Category: Old Garden Roses

Five Purple Roses – Old Garden Roses

Red is the new purple, purple the old red. At least as far as western rose breeding goes, this is the way it went. Maybe red was always a desirable color, but among the old garden roses of Europe, true red wasn’t one of the options. There was white, light pink, dark pink, and even darker pink – but not red, not quite. The closest the breeders could come is by selecting darker shades of pink until they ended up with a select few roses that were dark crimson/pink to purple, fading through mauve.

One of the highest rated roses of all time is a gallica bred in this fashion, ‘Charles de Mills’:

Can you even believe the depth of color on this bloom? The form of the bloom is quartered, with loads of petals and quite a flat surface. The blooms are quite large in diameter, particularly for an old garden rose. The scent is strong & classic old rose. It’s a low, suckering shrub – once-blooming in early to mid-spring.

Another gallica rose in the same shade is ‘Tuscany Superb’ – which has blooms nearly the same diameter, but with a more open bloom form:

‘Tuscany Superb’ has a smaller-flowered “twin” in the same form, called ‘La Belle Sultane’. It’s also a gallica rose, but despite having smaller flowers, it’s actually a somewhat larger, more vigorous shrub than either ‘Tuscany’ or ‘Charles’. Here’s a picture:

I have two other purple-blooming roses in different classes, both in bloom around this same time in the garden: ‘Robert le Diable’, a centifolia, and ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ a china/damask. Here’s ‘Robert le Diable’:

Here’s ‘Cardinal’:

Here’s a quick video I made featuring the above five roses:

These are by no means the only deeply colored “purple” roses, but they are among the finest (in my oh so biased opinion). Some modern roses have tried to capture the charm of these wanna-be red roses. Here’s ‘William Shakespeare 2000’, a modern shrub with a great color and a similar bloom form to ‘Charles de Mills’:

One more worth mentioning is ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ a very old climbing rose with a depth of color to rival any of these.

‘Complicata’ and ‘Veilchenblau’

I don’t have a very good excuse for pairing these two roses together: one’s a gallica, the other a rambler, one has huge flowers, and the other has tiny ones. However, they were both in bloom on the back fence of our farm at the same time, so let’s just call it a marriage of convenience. Here’s a quick video to see what these roses are all about:

Now the more in-depth description of each, for those who want a little more detail.

‘Complicata’ is a rose of unknown parentage, but is presumed to be a hybrid of Rosa gallica and Rosa canina. It’s and old rose, but not ancient – known to be around since around 1800, but not much before that. It can be used as a large mounding shrub, or trained up as a climber. Here’s a close-up of some of the flowers:

The individual flowers can be up to 4″ across, and are a luminous pink with white centers and prominent yellow stamens. In mid-spring, the shrub blooms all at once in large clusters.

Later in the season, when the flowers have faded, ‘Complicata’ is covered in large round hips. This is an adaptable shrub: it can be grown in full sun or part shade, and is extremely cold-hardy.

‘Veilchenblau’ is about the closest thing to blue that I’ve seen in a rose that doesn’t involve dye or genetic modification. Bred a little over 100 years ago from a multiflora rambler, this is one is a little space-hungry – to the point of voracious.

The buds and newly opening flowers are cerise in color, but soon fade through to the “violet blue” for which it is named (in German). ‘Veilchenblau’ is a once-bloomer, but the bloom period is so spectacular that it earns its this rambler a large place in the garden for the whole year. In addition, the long stems are thornless, making pruning and management a lot easier. Full sun or part shade will suit its needs.

For both of these roses, save your pruning until after flowering, then prune for both shape and size.

Baron Girod de l’Ain

Sometimes it’s just about the flower. It’s pics like the one below that convinced me to try this rose, and I haven’t regretted it – although I have to admit that it’s taken time and pampering to get Baron Girod de l’Ain to perform well. My first mistake was to keep it in the pot too long. I tend to do that when I buy a new rose: I keep it in the greenhouse to make it easy to take cuttings and to keep an eye on how it’s doing.

Some roses actually do better in a pot in my greenhouse. For Baron Girod de l’Ain, it was the opposite. I took cuttings fine, but one by one, both my parent plant and each one propagated from it suffered from mildew and just general unhappiness.

At least in my growing situation, the solution was to get the rose into the garden. As soon as I did that, the rose perked up, and is now showing some of the vigour I read about. It still isn’t completely free of foliar troubles, but it’s healthy enough to throw some of those blooms I was looking for. And what blooms they are:

It’s hard to think that there could be a more perfect bloom . The color and form and beautiful, but it’s the wavy white edges that make this flower stand out. The rose is also nicely scented.

As mentioned, this rose has not done very well for me in pots. I’ll try a few things – bigger pots, different soil, more water, less water, different fertilizer – but I suspect that this is just a rose that’s happier in the ground, preferably with some light afternoon shade. Not everyone will want to coax Baron Girod de l’Ain to happiness and good health, but for me the flower is worth every bit of effort.

Charles de Mills

This Gallica rose is old, but no one can say for certain how old it is. It has persisted in gardens since at least the 1800’s and is often listed as a favorite rose of people who love the form and scent of old garden roses.

You really have to give it to the breeders of these old garden roses, they found a way to pack a whole lot of petals into a single bloom. So many petals, in fact, that they tend to swirl together towards the centre, a bloom form they call “quartered”. This one has a green eye in the middle that you can see when the blooms aren’t too tight.

The color varies, but is a complex mix between pink, red, and purple… fading towards the purple or mauve end of the color range. Charles de Mills is strongly scented as well.

The shrub can grow to 5 feet tall and wide, and because it’s a gallica rose, it tends to sucker, creating its own little thicket. Not unmanageable, but I’d be careful siting it near less competitive garden companions. In any case, during the spring bloom (as this rose only blooms once in a year) it’s hard to argue that any other plant should share its space. We sell Charles de Mills in a 1 gallon pot for $12. Ask for pricing if you’re looking for a larger pot.


Commandant Beaurepaire

This rose was bred at a time (the 1870’s) when the hybrid perpetual class was giving way to modern roses, the closely related hybrid tea that still dominates in rose gardens. ‘Commandant Beaurepaire’ was bred from a hybrid perpetual, but because the breeder wasn’t convinced the rose would bloom after the initial flush of lowers, it was classed as a gallica. This stunningly striped rose would be every bit worth a place in the garden (perhaps as an absolutely stunning hedge rose) even without reblooming, but when ‘Commandant’ was established in the trade, it was observed to be a (stingy) rebloomer, so the breeder reclassified it as a hybrid perpetual. He also renamed it, but I bought it as ‘Commandant Beaurepaire’, and I’ll keep it with that name.

Commandant BeaurepaireThis rose has large flowers, and they have a nice strong old rose fragrance to them. ‘Commandant Beaurepaire’ grows to a dense shrub to about 4 feet tall and wide. It sometimes takes on some powdery mildew, but doesn’t seem to mind it much.

Something about striped flowers can look a bit gaudy, but this rose combines a lighter and darker pink together, with some darker (purplish) and lighter (whitish) splashes… and it works beautifully. When in bloom, it’s one rose I always get comments about. We grow ‘Commandant Beaurepaire’ in 1 gallon and 2 gallon sizes for $10 and $20 respectively.


The simplicity of this rose makes me think that it’s close to a species rose, but nobody knows for sure. It’s classed as a gallica, maybe for lack of better information. While most near-species roses are nicest grown as a free standing shrub, I think you’ll find it rewarding to give ‘Complicata’ something to climb. You’ll find nicer pictures out there, but here’s one I snapped in the garden (aphids and all!):Rosa 'Complicata'

The blooms are dark pink at the edges, white nearer the center, with prominent yellow stamens. What you can’t see here is how large they are! The only other single I know to compete on bloom size is ‘Altissimo‘. The large size of the flowers, their simple form, wonderful scent, and the fact that it blooms in one main flush of flowers makes this a stunning shrub (or better, a climber) in early Summer.

‘Complicata’ can grow to 10 feet with some support, or to a lax shrub of 6 feet or so. It also sets hips after blooming, for fall/winter interest. We sell ‘Complicata’ for $10 in a 2 gallon pot.

Old Garden Roses

How old is old enough to be called an “Old Garden Rose”? As old as Canada. Yep. Any class of roses defined before 1867 is considered an old garden rose. Why 1867? It didn’t have anything much to do with Canada. Canada’s largest contributions to rose breeding came much later. It had more to do with France. Or, at least, with the rose ‘La France’, which was the first hybrid tea – the first modern rose.

But let’s get to the guts of it. Why should anyone care about the difference between a modern rose and an old garden rose? The line is completely arbitrary, when you think about it. But somehow, the label stuck. So now, every class of rose defined after 1867 is modern, and any rose belonging to an older class (even if the rose is quite new) is an old garden rose.

Some common characteristics of old garden roses:

  1. For the most part, they are tough enough to face cold temperatures. This applies to albas, gallicas, centifolias, damasks, but not quite so much to the chinas and the china crosses (such as bourbons and noisettes).
  2. Many of the old European varieties (again, the albas, gallicas, centifolias, damasks) are strongly scented. Chinas tend to lack scent, but some of the intermediate classes are fragrant.
  3. Most of these shrubs are strong enough to grow on their own roots. I view this to be a good thing, however, some of the best rose gardens in the world choose to grow them grafted instead. That’s because some of these roses, notably gallicas, will naturally sucker and form thickets instead of tidy shrubs.
  4. Like the species roses, many of the old garden roses will bloom once, often in great abundance, and then set to work on developing hips and hardening off for winter.Rosa mundi Pictured here is Rosa mundi (aka Rosa gallica var. veriscolor) which blooms profusely, with these amazing pink-splashed-with-pink fragrant blooms in early summer.
  5. This may sound a little obvious, but old garden roses are, well… old. Aside from newly bred roses in old classes, most any old garden rose is now closing in on 150 years of growing in gardens. Many are much, much older. This means that their worthiness in the garden has been tested, and the fact that they are still grown means that they’ve passed. Now look at that shiny new rose in the catalog this year. Yes, the marketing guys can write quite a description, and it takes a nice photo, but let’s talk again in 400 years to see if it really passed the test.
  6. Think pink, darker pink, almost red, purplish-pink, and white. There are exceptions, but pink and white are the basic palette of the old garden roses. Also, the bloom is often many-petaled, and globular, cupped or quartered in form. Here:Rosa centifolia
  7. Aside from the hybrid perpetuals, the old garden roses would seem out of place as bedding plants. My personal opinion is that modern roses look a bit weird in a dedicated bed as well, but at least they’re bred for it. Old garden roses are for the most part too large or too “shrubby” to be forced into that mold.

A word on disease resistance. I’ve read in a few places that old garden roses are less prone to disease. As big a fan as I am of old garden roses, I can’t completely agree. Maybe there are some modern roses that have serious susceptibility problems, but old garden roses are far from immune to blackspot and powdery mildew in my garden and greenhouses. I know a couple of hybrid perpetuals that mildew like crazy, and blackspot has nearly defoliated Zephirine Drouhin every year. There are also some very tough old garden roses that seem bulletproof to these fungal diseases. It’s hit and miss. What I can say is that they all seem to tolerate their problems well, and once well-established, a little bit of leaf spot doesn’t slow them down much.

If only for the sake of interest, anyone who grows roses should try an old garden rose or three. And for those who are just getting into gardening, or just considering their first rose to plant, don’t be so quick to choose a “bargain” bagged or bucketed modern roses at one of the big box stores. Roses have an amazing history in gardens. Consider choosing a something with a bit of a story to tell.

Sophie’s Perpetual

I might never take a picture that properly captures the blooms of this rose. I could blame that on my lack of photography skills, but I also have an excuse: ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’ has an unusual kind of translucence to its blooms. The petals are often much darker pink towards the edges. So go ahead and search the internet for better pictures. I’ve included two here. The first is of an early season cutting, eager to bloom right away. The other is 8 months later, and might even be the same plant, blooming into late October. That should say something about how free-blooming ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’ is.


This rose is classed as a China rose, but because it has a powerful fragrance that seems more like a European rose, some have called it a Bourbon rose, like the early China/Damask crosses. When dealing with a rose that is discovered in an old garden, rosarians just have to guess at the lineage/identity of the rose. This one was discovered in the garden of Sophie, Countess Benckendorff, thus the name ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’.

Whatever mystery there is about the origins of ‘Sophie’s’, I have no wonder about how this rose has earned a place in gardens since its discovery. Remarkable blooms with remarkable scent, healthy appearance, good vigor, and just overall charm. The shrub grows to only 3 feet or so, which makes it a nice addition even to a smaller garden bed. I myself seem to include Sophie as one of my first choices whenever I begin a new project. And why not? She attracts a lot of attention, and requires very little fussing. Besides, I just like to say “Benkendorff” when people say “Sophie who?”.

I sell this one in 1 gallon pots for $10 and 2 gallon for $20.

Rose de Rescht

If you were to look up ‘Rose de Rescht’ in a book or on another website, you’d probably read that this rose was discovered and collected by a prominent rosarian near the Persian city Rasht (spelled differently in French, apparently, and now in Iran). A bit of history like this can fire the imagination, and makes it easier to sell a rose, which is probably why it’s been repeated so frequently. Heck, why do you think I’m adding it here? (…aside from the fact that it seems obligatory when discussing this rose).

However, in my mind ‘Rose de Rescht’ doesn’t need a gimmick to sell it. Pluck a flower, hold it to your nose, and you’ll know what I mean. To my senses, this is the strongest and best scent of any rose I grow, all on an old-school fully petaled bloom that is actually a bit redder than it shows in this picture:

Rose de ReschtAnother virtue of this fantastic roses is a compact, rounded habit, which makes it appropriate to add to a mixed planting in a smaller garden bed. The blooms repeat extremely well for an old garden rose. In my garden, I’ve found it to be relatively free of disease problems, and I’ve read elsewhere that ‘Rose de Rescht’ is tolerant of difficult planting conditions, including some shade. We sell it in 1 and 2 gallon pots for $10 and $20 respectively.



Stanwell Perpetual

I don’t have a great nose for scent in roses, but when my timing is right, I can find a good Damask scent in ‘Stanwell Perpetual’. If you don’t know the scent I’m talking about, it’s what you’d smell in a perfume made with rose oil, which is harvested and distilled from Damask roses. As insensitive as my nose may be, I can tell you this: not every rose has this same scent. Some people describe the other rose fragrances as fruity, as spicy, or compare them to tea or cloves or licorice. I can’t really get all that specific myself, but I can pick out the scent of a Damask rose in this one just fine.

‘Stanwell Perpetual’ is a chance seedling from a garden, so the actual breeding would be a guess, but it most closely resembles the Scots rose, Rosa spinosissima. I do also grow the species, and they look alike most respects, but the flowers in ‘Stanwell’ are larger, fuller, scented, and instead of setting hips, ‘Stanwell’ repeats bloom later in the season.

Stanwell PerpetualThis is the rose in a 1 gallon pot. This picture is taken after the soft pink of the largest bloom has faded to a creamy white, but I do like the way this picture shows off the foliage and abundant buds. The habit of the rose is low growing, and because of its toughness, ‘Stanwell’ is great for putting on a sunny bank, or even in a more shaded location. It will, of course, do better in a more pampered location, but if you need a rose for a challenging location, you could hardly do better than this one.