In the 1800s, when pioneers headed west in covered wagons, they left behind family, friends and many of their prized possessions. They knew they could live without fancy furniture, delicate China and other treasures, but they couldn’t leave behind the roses they had lovingly tended. So they carefully stuck their rose cuttings into raw potatoes (to maintain their moisture) and brought them west.

Dr Huey Rose

‘Dr. Huey’ is a climbing rose often found at abandoned homesteads throughout the West. At Fairmount Cemetery’s Heritage Rose Garden, the rose stands about 10 feet tall and is covered with dark red, semidouble blooms each spring.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Rosa x alba 'Semiplena'

When you grow Rosa x alba ‘Alba Semiplena’, you’re growing beauty, fragrance and ruggedness along with those delicate, white flowers.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Harison's Yellow Rose

Celebrated for its richly scented blooms, ‘Harison’s Yellow’ is also known as the Pioneer Rose because settlers brought cuttings of this hardy plant west with them as they traveled along the Oregon Trail.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Mystery rose

Detectives have yet to solve the mystery of some of the roses at Fairmount Cemetery.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

If you know where to look, you can find some of these treasured roses still alive today. One of the best places to find them is on the grounds of Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. Fairmount is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area, and it’s home to at least 300 antique garden roses of almost 60 different varieties. The fact that the majority of these roses are over 100 years old is a testament to their hardiness.

In addition to their long and rich history, old roses have many benefits over many of the modern hybrid varieties found in today’s gardens. Like the hardy settlers who brought them here, these beauties are able to thrive under difficult conditions – and for good reason. You see, old or antique roses grow on their own roots, so they can tolerate winter’s freezing temperatures. In fact, they’re often referred to as “subzero roses.” Additionally, old roses are drought-hardy and easily stand up to hot summer sun and drying winds – once established.

If you’ve had difficulty growing roses because you live in a climate known for its weather extremes (like USDA hardiness zones 3, 4 or 5), old garden roses are the perfect answer. They certainly don’t need as much care as hybrid tea roses, and most are naturally disease-resistant. They simply need a sunny spot in well-drained soil and about 1 inch of water per week during the hottest months of summer.

While old roses typically require less upkeep, they’ll need a good pruning to improve their form and encourage new growth if they’ve been neglected for many years. Such is the case with some of the roses at Fairmount Cemetery. Volunteers of the Fairmount Heritage Rose Foundation perform routine maintenance at the cemetery twice a year. They select the roses needing the most care, fertilize them, cut out dead canes, prune and shape them.

It can take some dedication to get through these beautiful but tough plants thoroughly. “This year it took six people six hours to complete one bush,” says Barri Boren, the foundation’s interim director. “Many of the roses have been here so long, they’ve grown to be 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep.” (Sometimes the pruning even reveals old grave markers that have long been hidden from view.)

Because the antique varieties that grow at Fairmount were planted many years ago by family members of the deceased, it can be difficult to categorize them into their traditional groups based on their ancestry: Gallica (Rosa gallica), Damask (Rosa x damascena), white (Rosa x alba), cabbage and moss (Rosa x centifolia), China roses and so forth. Those roses that elude identification are sometimes simply credited as a Fairmount variety, such as ‘Fairmount Malton’ or ‘Fairmount Chameleon’. Fairmount Cemetery also features Rosa ‘Harison’s Yellow’, often called The Yellow Rose of Texas, which serves as a reminder to thank the pioneers for their contribution to our horticultural heritage.

If you’re a rose lover but have been having problems growing these beautiful bloomers, give old garden roses a try. If these time-tested shrubs can grow for more than 100 years with little to no care in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, they’re likely to thrive in your garden, too.