Everyone can agree that fragrance is an important characteristic in a rose. Though sometimes this trait has been diminished in the pursuit of breeding larger or various colored roses, some gardeners prize this trait highly, and won't do without it. Two of our Regional Reporters, Charlie Nardozzi of Vermont and Yvonee Savio of Southern California, offer their opinions on the topic.
I was never much of a rose fan until my wife, Barbara, introduced me to the old-fashioned varieties years ago. The roses I knew until then were mostly hybrid teas. They were strong growers and produced many flowers, but many of them lacked one of the essential elements of a rose: fragrance. With old-fashioned roses I encountered a world of unusual flower shapes with the added benefit of a heady aroma.
Old-fashioned roses (antique or heirloom roses) are those roses that were bred prior to the twentieth century. There are a number of classes of roses in this group, some hardier than others. My favorite classes include the Gallica, Damask, Moss, Centifolia, and Alba. I've found these to be the hardiest of the old roses in my USDA Zone 4 garden. Plus, they seem to survive with little extra care and maintenance.
Although varieties of these five classes vary in their growth, flower shape, and flower color, generally the bushes grow 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, survive in less than ideal soil and part shade, produce pastel-colored flowers in early summer, and feature unique flower shapes and luscious fragrances. The only drawback to these roses is that they bloom only once during the summer. The David Austin has taken many of the characteristics of the old-fashioned roses and incorporated them into a reblooming habit, but his roses have not proven reliably hardy in my garden. They perform better in zone 5 and warmer climates.
'Apothecary' is a Gallica rose featuring single red flowers on a dwarf bush. Damask roses such as 'Madam Hardy' produce beautiful landscape plants with red or white blooms, depending on the variety. Centifolia roses, like the 'Paul Ricault' in my garden, sport flowers that look like cabbages cut in half, with many petals stuffed into each robust blossom. Moss roses such as 'Blanc de Quatre Saison' feature hairy growths on the flower buds and sepal that remind me of Spanish moss hanging from a live oak. But my favorite class is the Albas. Although the Moss and Centifolia roses are fragrant, Alba roses smell like heaven. I remember being bowled over upon sniffing 'Maiden's Blush' at the Montreal Botanic Garden. If you want a sweetly scented rose, try the Albas.
While old-fashioned roses are touted as more sweetly scented, hardier, and easier to maintain than new hybrid floribundas and teas, some modern varieties are deliciously scented.
In general, the most fragrant roses are those that are darker in color, have more petals to the flower, or have thick, velvety petals. Red and pink flowers tend to smell "like a rose"; white and yellow flowers like lemon, orris, nasturtium, and violet; and orange flowers like clover, fruit, orris, nasturtium, and violet.
Roses are most redolent on warm, sunny days when the soil is moist. Only two varieties seem immune to the vagaries of the weather: 'Chrysler Imperial' and 'Sutter's Gold' are fragrant even on cool, cloudy days. In addition to those two, give my favorites a sniff: 'Crimson Glory', 'Dolly Parton', 'Double Delight', 'Fragrant Cloud', 'Fragrant Apricot', 'Garden Party', 'Granada', 'Intrigue', 'Ivory Fashion', 'Lemon Sherbet', 'Mister Lincoln', 'Papa Meilland', 'Sunsprite', 'Sweet Surrender', and 'Tiffany'.
I harvest some of my roses for bouquets to perfume my home. For bouquets that retain their petals, good color, and fresh appearance for 4 days or more, I follow these instructions: Cut long stems while flowers are in the bud stage, and place in vases of 72° F water. Every 2 days, cut stems back about 1/4 inch, and provide fresh water. Red, pink, and orange roses tend to last longer, as will those with many petals.
Sometimes my most robust and stunning blossoms are the "last roses of summer". They show their best after the onslaught of heat and pests has passed. If you cut late roses for bouquets, remember that each new cut stimulates tender, new growth susceptible to frost damage. Cease to cut roses about a month prior to hard frost to allow the plants time to develop hardiness.
Photos by Charlie Nardozzi and Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association