Not only is it the national flower of England, it is also the most popular flower in the UK – quite possibly the world – grown in the grounds of stately homes as well as the humble garden, a favourite for bouquets, particularly at weddings, and has long symbolised both war and peace: the rose has a colourful history!
Having discovered fossils containing roses, archaeologists believe them to have evolved from a rose-like plant that existed between 33 million and 22 million years ago, and although cultivation of the plant is said to have occurred around 5000 years ago, there is some debate about the accuracy of the timing. The oldest living rose, however – deemed to be over a thousand years old – is attached to part of the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany – built in the early 800s – and is said to have survived the bombing of the cathedral during World War 2.
Although roses had been in Europe for some time, the Romans’ penchant for the flower ensured they were grown extensively throughout their territories, and peasants were forced to grow them instead of crops that would feed their families; the resulting rose water was used for, amongst other things, drinking, medicine, food and wine and bathing, and the petals were used as confetti that would be showered on guests at elaborate and rather debauched feasts. The unsavory connection between the rose and the Romans upset Christians, who wanted the flower to symbolise the purity of the Virgin Mary, but over time, its reputation has been restored and the Church relented, allowing a white, thornless rose to represent the mother of Christ. Greek mythology also adopted roses, and they were believed to be a product of the tears of Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love – and the blood of Adonis, her lover.
Like all plants, the popularity of the rose rises and falls with gardening trends throughout history, and today, it is the National Flower for ten countries, including the Czech Republic, the Maldives and the USA. It has been the National Flower for England since the end of the ‘War of the Roses’, but not just any ole rose! The civil conflict that ragged between 1455 and 1487 saw the house of York adopting a white rose as an emblem and the house of Lancaster adopting a red rose, but after thirty years of bloody war, Lancastrian, Henry Tudor, married Elizabeth of York, ending the conflict. As a symbol of peace, a mix of the two flowers was created and named the Tudor Rose. Many modern historians dispute the solitary use of roses to symbolise the rivals, claiming other badges were adopted, but several writers, including William Shakespeare, exploited the legend, leading to the wider use of the ‘War of the Roses’ title. Whether fact or fiction, the resultant Tudor Rose remains England’s National Flower.
Today, roses fall into three categories:
Old Roses – Roses that were cultivated before 1867, when the first hybrid tea rose – La France – was produced. Also know as heritage, antique or historic roses, they bloom just once a year, and whilst they’re fairly hardy and resistant to disease, some would argue, not as much as Modern Roses; a similar debate exists for the scents, with many believing Old Roses to be far more fragrant than the younger generations.
Wild Roses – Untouched by human progress, Wild Roses remain as they’ve always been, with no crossbreeding to create hybrids. Primarily pink, you may be lucky to find other shades, but they’re hardy and extremely resistant to disease, with single blooms that comprise of 5 petals.
Modern Roses – Descendants of Old Roses, Modern Roses are all those that have been bred from 1867 onwards, and this deliberate mixing of varieties has led to more hardy and disease-resistant plants that flower more, sometimes continuously throughout the season. They are generally considered less fragrant, however, than their older relatives, but there are those that would disagree with that.
Within these categories, there are many, many varieties, but we’ve picked some of the more common ones to give you a better understanding of your blooms:
As one of the hardiest roses, the alba also resistant to disease and low maintenance; it is also one of the oldest hybrids, dating back to 100AD, and it blooms abundantly during late spring and early summer, in both shady spots and cooler climates.
Named after the Île Bourbon (now known as Réunion) in 1817, where it was first introduced, the Bourbon rose was an accidental cross between a China rose and a Damask, giving it a combination of the repeating blooms of the former and the strong scent of the latter. Also categorised as a climber, the bourbon had very few thorns.
Known as ‘cabbage’ roses because their tightly compacted petals give them the appearance of the Brassica, they also have a strong fragrance, and as such are often used for rose-scented products. Their heavy blooms often weigh them down, and they appear to droop, but they only flower once in early summer.
Today’s China roses are hybrids created by the Chinese to be more resistant to disease and bloom more frequently. They offer a slightly less fragrance than other Old Roses, and are susceptible to the cold so are probably best grown in a pot that can be moved easily for protection.
Although they need help to climb, these roses will have more upright canes than others, potentially growing to a height of fifteen feet, but you may find they produce more flowers when trained along a vertical structure like a pergola. Other varieties of roses may also be classed as climbers.
Named after the city of Damascus, Damask roses are one of the oldest Old Roses, possibly dating back to Biblical times. There are two varieties: Summer Damask and Autumn Damask; the former flowers once during the season, whilst the latter blooms in both summer and autumn and is also known as the Four Seasons Damask; both also offer a strong scent.
English/David Austin Roses
David Austin has been breeding roses for 50 years, creating a range that has the intense fragrance of Old Roses with the hardiness, low-maintenance and flowering habits of Modern Roses, making them a popular choice for any outdoor space and location within it.
Floribunda roses are themselves a mix of hybrid tea roses and polyantha roses, creating a hardy plant that is low maintenance. A bushy rose, floribundas also have clusters of flowers and produce an abundance of blooms.
Another ancient rose, Gallicas only bloom once and in spring but for a substantial period of time. Hardy and fragrant, they’re happy in shaded areas and will survive colder temperatures; like other Old Roses, they’re scents are used in many products.
A mix of floribunda and hybrid tea roses, the grandiflora rose is a relatively new addition, created in the last century and combining the best qualities of its ‘parents’: clustered flowers like the hybrid tea that bloom as regularly as the floribunda.
Groundcover roses have become popular fairly recently and typically grow no higher than three feet, but spread further across the ground. Known as ‘Landscape’ roses, they have it all: they’re low maintenance, produce plenty of colour and scent, and are fairly disease and pest resistant.
Hybrid Tea Roses
A favourite of many, hybrid tea roses have an abundance of petals atop long, straight stems and they provide many flowers. They’re the preferred blooms of the floral industry, but they’re also prone to disease; fortunately, it can generally be treated with appropriate products (ask in-store if you need advice).
As the name suggests, these particular plants are miniature! They are smaller and more compact than other varieties, generally growing to between 6 and 10” and producing perfectly-formed rose-shaped flowers. Often treated as houseplants, if they’re grown indoors, they will need cold spells in order to survive.
Whilst polyantha roses produce blooms from spring to autumn, they may well flower constantly throughout that period. A smaller plant than other varieties, it also yields smaller blooms too and can be planted in containers. It’s hardy and easy to care for, making it a favourite for beginners.
Although similar to climbing roses, ramblers are more vigorous, grow taller, but generally bloom just the once. If they’re not trained to grow upwards, they have a tendency to spread across anything and everything, but they have rather spectacular clusters of multiple small flowers.
Another hardy plant, shrub roses produce many blooms in clusters and grow up and out, potentially reaching heights and widths of between five and fifteen feet. Easy to care for, some flower once in a season, whilst others produce multiple blooms.
Whatever rose you choose, by sure to check for more specific guidance before planting, but in general, the care is as follows:
Find a spot that drains well, is in direct sunlight for most of the day, where your plant has plenty of room to breathe; too wet and dark makes for an unhappy rose that won’t flower as abundantly, and if it’s too close to other plants, the reduced airflow will increase the risk of disease.
Water regularly but always at the base to avoid the development of fungal diseases or leaf spots, and where possible, in the morning so any wet foliage can dry in the sun during the day; mulching will help to retain water.
Prune in spring when your rose starts to wake up to the warmth. If you see buds starting to from, start to prune. Be sure to apply an appropriate feed too, so long as the ground has thawed.
No matter how resistant to disease your rose may be, there will still be a small risk, so look out for disease and bugs, and treat immediately with a suitable product – just ask our experts if you need advice.
The next time you buy or receive some roses, take a moment to marvel at their history as you marvel their beauty. They may still be thorny, but haven’t they earned the right to be classed as the world’s favourite?
Please note, although we have photos of some beautiful roses, they aren’t necessarily an accurate depiction of those described.