Sometimes it feels as though the search for the ‘perfect plant’ is relentless, at least in certain genera. The never ending push towards larger flowers, longer flowering seasons and an expanding selection of colours is notably seen in Hydrangeas, Geraniums, Pelargoniums, and of course roses (not to mention of course Galanthus, where any minute differences seem to warrant a new cultivar name). I wonder if you can actually have too much of a good thing, and whether in the hunt for perfection plant breeders are breeding out the charm and character of plants.
Old roses have a loyal following in the UK, despite the introduction of so many new roses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these new roses aren’t excellent. Breeding roses for greater disease resistance and longer flowering seasons, while keeping a certain ‘old world charm’, can’t be a bad thing; if nothing else these new roses have opened up rose growing to a wider audience and introduced new generations of gardeners to roses. I’m not denying the importance of this work, but do old rose cultivars have any relevance in the modern age?
I would argue that they do, if only to expand the options available to gardeners. There will be places that wish to grow roses of a certain era, for example in the gardens of historic houses, but as we embrace new ways of gardening I think it’s fair to say that old roses have new relevance.
In a world of instant gratification there’s an appeal to roses that don’t flower perpetually. Firstly many of these roses produce hips that are desirable not only as autumn decoration but also as a valuable source of food for birds (and of course a crucial ingredient of delicious rose hip jelly!). Secondly there is something exciting about a precious plant only flowering for a short period of time; flowers are so much more precious if there’s only a short time to appreciate them!
Of course there are advantages to perpetually flowering roses and the desire to enjoy roses over a longer period of time is nothing new, as seen with Rosa ‘Stanwell Perpetual’.
Rosa ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ arose as a chance seedling in a private garden in Stanwell, Middlesex, UK, and was introduced to cultivation by Lee’s Nursery of Hammersmith in 1838. Nothing else is really known about its origins, although rosarians over the years have speculated as to what its parents might have been.
Its habit isn’t the tidiest of the roses; it has the look of a wild rose, if it wasn’t for its exquisite ruffled flowers. Habit aside, the only real downside to this plant is the curious purple blotching that appears on its foliage; it looks like a disease but doesn’t seem to spread or even affect the whole plant. Some gardeners would find these marks problematic but I don’t really notice them.
Although this is something of a niche plant now it has had its admirers over the years. It was a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll, while that most eminent of rosarians Graham Stuart Thomas described it as “a most treasured possession, and is likely to remain in cultivation as long as roses are grown…”; high praise indeed. Maybe the greatest honour bestowed on it is the fact that it has, for all its faults, been in cultivation for over 180 years.