Vintage roses may not be overtly dramatic by nature but some have a distinctive and commanding presence. Intensity of color draws the eye – the rich reds, the dark purples, the blowsy pinks, the golds, the deep copper-infused oranges and the hints of blue. Eye-catching forms, such as giant overblown blooms or drop-dead gorgeous, heavily petalled confections, simply beg for attention, as do roses that put forth a multitude of blooms in one stupendous show. Others have outstanding features, such as the irrepressible Rosa Mundi and the intense Variegata de Bologna, both of which are prettily striped and freckled. Then there are roses such as Ellen Willmott, whose sensational golden anthers topped with red filaments cry out for close scrutiny. These striking roses are poseurs with attitude – the true supermodels of the garden.
01. Tuscany Superb
This Gallica is a rose I cannot live without. The flower buds are a dark maroon, with pretty layered sepals that unfurl to reveal a chaotic rosette of a catholic-purple intensity that darkens as it ages, and which can reach 8cm (3in) in diameter. The overall effect is of deep, dark, purple-red flowers that are a glorious muddle of unruly curls, with smaller multi-petals clustering untidily in the heart. If the flowers unfurl efficiently, which they often don’t, there is a stunning cloud of golden stamens at their center. The inner petals sometimes have a white flash, which offsets the stamens. It has a light but pleasing perfume.
Tuscany Superb was given the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
Reputedly bred prior to 1837 by the English fruit grower Thomas Rivers, this rose really appreciates a good mulch of well-rotted manure every winter. It can sulk and produce few flowers if left hungry. Mine rampaged through a beautiful olive tree, offsetting the silvery foliage with dark purple accents. Although it flowers but once, in my experience it will continue to throw out the odd bloom for some time. These are so exquisite that I snatch them from the plant and bring them into the house to take pole position on the kitchen table.
02. Rosa Mundi
Properly known as Rosa gallica versicolor, this rose has a genetic mutation that disrupts normal pigment development; as a result, no two petals or flowers are exactly alike. Rosa Mundi produces pale pink petals splashed, striped and freckled with spots of a dark pink. The buds are red and unfurl to semi-double ruffled flowers with a pretty burst of golden stamens at their heart. You may find the occasional flower is a plain sugar-pink; this happens when it reverts to the hue of its parent. The blooms are deeply fragrant and can reach up to 10cm (4in) in diameter. Flowers are followed by oval red hips in late summer.
Rosa Mundi is a sport of Rosa gallica var. officinalis, The Apothecary’s Rose. Its true origin is unknown but it was first recorded in 1583 and was dubbed Rosa mundi in England, which means ‘rose of the world’. In France it is known as Provins Panaché.
Rosa Mundi is a bushy shrub that can be grown as hedging. If you give it a mulch of well-rotted manure in winter, it will thank you with flowers. It is a robust plant but like many Old roses, can be susceptible to blackspot and mildew. It was given the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
This is a rose that goes by many names. In the United Kingdom it was dubbed Belvedere by the horticulturalist Graham Stuart Thomas after it was discovered by Lady Rosse in the gardens of Belvedere House in County Westmeath, in Ireland.
Thomas maintains it was a spontaneous seedling but others believe it is actually Princesse Marie, a Sempervirens hybrid originating in France in 1929 and created by Antoine Jacques, who named it after his employer, the second daughter of King Louis-Phillipe.
Either way, it is a truly spectacular monster of a rose. It scrambles high, up and over walls and arches, and through trees. When it blooms, clouds of small pale pink, cupped flowers that fade with age are preceded by great clusters of pale pink buds. The whole combines to create a staggering display of visual perfection. The only downside is that the blooms spoil in the rain, so it benefits from locations where summers are drier. Despite this failing, it is such a stunning plant that it took the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.
04. Ellen Willmott
There are many reasons for selecting a rose as distinctive but it’s not often the stamens that are its distinguishing feature. In some ways this is a gloriously simplistic and fragrant rose; the peachy buds open to reveal five scalloped pale pink petals that form a bloom with a diameter of 8cm (3in) and fade to creamy white. In cooler weather, the very tips of the petals are washed with a pale pink hue. But at the heart of the flower is its true glory – lengthy crimson filaments tipped with golden yellow anthers. Author and rose-grower Daphne Filiberti observed, “If roses had eyelashes, this one could certainly bat her eyes.”
This is an upright Hybrid Tea rose, so you need to pick your planting spot carefully and surround it with herbaceous plants that will loosen up the overall effect.
Dubbed ‘the greatest of all living gardeners’ by Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott, author of the book The Genus Rosa, was passionate about wild-rose species. This rose was introduced by William Archer in 1936, two years after Ellen Willmott’s death. Archer, a furniture-designer and amateur rose-grower, was not alone in choosing to honor Wilmott; over 60 plant cultivars and species were named after her.
05. François Debreuil
If you’re looking for dark, velvet-red blooms, then François Debreuil is the rose for you. The long, conical buds are a deep, dark red and open into wonderful full-blown roses of intense shadowy red without a hint of tonal vulgarity. This rose has no artificial perfection in its blooms but is a great chaotic beauty, with nodding heads of fat, multi-petalled flowers that pale a little with age to a defiant deep red. The occasional petal bears a tiny brushstroke of white. You are unlikely to catch more than a hint of the golden stamens at its heart.
François Debreuil is an exceptionally fragrant rose and will bloom in flushes throughout the summer. The rather twiggy growth struggles to support the fat flowers. This Tea rose was bred by its namesake, a tailor from Lyons who took up rose breeding. It was introduced in 1894.
06. Variegata di Bologna
Variegata di Bologna is a petalled flurry of couture fancifulness. The dark pink buds open to reveal an exuberance of white petals, all flecked and striped with raspberry-pink detailing. The inner petals are washed with a pale, pale pink. Every single petal and every flower is different one from the other. The flowers are fulsome, double and cupped, and have to be seen to be believed – no description ever quite does them justice. Like a tennis player’s frilly knickers, they have an air of innocent sauciness. The flowers have a strong sweet perfume and open to a diameter of 8cm (3in). Variegata di Bologna is grown for the exceptional quality of each flower. Get picking!
Variegate di Bologna is a sport of its parent, Victor Emmanuel; occasionally it can revert and produce plain purple roses. This Bourbon rose was introduced in 1909 by Massimilano Lodi of Gaetano Bonfiglioli e figlio, from Bologna in Italy. Variegata di Bologna can take a few years to get going; be patient with it and feed it in winter. It can be susceptible to blackspot.
Like something out of a children’s fairy story, this improbably perfect rose produces picture-perfect swathes of scarlet blooms. Great clusters of dark red buds erupt into a hot flow of crimson-red flowers that hang down from long stems and whose inner petals are flecked with white. The blooms fade to a dark pink as they age. The flowers are small, just 3cm (1¼in) in diameter and have little fragrance.
Let it rampage over walls, fences, arches and pergolas, and sit back and enjoy the show.
Excelsa, sometimes called Red Dorothy Perkins, was introduced by Michael Walsh in 1909. Walsh emigrated to the USA from North Wales in 1868 at the age of 20 and wound up as head gardener on a waterfront estate in Woods Hole, Cape Cod. He became a successful rose breeder, introducing around 40 new ramblers and taking awards both at home and abroad. This is a fabulous rose but it can be something of a martyr to mildew.
08. Fighting Temeraire
David Austin christened this rose in honor of the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, in 2011. The connection to what is perhaps Turner’s most famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire, is obvious at first glance – this rose is ablaze with the ever-changing colours of sunset. It buds a warm red, with its 10 petals opening to a warm flesh-pink with sugar-pink tips. As it unfurls further, it reveals apricot-pink-edged petals that wash into a bright yellow at the base. As the flower matures, it pales subtly, the stamens becoming longer and more showily gold. The flowers can open to a diameter of around 12cm (5in) and have a strong, fruity fragrance with lemon overtones.
09. Thomas à Becket
Liturgical in hue, it is perhaps not surprising that David Austin selected this rose to honour Canterbury Cathedral. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry II’s knights on 11 December 1170. The knights had the mistaken belief that they were following the King’s wishes. Becket was hailed a martyr and his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage. He was canonized in 1173 and his shrine still attracts hordes of visitors.
This rose, a sumptuous and bloody carmine-red, is a multi-petalled, shallow-cupped, rosette. The flowers, which open to 10cm (4in) in diameter, wave and nod in the breeze on relaxed stems, perfuming the air with a delicious Old-rose fragrance. The flowers are far from uptight but have a divertingly chaotic petal arrangement; there’s no stiff formality here. Keep picking and deadheading to encourage more flowers to form. This shrub, introduced by Austin in 2015, can grow taller if left unpruned.
Thomas à Becket is pleasingly relaxed in character and blends well in a mixed border. It looks stunning with shades of purple and blue.
10. Lady of Shalott
Arthurian legend tells of Elaine of Astolat, who died of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot – he only had eyes for Queen Guinevere. She was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, published in 1833 and 1842. Tennyson depicts her weaving in a tower on the island of Shalott, cursed to only view the world through its reflection in a mirror. On sight of Lancelot in the mirror, she is entranced and turns to gaze at him through the window. She flees the tower, clambers into a boat – my words not Tennyson’s – and dies en route to Camelot, thus becoming a tragic emblem of medieval purity.
David Austin was asked to name a rose by The Tennyson Society to commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2009 of the poet’s birth. Perhaps the autumnal palette of John William Waterhouse’s famous painting, The Lady of Shalott, inspired Austin’s choice of this glowing orange-red beauty.
Lady of Shalott’s buds are yellow and coral and open into the most exquisite blooms. Austin describes them as ‘chalice-shaped’ since the undersides of the petals are visible – I’d describe them as resembling a magnificent cross between a peony and a ranunculus. On closer inspection, the outside petals are apricot tinged with raspberry, while the inner petals are a warm, golden yellow. The overall effect is of a magnificent autumnal orange rose, with a luminous glow from within. The blooms, which open on twiggy stems to a diameter of 10cm (4in), have a good Tea-rose scent and subdue in tone as they mature.
This rose sits well in the middle or back of the border and is best mixed with hot color schemes – dark reds and rich purples.
As a general rule, coral roses make me nervous. There is something about the flat rawness of the color that can dominate a flowerbed or planting scheme. Boscobel is the exception to my rule, for it glows with such a dramatic intensity and is a bloom of such superlative beauty that it cannot be denied. This rose is a couture beauty, with livid pink outer petals and flaming salmon-pink and coral-pink inner petals with the occasional flash of pale tangerine – an inspired clash of tones that lifts the spirits.
It buds a dark greenish purple and explodes into huge, luminous cupped tutus of flowers that are borne on long stems. These double rosettes spread to a diameter of 10cm (4in) and have a deliciously strong perfume.
In a border it looks splendid mixed with cool blues and purples. David Austin introduced Boscobel in 2012. It is named after Boscobel House, where Charles II hid in an oak tree while attempting to evade Parliamentary soldiers on 6 September 1651. A descendent of the original tree now marks the spot.
12. Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn has a breathtaking colour palette. To describe it merely as a pink rose is to do it a grave injustice. The buds open a deep red-pink, paling rapidly to a warm sugar-pink and making a perfect rosette of petals, paler at the outer edges and warming in intensity to the heart. Here, some petals are a warm apricot with the odd dash of coral. These are the perfectly blended colours of a glorious pink sunset before the shades of violet creep in. Anne Boleyn flowers singly or in clusters of up to 10 blooms that can open to a diameter of 9cm (3½in). It has a light, sweet fragrance and when fully unfurled, reveals golden stamens at its heart.
13. Super Dorothy
It is the form of this descendant of Dorothy Perkins that gives it such dramatic visual impact. A lax dandy, it produces heavy sprays of up to 50 diminutive blooms that hang down in great pink floral swathes. It has tiny pale pink buds, which open to a ruffled and wayward mass of bright pink to mid-pink petals. The backs of the petals are paler in hue, and the blooms, which have virtually no perfume, fade through a range of pink tones with age. The flowers open to a diameter of 4–5cm (1½–2in).
Super Dorothy is a good rambler, resplendent on arches, pergolas and posts. The German rose grower Karl Hetzel introduced it in 1986.
14. Blue for You
Despite its name, you can see for yourself that Blue for You is not really a true blue rose. Breeders have searched for one – the Holy Grail of rose growing – for centuries. There may be a blue rose in the not-too-distant future but in the meantime, Blue for You is as close as we get.
It is actually distinctly violet in hue, with long, plum-colored buds that open to a tight curl of violet petals. These unfurl again to a wavy frill of a bloom; the undulating petals carry veins of colour, some with the occasional splash of white and all tipped with white at the base. The flower fades and greys as it ages so that it takes on more of a bluish tinge. It has a good scent and when sniffing it, you’ll see dull gold stamens at its heart. This rose was introduced by Peter J James in 2006 and took the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.
Roses do not come in shades of blue because they lack the necessary pigmentation – delphinidin. The Japanese have been working on this, with the company Suntory having spent an enormous sum on the development of a blue rose – in excess of three billion yen! Applause, Suntory’s first blue rose, was introduced in Japan in 2009 and in the USA in 2011, but in the USA, only as a cut flower for florists. But is Applause blue? Perhaps lavender would be a closer description. Speaking personally, I don’t see the need for a blue rose.
This rose was introduced by David Austin in 1999. It is named after Henry VIII’s second wife, who took many illicit rose-garden walks with Henry before they were married – her badge was a white falcon alighting on roses. Anne was mother to Henry’s second daughter, Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I. Henry’s passion for Anne, once married, was short-lived; he had her executed for adultery at the Tower of London on 2 May 1536. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. The grave was uncovered during restoration work in the nineteenth century and is now marked.
15. Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is an exceptionally pretty rose that just begs to be picked – the bush is positively laden with inviting pink posies of small, perfectly formed clusters. The buds are a raspberry-pink, unfurling to reveal multi-petalled, rosette-shaped cups of papery, sugar-pink petals that fade to a pale pink. When the buds are fully open, you can glimpse a tiny yellow eye peeking out from the profusion of curling petals, each with a green-white splash at its base. Leonardo da Vinci is lightly fragranced.
Unlike many roses, this one has great tolerance to rain, which is a huge plus – it’s hard not to be downcast by a beautiful array of rose blooms being spoiled by a heavy downpour. It does best in a warm, sunny position, where it can grow into a small climber.
Leonardo da Vinci (aka Léonard da Vinci) was introduced by the French rose grower, Meilland, in 1994.
Yet another rose that doesn’t quite colour-match its name! Its blooms are a superb faded violet combined with a greyed pink, like faded pink paper roses. The color is superb and even more artful as the blooms fade and mature. The buds are a true, rich magenta but open into a ruffled petticoat of a bloom – a wanton, loose rosette of disorganized petals that spread to a diameter of 7cm (2¾in). It buds in generous flusters of 5–15 flowers that have a strong fragrance. At their heart is a cluster of golden yellow stamens.
The lower stems of this rose can be rather bare so it works well as part of a mixed border, where you can conceal its ankles with other herbaceous plants. Magenta is simply glorious in arrangements, solo or mixed. Let the petals drop where they will – the whole effect is entrancing.
Magenta was introduced in 1954 by the creative German rose breeder, Wilhelm Kordes II. I don’t usually mention parentage but in this instance it is worth checking out one half of Magenta’s gene pool – a rose called Lavender Pinocchio, a great overblown beauty with flowers the color of fudge that fade to a lavender-pink.
17. Rosarium Uetersen
This is an attention-seeking rose that is a sight to behold when in full flower. It has had the misfortune to be dubbed coral-pink by many rose-growers but in reality it is a bold, blowsy pink. I’ll grant you that Rosarium Uetersen buds a coral-pink but it opens to a ruffled mass of orange-pink petals, the undersides of which are rather paler. The blooms appear in great swathes across the plant, reaching 9cm (3½in) in diameter and emitting a sweet fragrance. The flowers age prettily so the whole effect is a glowing mass of graded pink magnificence – like throwing open the doors of Barbara Cartland’s wardrobe.
Reimer Kordes introduced this rose in 1977. It was named after the north German rose garden in Uetersen that is home to over 800 varieties of rose and which the Kordes nursery helped to create in 1934.
18. Wild Blue Yonder
This vibrant Floribunda rose, faintly reminiscent of a camellia in form, has rich purplish blooms – though it can photograph as a pinkish red – and a heady rose-and-citrus perfume. It has fat, pointed purple buds that open to a ruffle of 25–30 petals, each tipped lavender at the base and with a heart of golden stamens. It blooms in generous clusters on long stems and the flowers, which can reach 8cm (3in) in diameter, fade to lavender as they age. It is variable, being deeper and darker in tone in cooler temperatures. This is a hungry plant that benefits from regular feeding and a very sunny position.
Wild Blue Yonder was introduced by the award-winning Texas rose hybridizer Tom Carruth in 2006, and it took the All-America Rose Selections Award the same year – the first time a lavender-hued bloom had won in over 20 years. Tom Carruth is, at the time of writing, working as Curator of the Rose Garden at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in southern California.