Roses charm with their looks, scent and stories

July 3, 2023

In the last century, older country homes with the space for a few precious garden showpieces would typically have peonies, mock orange, lilac, a rose, maybe tiger lilies, and of course, a clump of daffodils.

There are always new alluring plants showing up at garden centres, but I am also a fan of the “old fashioned” plants which are part of our local heritage. Because they persist on old properties, they are tried and true, and they often come to me with a story and a warm association with the gardener who stewarded them. They are not always the biggest and brightest, but some of those older varieties still handily hold their own in our modern gardens.

The roses from an earlier time have a special place in my heart. They would’ve been one of a few precious showpieces for the yard, bought with scant pennies, and often shared among friends. Although those roses typically have just one big “flush” of blooms, rather than “perpetual” blooming through the season, they often have a lovely scent, and I think that those blooms are worth the wait.

Harison’s Yellow - the actual “Yellow Rose of Texas” developed in New York State in the early 1800s. Photo: Caroline Cameron

My early memories include the annual “Report Card Day” photo that would be taken in front of the sweet scented Harison’s Yellow rose, in full bloom. That rose was only equalled in our yard by the show put on during the Inverness Gathering by our Dorothy Perkins rambling rose.

Both those bushes were planted in the 1940s and can be counted on to last for many decades. They are known as ‘heritage’ roses, European or Mediterranean bred to withstand bitter winter cold. A piece of root with some greenery can often be used to start a new bush, or a branch can be “layered” by weighing it down to the ground so that it produces roots where it contacts the soil.

Your typical garden centre may not carry older heritage roses, since those that bloom all through the season are more popular, but it is wise to read the notes on the tag to see what kind of blooms and scents they offer.

A cutting from a heritage rose, collected at an abandoned farm, blooms in a new home. Photo: Caroline Cameron

“Tea roses” were cultivated in Asia and named so because of their subtle scent resembling black tea. They bloom all through the summer but are less hardy. When these were introduced to Europe in the 1800s, gardeners set to blending their properties with heritage roses through hybridizing.

In the 1980s “hybrid tea roses” were very popular. They combined the rich scent and hardy nature of the heritage rose with the perpetual blooming of the tea rose. This combination made them the most popular rose of the 20th century.

The varieties and characters of the roses available to us have changed considerably over time. Roses now come in all colours from white to yellow to purple, but a true “blue” rose has not yet been bred.

In addition to hybridizing roses, grafting (literally splicing) the branch of a tender rose, that has an exquisite bloom, onto a hardy root stock, has also become commonplace. Such roses are still on the tender side, and there is usually the annual spring check for buds emerging from the woody stems, in hopes of seeing signs of life. They are marginally hardy in our climate, but really worth the effort for their show-stopping blooms and scent.

Of the many hybrid tea roses, I am partial to the Peace Rose. It was bred and distributed widely during the Second World War, and in 1945, its trade name was established as ‘Peace’. One was given to each of the delegations at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations.

By times, hybrid roses that you buy may die back, but the rootstock, which usually survives, will send up a shoot in place of the failed graft. This means that the rose bush then begins producing a different colour or shape of rose blossom. This turn of events has often left the gardener scratching their head.

In judging beauty and scent, we must never overlook the blessing that is our own native rose. I make the important distinction here between true native roses, and wild roses. We have four native roses: Virginia, Carolina, swamp, and shining roses, all producing simple yellow-centred, mid to deep pink blossoms, with five petals. These are knee to hip height, and all have waxy leaves.

A group of wild non-native roses with rough, wrinkled leaves, known as Rugosa (Latin for rough) commonly grow wild along beaches, in shoulder-high masses of white or hot pink blooms. These are wild roses which have escaped from properties over time. Other wild escapees are the hardy root grafts which produce clusters of small blossoms (Multiflora), on intimidating sprawling thorny branches. Both these wild roses need not be encouraged because they are so invasive.

If you are considering roses, you will want to know about newer varieties of hardy roses. The extensive ‘Explorer’ series was developed in Ottawa. These varieties are extremely resistant to cold and disease and named after hardy explorers like Frobisher and Henry Hudson. The series includes some Rugosa roses, and some of these are highly scented. The ‘Parkland’ series, developed in Morden, Manitoba, is also a hardy bunch, and currently independent breeders across the country are developing a hardy series named ‘Canadian Artist’ including varieties such as Emily Carr and Felix Leclerc.

If you have a special rose, or any plant with an interesting story, please don’t hesitate to be in touch and share your story.

Happy gardening!

Caroline Cameron lives in Strathlorne, and offers gardening and guiding services around Cape Breton Island. Please submit any gardening tips, questions, and news to and visit Facebook at Nature/Nurture Gardening & Hiking.

Dorothy Perkins rambling rose transplanted to a century home in Glenville. Photo: Brenna MacNeil