Picture your June garden overflowing with softly textured, exquisitely beautiful rose blooms in the most pleasing shades of pink, white, crimson and mauve. These roses grow and bloom for you without any fussing and coddling because they’re resistant to disease and grow well in your soil type. Imagine that these roses are as tough as they are beautiful and can breeze through cold Northern winters without blankets of protection. Just think about how great it would be to have carefree rosebushes that look equally fabulous come winter, when their colorful hips, interesting canes and striking form takes center stage. If this all sounds like rosey perfection to you, then old garden roses (OGRs) are just what you’re looking for!

Alba rose

Flower characteristics can differ in Alba rose varieties, but the beautiful blue-green foliage is part of their makeup.

Photo Credit: Joanne Rosman

‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ rose

‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ rose can make a beautiful and fragrant addition to the shrub border or along a sunny fence.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

‘Rosa Mundi’ rose

‘Rosa Mundi’ rose was popular in Shakespearian times.

Photo Credit: Joanne Rosman

The Apothecary’s Rose

The heady fragrance of The Apothecary’s Rose perfumes an entire garden.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

An OGR isn’t just any “old” rose. In fact, the esteemed American Rose Society officially defines OGRs as rose types that existed before the year 1867, when the first “modern” hybrid tea rose (Rosa ‘La France’) was born and introduced. Of all the many classifications of OGRs out there, some of the most beautiful, ancient and historic varieties are Alba (Rosa x alba), Gallica (Rosa gallica) and Damask (Rosa x damascena).

I’d say you could call these OGRs the miracle workers of the rose kingdom. They were used extravagantly in ancient Greece and Rome for just about any and every reason. Back then, people stuffed pillows with roses and wore wreaths of the flowers. Soldiers took them into battle, and cosmetics were made from them. Emperors showered their guests with rose petals, and people cooked with roses. They even drank brews made from them. The plants were used as medicinal herbs in medieval times, and monks tended large gardens of roses in monastery courtyards so the petals could be harvested and made into rosary beads.

Yes, OGRs have truly stood the test of time, and their easy, breezy qualities will actually leave you with…well, time to stop and smell the roses! After all, there are few plants around that can bring as many rewards with such little effort. All these roses need to grow perfectly is sunshine (about 5 hours of direct sun), water (all roses love to be watered at their feet) and ideally, some loamy garden soil (amended with compost or manure). If you’d like to grow and show some of these historic, perfect ancient wonders in your own garden, here are a few of my favorites:

Alba roses characteristically exhibit stunning blue-green foliage that looks good even without blooms. This class of rose only blooms once in late spring, but the abundant show of very fragrant, long-lasting flowers is just spectacular! Large, showy, red hips (fruits) follow the blooms and last through winter to brighten up the winter garden (provided the birds don’t find these tasty hips first). Alba roses grow to 6 feet tall with a graceful, arching form. Consider Rosa x alba ‘Alba Semiplena’, known as the White Rose of York, for its gorgeous semidouble blooms or Rosa ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’, which has beautiful pale pink, double blooms.

Damask roses are one of the most ancient and beautiful of all OGRs and have a heady, rich, classic rose fragrance. These beauties grow to about 5 feet and sport pretty, light green leaves. They can repeat bloom, but the first bloom will always be the heaviest. They’re tough and hardy with no winter protection to Zone 4. One particular kind to try is Rosa x damascena var. semperflorens, known as Autumn Damasks, for their clear pink, full blooms.

Gallica roses, as a group, are among the easiest to grow. They multiply in a neat mound by noninvasive suckering. In addition to tolerating almost any soil type and growing conditions, Gallicas are tough, hardy and never need winter protection in my USDA hardiness Zone 4 garden. They flower only once a year, but their soul-satisfying fragrance and incredible bloom power more than make up for their non-remontant nature. The bush itself grows naturally rounded and compact to about 4 feet. Consider Rosa gallica var. versicolor, also known as ‘Rosa Mundi’, which has lovely crimson blooms with white stripes or Rosa gallica var. officinalis, also known as The Apothecary’s Rose and The Red Rose of Lancaster, which has stunning crimson-pink blooms.

Indeed, every garden has a story to tell. No one knows this better than you, the gardener and creator of that wonderful blooming world outside your door. These ancient wonders – the old garden roses – can add a brand-new dimension to your landscape, and an intriguing (and carefree) new chapter to your own garden story. You just might find them to be the perfect roses.