strong apple scent in leaf and flower. He called it his “antifreeze rose” for its ability to project cold hardiness into its descendants.

Carefree Beauty was released in 1977. It’s a pink-flowered shrub rose that can reach eight feet in each direction and cover itself in flowers. Smaller in frame, but about as good is the pale pink Hawkeye Belle whose flowers are pale pink and neat as a pin. There’s the perfectly formed Prairie Star in white. And in the warm colors one can find Winter Sunset, Golden Unicorn, September Song, Prairie Harvest, and April Moon. In red there is Queen Bee and Polonaise.


Folksinger, a popular Griffith Buck rose.

At first blush one might be tempted to pronounce Buck’s offerings bland, but there are a few novel roses that spice things up. Since the rise in popularity of “coffee colored roses” – roses that balance mauve and orangish pigments in ways that produce tan, soft orange, and grayish colors – Distant Drums has been popular. But Buck has also distributed a number of spotted or stippled roses such as Freckles, Prairie Lass, Sevilliana, and Malaguena. Millions of gardeners will be grateful for his work, but sadly Griffith Buck did not live to see his roses really start to become popular.

In the ninteen eightees Meilland recognized the strength of Buck’s introductions and introduced Carefree Wonder, a rose best ignored except for its symbolism as Meilland’s entry into the world of the durable rose. Or perhaps their re-entry. Rimosa, Starina, and Sarabande were durable roses built on the multiflora frame: Starina and Sarabande have been in distribution since at least 1960.  A whole line of highly durable landscape shrubs bred from the very foliferous R. sempervirens and sold as Meillandecor roses exists and is principally sold to the landscape trade.  There’s not much fragrance, but if one needs to paint an area red or white for a good stretch of the season, they can be invaluable. In 1982 Meilland introduced Bonica which, for years, was considered to be one of the most durable and foliferous pale pink roses ever introduced. But it was not long before it would be upstaged.

At about the time as Buck, David Austin began breeding roses. He had noticed that Rosemary Rose was a favorite of his customers for its perfectly formed rosette flowers. He was also strongly influenced by the work of his friend Graham Stuart Thomas who spent his life preserving and promoting old roses for the beauty of their flowers, for their fragrance, and for their shrubby garden forms. Austin undertook to create the same effects in new cultivars. He noticed, too, that many of the hybrid tea roses released at the time either lacked vigor in his cool maritime climate or were prone to fungal diseases.

Graham Tomas, and rose bred by David Austin.

He released a handful of roses over the first two decades of his breeding program; but it was in 1984 when he released Heritage, Mary Rose, and Graham Thomas roses that the rose-buying public really began to pay attention. These roses proved extremely durable in England, in Northern Europe, and in the Eastern United States. They proved durable enough, too, on the West Coast where rose opinion was still made. Over the next three decades David Austin’s English Roses have been earning ever more places in American gardens.

Abraham Darby, a rose bred by David Austin.

Austin set a high standard for his roses. They had to be: cold hardy, disease resistant, beautiful in bud and open flower, vigorous, shrubby, and fragrant. Many of his roses come close to this standard. The big and muscular Abraham Darby may be his most popular. Eglantyne he claims is among his most disease resistant. Crocus Rose is a good performer in Arizona’s mountains and so is Young Lycidas. Sophy’s Rose grown on the drip line of a very hungry cedar tree in NJ, getting two hours of sunlight each morning, shade thereafter  and in dry, impoverished soil  grew quickly to chest height and covered its frame with fragrant flowers twice each year for many years. No hybrid tea rose could have done that. Few floribundus could have either. Many old roses would have failed, too.

Many of David Austin’s roses, however, do not quite measure up to his own high standard. The absolutely beautiful Golden Celebration with its large, fragrant, cupped blossoms, for example, had some difficulty with blackspot in New Jersey. Cressida did much worse.  The very durable and drop-dead gorgeous Graham Thomas is said to suffer from “jolly green giant syndrome” in very warm and sunny climates where it can grow huge and fail to bloom.  In locations with daily morning fog, even some of Austin’s best introductions can be prone to mildew or rust. Most of the roses Austin has released since 1984, however, have proven to be very good garden plants in every respect and in locations across most of the continental United States.

If a person east of Denver were to take up rose gardening for the first time, David Austin roses would be a great place to start.  Griffith Buck roses would be another.  Those who live where late spring frosts menace roses  will find that most floribundas and shrub roses can bring to the garden the color and form we hope for in hybrid tea roses, even if they cannot match the glory of the individual hybrid tea rose bloom.  Of course some cultivars are better than others and none is perfect everywhere.  But when one chooses a suitable rose for a site, the rest is easy.  That’s the great garden benefit of the counter-revolution.