Homes built before World War II often contain surprise roses in their gardens. They are often very large old plants that border on brambles, while some may be simply an overgrown rootstock or others could be true antiques. Yes, there are treasures to be found that may be the species and early crosses proving their longevity by simply being alive today. Most of the old ones bloom just once a year, very heavily, in the dawn of summer.
The rose world has dubbed all roses existing before the 1930s “old roses” because the majority are not remondant. Remondancy is the repeat-blooming characteristic that came in with the China roses from Asia that yielded continuous bloomers. Today the popular groundcover roses have become the quintessential end product of this 20th-century breeding.
But the old ones are like discovering a 17th century early American chair in a thrift shop. They may not look great at first, but when they bloom your first spring in the house, you’ll know if yours is extraordinarily fragrant. Scent was primary in these early American homes. In the old days, rosewater made from the garden flower was one of the few fragrances available to everyone rich or poor, urban or rural.
Most roses in gardens today are grafted, but many relics aren’t. A grafted rose variety is attached to a very vigorous thornless rootstock, but sometimes the grafted-on variety called the scion dies out from stress of neglect. All that’s left is that rangy rootstock which has different leaves and flowers than the variety. It’s not worth rehabilitating a rootstock, so you must know the difference before you dive in with care.
Gardeners need to know that old roses are pruned just once per year, typically after they flower. If not pruned at that time, each flower will produce a fruit, a real rose hip. Ornamental gardeners didn’t want the hips, they wanted growth after flowering, so they coaxed new branches from the base of the plant that make bigger specimens in lieu of fruit. During the rest of the growing season these pruned old roses will develop vigorously because energy isn’t siphoned by ripening fruit. You might choose to leave a few developing fruits that turn bright red at maturity and provide a vitamin-rich flesh for tea and medicine.
To rehabilitate old roses this summer, prune off the developing fruit promptly. Perform these summer tasks during the vegetative growth phase to bring the rose back to life and ensure it blooms to high heaven next year.
Study each rose to see how it physically branches to know if it’s upright, weeping, climbing or sprawling in form. This is the guide to how cuts can be made that support this natural form rather than spoiling it. Strive to remove damaged, dead or diseased canes, twigs and branches so all growth energy goes into new growth rather than supporting worn out dying branches. Failure to stimulate new canes is why many roses decline when they should be thriving.
Create a watering basin to facilitate slow deep watering, particularly in clays. Set a dripping garden hose at the base of the trunk for a long slow deep saturation that wakes the entire root zone before feeding gently.
Use slow release long-term fertilizer with nitrogen to stimulate new replacement stem growth. Older branches and canes are less productive and need to be removed once new green stems rise from the base to replace them. If the rose has been severely neglected, apply Superthrive with your fertilizer to stimulate cell division above and below ground. Liquid kelp and alfalfa meal are excellent organic fertilizers that have similar results for roses.
Never write off a battered old rose until you see its bloom. Don’t assume the plant is too old to recover, either. Old roses can live 30 to 50 years, but perhaps twice that if discovered, rehabilitated and tended with love.
Contact Maureen Gilmer at email@example.com.