Scented Garden : Fragrant Antique Roses

Roses and rock wall

by Elise Pearlstine

Close your eyes and imagine smelling a rose. Now imagine where you are and who you are with. My first memory is the warm, dewy, pure rose smell of roses along my back fence in my desert garden first thing in the morning. The next impression is the smell and sight of a mixed bouquet of rosebuds cut from my mother’s garden. I remember how the bright colors and subtle hues of different blooms contrast and how some roses stood tall while others gently bent over the edge of the vase. The smell of each was unique. The pleasure of walking in the garden, watching for thorns, cutting the perfect roses, finding an old treasured vase and arranging them for display is intimately mixed in with the scent of roses.

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Fossil evidence tells us that roses may be as much as 35 million years old and we have probably tamed them for as long as humans and roses have shared the same space. From the Chinese to the Romans to current time, roses have been grown in gardens for their beauty, scent and even for status. The terms heritage, antique or old roses refer to a group of plants that originated primarily in the early part of the 19th century. Up to that time roses were widely bred for ornamental purposes but most only bloomed once a year. A wild rose from China brought to Europe introduced the habitat of multiple blooms and crosses of the China rose with existing varieties began. Gardeners cultivated a variety of roses resulting from these crosses – Bourbon roses, Damasks, Centifolias, Noisettes, and many more. Bourbon roses may have resulted from a cross on the Ile Bourbon (Reunion) of a China rose called Parsons Pink and a red Damask Perpetual variety giving rise to vigorous, beautifully scented roses with many flowers. The Noisette rose was a cross between a China pink and the musk rose which resulted in a large shrub with many fragrant pink blooms that is still quite popular among growers of old roses.

Somewhere in the late 1860s, breeders produced the hybrid tea rose, not as hardy but with lovely foliage and more and prettier flowers of many colors. Hybrid teas became very popular in most gardens and became the prominent variety of rose. Away from highly tended gardens and in neglected areas like churchyards, old home sites, along roadsides and in cemeteries, the old roses persisted. Because of their Chinese ancestry, most of them didn’t tolerate cold weather and so they persisted in the south. There they grew and bloomed for years without the need for pruning, insect spraying, mulching and supplemental watering while they grew tall and spread wide. Not so many years ago, in Texas, groups of hobbyists began to scout and find these old roses and ‘rustle’ cuttings for propagation. The rules of rose rustling include: always ask for a cutting and be willing to accept ‘no’ as an answer, be polite, don’t overstay your welcome and be sure to say ‘thank you.’

Now old roses are commonly available (in the US at least) to the gardener who wants a tough, rambling variety. Rarely are pesticides needed. If you are interested, select one that is appropriate for your climate. Ask an extension agent or look for nurseries in the area that sell them. Make sure you have a sunny site with good air circulation and that the soil is well-draining. If you plant your roses with a variety of other plants you can reduce the pests that prey on them. Garlic or strong scented herbs can discourage pests. Many old roses are ramblers and may become quite tall or spread wide and should be planted where there is room for them to spread out, for example along a fence.

The American Rose Society ( has a list of 10 easy to grow old roses and most originate from the first half of the 19th century.



  • Suzanna: Thanks for this wonderful and very educational article, Elise! I truly enjoyed it.

    I live in the South and rarely see roses–a shame. However, there is a small botanical garden near my home and I just missed the blooming season; they have one small bush of each variety that grows well. Having missed the season, I ended up doing a photo album of them in their wilt.

    Rose is my favorite fragrance note and also my least favorite. I am wearing 1998’s In Love Again in the humidity and it is wonderful. But MPG’s Rose Muskissime is a terrible overkill of the note. June 28, 2011 at 9:34am Reply

  • Sandra Levine: I love the scent of actual roses, but dislike it in perfumes if it is identifiable. Thank you for the interesting, informative article. June 28, 2011 at 10:07am Reply

  • MaryAnn Hardy: I’ve been in love with roses since childhood. My mother had them rambling all over the fences on our ranch in California. When I married very young and had a little plot of dirt of my own, I planted two things: Sweet Alyssum and a rose. Their fragrance is captivating…enchanting. I get lost in their scent! Essential oils of rose
    can give me that euphoric moment too, and I always keep some handy for a little diversion into pleasure.

    We recently moved from far northern Canada where I was able to grow 5 varieties of super hardy roses. I would wait until the buds came in late June, wait again for a warm day to open them, then luxuriate in their scent. Here on Vancouver Island, in a mild and gentle climate I can have all the fragrant herbs I love, mounds and mounds of thymes, savories, big clumps of sages, lavender EVERYwhere, mints of every variety, scented geraniums in pots, and a big new rose garden planted with all the most fragrant roses I can find.

    I am fascinated with all plants, but a plant with SCENT is worth loving! June 28, 2011 at 11:28am Reply

  • Elise: Hi Suzanna – I live in Florida and also cannot grow roses, although I tried. I am now in Utah on vacation and the roses are gorgeous! I’m enjoying them while I can. June 28, 2011 at 9:53am Reply

  • Elise: I agree Sandra, it’s very hard to get the scent and impact of roses into a bottle. I much prefer them on the plant. June 28, 2011 at 11:21am Reply

  • Elise: MaryAnn – how lovely your garden sounds! Scented plants are well worth treasuring! June 28, 2011 at 11:54am Reply

  • Lucy: I remember my father would get a new rosebush at every possible occasion. I was fascinated by the colors, the textures, and now the scent soothes me like no other. June 29, 2011 at 7:41am Reply

  • ScentScelf: Hi, Elise,

    The Saint-Expurey quote brought a smile to my face, both regarding roses and life.

    I very much love having an apothecary rose, rescued from a neighbor at my old house, and divided and transferred to my current home. It is struggling, alas, so I am now in the midst of intensified responsibility, trying to take cuttings so that I can try other locations to see if it will thrive in other locations. A bit puzzling, as the parent plant did so well in the former location–so well, in fact, that spawn of it are alive and well in three other yard/gardens. 🙂 I suspect the clay that ribbons rampantly through the current soil…am working on amending.

    Am a big fan of rose rustling, especially when it follows etiquette. Old cemeteries and abandoned farmsteads are such beautiful places to visit for those who have access…just clippings. Handled with responsibility.

    Garlic allium does work well as a companion plant, but is, um, an *enthusiastic* self-sower in my garden. Fortunately, it pulls easily.

    MaryAnn, I am a bit jealous of your climate… June 29, 2011 at 12:53pm Reply

  • ScentScelf: Saint-Exupery. Just to show I can spell, or at least dutifully copy from original text. 😉 June 29, 2011 at 12:54pm Reply

  • Angela Cox: Thank-you , I have some wonderful old damask roses in my garden I put in 25 years ago. June 29, 2011 at 1:09pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi Lucy – What a great way to celebrate occasions and I love the association you now have with the smell of roses. June 30, 2011 at 6:58pm Reply

  • Elise: Yes, I loved the quote as well. Good luck with the rose, I have the same theory of trying a variety of locations. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the plant picks up on. I suspect you are right about the clay. I really, really wish I could grow roses here! June 30, 2011 at 6:59pm Reply

  • Elise: Angela – the old damask roses sound like treasured old friends. How wonderful! June 30, 2011 at 7:01pm Reply

  • Ariadne: The Antique Rose Emporium, in Texas and on line, is a wonderful resource for “vintage” or “heirloom” roses of all varieties. They have a rose for almost every location. February 26, 2012 at 5:42pm Reply

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