How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Old Garden Roses

Many varieties of modern hybrid roses are gorgeous in their own right, but have you checked out old garden roses? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will tell you what you need to know to grow these enchanting shrubs in your garden.

Close-up of blooming Old Garden Roses in a sunny garden. Beautiful pink rose 'Louise Odier', a classic hybrid perpetual rose, displays a charming appearance characterized by its abundant clusters of large, cupped flowers. Each bloom features rose petals, forming a graceful, rounded silhouette. The plant has a dark green, glossy foliage with jagged edges.


Ah, the rose! There is so much history to unpack in understanding the notoriety of the most symbolic and notorious flower. These highly popular blooms have been cultivated by humans for more than a thousand years.

Roses have been grown for personal care, ornamental gardens, and culinary use since around 500 BC in the Chou Dynasty of China, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. Fossil records indicate that wild roses have grown on Earth for nearly 30 million years. 

Just over 150 years ago, artificial hybridization became a popular trend in rose cultivation. That advent brought about many of the thousands of common varieties we find today. But what about the predecessors to our modern roses? We are here to talk about these plants, referred to as old garden roses


Close-up of a blooming Rose de Mai Centifolia against a blurred garden background. The Rose de Mai Centifolia is renowned for its opulent appearance characterized by large, densely packed petals that form voluptuous, globular blooms. The flower is large, double, deep pink.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Rosaceae
Genus Rosa
Native Area Europe, Asia, North America
Hardiness 4-8
Season Late Spring
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Plant Spacing 3’-4’
Planting Depth 16”-24”
Height up to 20’
Watering Requirements Deep, infrequent
Pests & Diseases Aphids, Japanese beetles, mites, botrytis, blights, powdery mildew, leaf spots, and anthracnose
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Well-drained, Loamy
Soil pH Neutral (6)

What are Old Garden Roses?

Close-up of Rosa Variegata di Bologna against a blurred background of green foliage. The Rosa has a showy, semi-double flower with delicate white petals generously edged in rich crimson, creating a stunning contrast.
These antique varieties boast hardiness and rarity in cultivation.

The term “old garden rose” refers to any rose in existence before the year 1867, when the first hybrid rose was recorded in France. Also known as heirloom roses or antique roses, these plants are known for their exceptional hardiness and disease resistance. They are easy to grow and more tolerant of poor soil conditions than their modern offspring.

While the newer hybrid roses make up about 80% of the roses that we presently find in cultivation, heirloom roses still have their place in floristry. Their large, heavily scented blooms may be rarer than their modern counterparts, but rarity tends to breed fascination and appeal. These wonderful flowering perennials are still relevant today, and their beauty is not diminished by their antiquity.


Close-up of blooming Bourbon roses in a garden on a blurred green background. The Pink Bourbon rose is an exquisite variety renowned for its captivating appearance characterized by large, double blooms with a soft, pastel pink hue. Each flower showcases layers of ruffled petals.
Cultivated during the Chou dynasty, roses gained symbolic importance worldwide.

While there is fossil evidence of roses dating back millions of years, the original garden roses are thought to have been cultivated during the Chou dynasty in China. These flowers, described by Confucius in the 500s BC, were grown in the imperial gardens for the emperor and his family to enjoy. They were revered in spiritual texts and literature as well.

Around 600 BC, there are records of roses being cultivated in Rome and Greece. Roses were celebrated in festivals and held great symbolic value that spanned a wide range of occasions and practices. Roses have significant roles in Greek and Roman mythology, as well as in Egyptian religious ceremonies.

It was not until 1867 that the first hybrid between the Chinese rose R. chinensis and the European roses of antiquity was recorded and named ‘La France.’ This cultivar marks the shift from old garden roses to the modern roses that are so prevalent today. 

Native Area

Close-up of a flowering Rose Mme Plantier bush in a sunny garden. The Rose Mme Plantier is a classic and elegant rose variety with abundant clusters of small, pure white, double blooms. Each flower features delicate, ruffled petals.
Antique roses include Damask, Gallica, Alba, Centifolia, and Moss types.

Old garden roses fall into five categories: damask, gallica, alba, centifolia, and moss. Their native range is predominantly in Europe, although this area overflows into some of the surrounding areas of Africa and the Middle East. 

Gallica roses are the oldest types. They were cultivated originally by the Greeks and Romans and later in France and the Netherlands. Damask roses originate in the Middle East and the surrounding areas and are known for their abundance of thorns. 

Alba roses are also known for their cold tolerance and graceful, blush-colored, highly fragrant blooms. Dutch breeders developed centifolia roses beginning in the 17th century, often referring to them as cabbage roses.

The last type, moss roses, come from a mutation of centifolias and damasks. They’re known for the mossy texture of their petals and strong fragrance. These were widely cultivated in Victorian England.


Close-up of a blooming rose bush in a sunny garden. The bush has lush, compound foliage with oval, jagged, glossy green leaflets and large cupped double flowers. The flowers have many layers of delicate petals in a soft pink color.
These varieties bloom once annually with large, fragrant, intricate flowers.

While hybridization has created a wide range of roses that bloom more often than the older varieties, old garden roses are still very much appreciated for their large, intricate flowers and, most notably, their strong, classic rose fragrance. These plants only bloom once per year, but the flowers are spectacular and well worth the wait. 

They tend to be more pest and disease-resistant than modern hybrids, as they have stood the test of time. Call it survival of the fittest. These plants were thriving long before our modern methods of pest and disease control. 

The flowers produced by these cultivars are of the double-petal form. They are large and densely petaled and often (but not always) open all the way to reveal golden stamens and pistils. The most common colors are pink and white, but there is a wide range of variation within those color families, with some flowers that are very nearly red, others closer to purple, and some deeper shades of cream and yellow. 

Some varieties of old garden rose bushes can grow up to 20 feet tall, although this is more the exception than the rule. Most shrubs grow to around six feet tall and have a V-shape or vase shape. Their disease and pest resistance make these plants easier to grow and maintain than many of their modern counterparts. 


Close-up of a woman touching Damascena roses against a blurred background of a flowering field. Damascena roses present a classic and romantic appearance characterized by their large, fragrant flowers and elegant foliage. The flowers are semi-double, featuring delicate petals in shades of soft pink. The foliage of Damascena roses consists of dark green, serrated leaves with a glossy appearance.
They are highly desirable for ornamental use.

Of course, the primary use of antique rose bushes continues to be ornamental. While they only account for about 20% of roses grown these days, they continue to be desirable in floristry for their strong, pleasant fragrance and spectacular flowers. In recent years, they have regained some popularity among gardeners due to their ease of care.

Many of the most coveted essential oils are derived from species of old garden roses. The damask rose, in particular, is used to make one of the more prevalent (and costly) essential oils. This species also has known pharmacological properties.

Naturally, these fragrant rose oils are popular in perfumery. Rose oil is also used cosmetically as a form of concentrated vitamin C (rosehip oil). It has regenerative properties when applied regularly to the skin. 

Finally, the rose has its place in culinary use. The British are notorious for creating beautiful jams, syrups, and teas using various parts of the flower. The petals make a beautiful garnish on baked goods. You can find these blossoms in a wide range of different cuisines. 

Where to Buy

Because they are less common than hybrid varieties, Old Garden Roses can be slightly more difficult to find at local nurseries. Although larger nurseries carry some varieties, it is easier to order these plants on the internet or from catalogs.


Close-up of a gardener planting a bare-root rose bush in the soil in the garden. The gardener is wearing a green jacket and black gloves. The rose bush has a branched root system and compound leaves with oval toothed leaflets.
These roses tolerate partial shade.

Planting is comparable to other types of roses with one exception: these old-time varieties tend to be more tolerant of partial shade. Purchase them as container or bare-root plants and transplant in the spring before they come out of their winter dormancy.

Before planting, rehydrate the rose by soaking the roots in a bucket of water. Loosen and amend the soil as needed, then dig a hole a little bigger than the root ball. Use a digging fork to break up the soil at the base of the hole to ensure the rose roots can push downward.

Position the plant in the middle of the hole, then backfill so the bottom of the stems sit just 1-2″ below the soil surface. Lightly firm the soil around the base and water well.

How to Grow

Because of their long period of adaptation, old garden roses tend to be hardier than their hybrid relatives. They are easier to grow, lower maintenance, more drought tolerant, and can handle a wider range of soil types.


Close-up of a Rosa alba flower in a sunny garden against a blurred background of green foliage. The flower is medium-sized, cup-shaped, semi-double with pristine white petals. The bloom showcases a golden center surrounded by layers of petals that have a slightly ruffled texture.
Roses thrive in full sun, but some antique varieties tolerate partial sun.

In general, roses prefer to grow in full sun. Ideally, they receive at least six hours of direct sun daily. This is where they will bloom best and have the densest foliage.

However, there are varieties that are more tolerant of partial sun conditions. Specifically, R. alba tends to be quite tolerant of lower light conditions and still produces its stunning creamy blush-colored blooms without full sun exposure. 


Close-up of blooming Rosa centifolia with water drops. Rosa centifolia boasts a captivating appearance characterized by its large, full blooms with layers of soft, silky petals that form a lush, globe-like shape. These fragrant flowers come in raspberry pink color.
Older varieties are drought-tolerant once established.

Old garden roses are more drought tolerant than hybrid types once they are established. That doesn’t mean that they won’t benefit from watering, but they can survive without regular irrigation. Watering your roses will keep them looking lush and beautiful.

These plants prefer to be watered deeply and less frequently. A good long soaking once every week to ten days will encourage blooming and retention of foliage in the hot summer months. A soaker hose is great for this purpose, as it targets the roots and avoids wetting the foliage, which can contribute to fungal diseases. 


Close-up of a rose bush and an old garden rake in the garden. The rose bush is trimmed, short, and has several strong green stems covered with reddish thorns.
These roses thrive in enriched, well-drained soil with compost.

These roses are more well-adapted to poor soil conditions, but they will benefit from a spot with rich, well-drained soil. Prepare your soil by working some well-rotted compost or manure into the ground. This will both enrich the soil and help increase the drainage around the roots of your rose. 

Temperature and Humidity

Close-up of blooming Rosa Gallica "Officinalis" under sunlight. Rosa Gallica presents a captivating appearance characterized by its charming, semi-double flowers in shades of deep pink to crimson red. Each bloom features ruffled petals with a velvety texture. The foliage consists of dark green, serrated leaves that provide a lush backdrop to the vibrant blooms.
They prefer temperatures between 60°-70°F (16°-21°C).

The ideal temperature for these plants is between 60°-70°F (16°-21°C). This is when they will experience their most rapid growth. They are heat tolerant and can survive summers in Zone 8 and, in some cases, Zone 9. Most varieties are quite cold tolerant, surviving winters as far north as Zones 3-4. 

Many varieties can survive winter without intervention, but a nice thick layer of mulch never hurts. Mulching the ground around your roses before the ground freezes will help to maintain a higher soil temperature. Mulch is a great idea year-round, especially in the summer. It will help the soil to retain moisture. Roses are happiest with a humidity level between 50-70%


Close-up of a gardener's hand in a white glove with a handful of chemical fertilizers over a young rose bush in the garden. A young rose bush presents slender, supple stems adorned with small, bright green leaves that are ovate. The leaves are glossy and smooth, with serrated edges, and they exhibit a reddish tint around the edges.
They benefit from regular feeding with organic fertilizer.

Modern roses are heavy feeders, but antique varieties are hardier in this area as well. Still, feeding them regularly will increase their resilience and blooming. Rose enthusiasts swear by all kinds of special formulas, and some of them are likely very effective. For our part, though, we think that plain organic fertilizer is the way to go. 

You can find organic fertilizers formulated specifically for roses. Chemical fertilizers can be abrasive and cause fertilizer to burn far more easily. My preference is always organic slow-release fertilizers because they are gentler and more natural. They also release nutrients more gradually. 

Fertilize your roses with a balanced liquid diluted to half strength two weeks before the last expected frost date and then every six weeks thereafter until fall. Be sure to water your plants before applying fertilizer, as this helps to protect their roots.


Close-up of a gardener in yellow gloves pruning faded rose bushes using red and black pruning shears in a sunny garden against a blurred background. The rose bush has clusters of faded flowers with wilted, thin, pinkish-brown petals.
Prune lightly in spring after blooming for best results.

Old garden roses need far less pruning than the more modern varieties. They can even refuse to bloom if pruned back too hard. Trim branches back by no more than ⅓ to keep your rose bush full and dense and promote new growth. Avoid pruning in the fall, as pruning will encourage new growth, which is more vulnerable to frost. 

The ideal time to prune is just after the bush has finished blooming. They bloom on winter-hardened wood, so pruning in the spring will reduce the number of blooms you see in that season. It is fine to trim your rose bush a bit once the leaves begin to come in, but only trim off dead or damaged limbs at this time. 

Growing in Containers

Close-up of a blooming rose bush in a large clay pot in the garden. The bush produces clusters of small double flowers with delicate white petals. The leaves are compound, lance-shaped with jagged edges and dark green in color.
These varieties are not ideal for containers due to their sprawling growth.

Old garden roses aren’t well suited to growing in containers because they have a sprawling growth habit. A smaller variety may survive well in a large pot, but if you want a rose to grow in a container, you’re better off with a miniature or smaller shrub rose. 


Close-up of rose cuttings planted in soil in a clay pot and covered with a plastic lid to create the necessary microclimate. Condensation has formed on the walls of the lid. The cuttings are vertical short stems of green color.
Propagate from new wood cuttings after blooming.

New softwood cuttings are the best way to propagate these shrubs. Take your cuttings right after the bush has stopped blooming for best results. Make sure that you take yours from growth that has hardened off, as very new, soft growth is more likely to rot before it roots. 

Once you’ve selected your canes for cutting, follow these steps to propagate your old garden rose.

  1. Cut your stem into sections with at least two to three leaves, cutting the bottom below a node.
  2. Optionally, dip the cut end into the rooting hormone to help roots develop faster.
  3. Use moist, well-draining potting soil, and stick the end of your cuttings with the node near the bottom into the soil.
  4. Place a plastic bag or cover to form a miniature greenhouse over your cutting.
  5. Place your cuttings in a spot that gets bright but indirect sunlight.
  6. Maintain a high humidity level around your cuttings for the first two weeks, using a plastic bag to cover them or misting them regularly with water.
  7. Give your cutting three to six weeks to root securely.
  8. Then, remove the plastic bag and increase the amount of sun exposure.
  9. Keep the soil moist until your new rose plant is ready to go in the ground.


Close-up of a flowering bush, Rosa x damascena ‘Leda’. This is a captivating variety which is characterized by its medium-sized, semi-double flowers in shades of soft pink to pale blush. Each bloom features gently ruffled petals. The foliage of ‘Leda’ consists of dark green, glossy leaves with a serrated edge, providing a lush and verdant backdrop to the charming flowers.
This is a mid-sized, trailing bush with fragrant white blooms edged pink.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa x damascena ‘Leda’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 3’-5’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-9

‘Leda’ is a mid-sized rose bush with a trailing habit. The canes grow to about three feet long and look best when trained on a trellis or other support. This early summer bloomer produces gorgeous, fully double blooms in a milky white with just the slightest tint of pink. The outer petals are edged with a brighter pink on these highly fragrant blooms. 

‘La Ville de Bruxelles’

Close-up of blooming Rosa x damascena ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’ against a blurred green background. Rose showcases a captivating appearance characterized by its large, fully double flowers in shades of deep pink to crimson red. Each bloom features numerous velvety petals.
This is a mid-sized shrub known for its large, cotton candy pink blooms.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa x damascena ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 5’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-10

Introduced in 1849, ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’ has the largest flowers of the damask species. It is a mid-sized shrub that makes a nice hedge and has huge, cotton candy pink, very double-petaled blooms. It is an upright shrub with dense, light green foliage and a stunning cultivar. 

‘Tuscany Superb’

Close-up of blooming Rosa gallica ‘Tuscany Superb’ against a blurred background of green foliage. The plant presents a captivating appearance characterized by its rich, velvety, crimson-red flowers. Each bloom boasts a classic, cup-shaped form with numerous overlapping petals that exude elegance and grace. The foliage consists of dark green, semi-glossy leaves with a slightly serrated edge.
This rose variety features dense foliage and fragrant magenta blooms.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa gallica ‘Tuscany Superb’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3′-5′
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

‘Tuscany Superb’ dates back to 1837 and has dense foliage that complements its large, magenta semi-double blooms. Fully opened flowers reveal golden stamens tucked into the velvety petals. This is a very fragrant rose, and the plant is nearly thornless. It is relatively shade-tolerant and will still bloom well in dappled light. 


Close-up of a flowering Rosa x centifolia 'Spong' bush in a sunny garden. It produces abundant clusters of medium-sized, fully double flowers in shades of soft pink to deep rose. Each bloom features densely packed, ruffled petals. The foliage of ‘Spong’ consists of dark green, glossy leaves with serrated edges, providing a lush and verdant backdrop to the exquisite flowers.
This cultivar features compact growth and fragrant small pink blooms.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa x centifolia ‘Spong’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 3′-5′
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

‘Spong’ is a variety with rather small flowers. Although the flowers are only about one inch in diameter, they are surprisingly fragrant. These petite blooms are fully double-petaled and bright rose pink. ‘Spong’ was introduced in 1805.

Common Problems

Old garden roses are generally pest and disease-resistant, but some issues could potentially pop up. Good watering practices and air circulation, as well as proper nutrition, will help your plant to survive an infestation or infection. 


Close-up of rose leaves affected by black spot. Black spot on rose leaves presents as small, circular to irregularly shaped black or dark brown spots scattered across the surface of the leaves.
Treating fungal issues with fungicides can help restore health.

The main diseases to affect these roses include powdery mildew and blackspot. Their disease resistance means that, while they can still end up with a fungal disease, it is rarely serious, and the plant should do a decent job of shedding affected leaves. The most common culprits of these diseases include poor air circulation, poorly draining soil, and too much shade. 

Plant your rose in well-drained soil and plenty of sunlight to prevent these diseases. If you encounter a fungal issue, prune away diseased areas, leaving at least two thirds of the plant alone. Treating it with a mild, broad-spectrum fungicide should get you back in business. These shrubs typically bounce back quickly. 


Close-up of roses affected by a swarm of aphids on a blurred green background. Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects with a distinctive appearance characterized by their green pear-shaped bodies.
Minor insect issues include aphids, thrips, and spider mites.

Insect infestations are not commonly a major issue for these plants. While they may fall prey to common garden insects like aphids, thrips, and spider mites, the worst these insects will do is disfigure young growth and flowers. Still, those flowers are important and only come around once a year, so you’ll want to get rid of them quickly.

I like planting yarrow and dill for ladybugs in my garden as a natural pest control. These voracious predators can eat a shocking number of aphids (their favorite food) quickly. In the absence of natural predators, neem oil effectively controls pest populations. Apply it late in the day so that it dries before pollinators come out in the morning.

Lack of Flowers

Close-up of rose bushes with a small number of flowers on a blurred green background. The bush has upright stems with complex foliage that consists of oval green leaflets with jagged edges. The leaves are glossy green in color. The flowers are large, cup-shaped, double, with delicate pink petals.
Insufficient sunlight or nutrient deficiency may hinder blooming.

If your rose bush isn’t blooming, the most likely cause is a lack of sunlight. Even though many old garden roses are more shade tolerant than hybrids, they still need sun to produce blooms. Another cause of a lack of flowers could be the result of nutrient deficiency. Regular fertilization should help. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Old Garden Roses Toxic to Pets?

No, roses are entirely edible and safe for humans and pets.

What is the Vase Life of Old Garden Roses?

With proper care and floral preservatives, they can last for a couple of weeks after cutting. Cutting them while in bud will extend their vase life.

How Long Do Old Garden Rose Bushes Live?

These are considered long-lived perennials, and they can live as long as 35-50 years with proper care, although they will flower less as they age.

Final Thoughts

All roses are lovely, but I have a real soft spot for these heirloom types with their incredible fragrance and gorgeous, intricate blooms. With their ease of care and excellent hardiness, it’s no wonder that these antique varieties are making a comeback among rose gardeners

Close-up of a flowering Reine des Violettes Rose bush in the garden. This classic rose variety is characterized by large, fully double blooms. The blossoms feature a rich, velvety texture and exhibit a stunning shade of purple, exuding a sense of royalty. The petals gracefully unfold, revealing a symmetrical form that adds to the rose's overall charm. The Reine des Violettes Rose is complemented by dark green, glossy foliage that serves as a lush backdrop to the regal blooms.


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