Native to four continents and cultivated all over the world, roses are prized everywhere, with a long history in many different cultures. The garden roses grown at Alexandra Farms come trailing traditions and associations from their places of origin in Europe and Asia. Here are just a few of those stories.
English Roses: Old Is New
The craze for breeding and cultivating roses exploded in the early 19th century across Europe—including England. By 1840, one English rosarium harbored more than a thousand different rose cultivars.
But the English fascination with roses goes further back. To cite just one example, a red and a white rose became the symbols of opposing factions in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses between the rival houses of Lancaster and York.
Even then the passion for roses had begun to propel them across the globe, creating the rich variety that we enjoy today. The red rose of Lancaster was a variety of Rosa gallica, a species native to continental Europe and to western Asia, while the white rose of York was probably R. alba—a rose that may have been brought to England by the ancient Romans.
In the late 19th century—even after “modern,” hybrid tea roses began to dominate in many European gardens—the fullness and fragrance of old garden roses found a champion in the famous English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Appreciation for vintage roses was likewise favored and promoted in the first half of the 20th century by the iconoclastic, trend-setting florist Constance Spry.
Starting in the 1960s, the cause was given new life by David Austin, the breeder who singlehandedly revived and redefined the classic English rose: many-petaled and fragrant, in a range of delicate and complex hues. His first rose cultivar, introduced in 1961, was named after Constance Spry.
Today the David Austin collection of wedding and event roses carries the English tradition over into new varieties, bred to perform as cut flowers. One of these, Tess (Ausyacht), strongly resembles an early gallica rose, Charles de Mills: both are deep red, ruffled rosettes that open to reveal a button center. And so the past transforms into the future.
Vive la France
Among the great patrons of French garden roses was the Empress Josephine, who retired after her divorce from Napoleon Bonaparte to the elegant chateau of Malmaison, west of Paris, which boasted extensive gardens in the English style.
Josephine took a particular interest in the rose garden. Before this time, new rose varieties were the product of chance crossings; Josephine’s horticulturist, Andre Dupont, pioneered the revolutionary technique of hybridizing roses through controlled, artificial pollination.
The garden at Malmaison contained some 200 to 250 varieties including gallicas, moss roses, damask roses, and centifolia or “cabbage” roses. Today’s prestige breeders of French roses, like Meilland and Delbard, can claim genetic material from Josephine’s collection.
The Romanticas, created by breeder Jacques Mouchotte of the house of Meilland, are a line of voluptuous roses with entrancing fragrance. The very first in the line was the peony-like, vivid pink classic, Yves Piaget. Other French varieties in the Alexandra Farms collection include Amnesia, Sabrina and Pink O’Hara.
What gives a “garden rose” the lavish look we associate with that term today? Above all, a multitude of petals, often bursting from within a deep, rounded cup. The archetype for that look is the “cabbage” rose: Rosa x centifolia. The name means “100 petals.”
You often see cabbage roses in Old Dutch Masters paintings from the 17th century—and for good reason. This type of rose appeared in the Netherlands just at that time. It was a hybrid offshoot of the damask roses that were brought back to western Europe by Crusaders from the Near East in the previous century.
Two beautiful examples of a rose in the cabbage style from Alexandra Farms are Romantic Antike and Caramel Antike—a warm pink rose and her honey-colored sister with, literally, more than 100 petals each.
Under German Skies
Usually, the varieties grown at Alexandra Farms are carefully selected from the wide world of roses that were initially bred to grow in a garden. They are tested and cultivated using special techniques to make sure they will perform well as cut flowers.
It’s a different story with a family of roses from Germany that provided some of Alexandra Farms’ first successful varieties. These were specifically bred as cut-flower varieties that could be grown outdoors rather than in greenhouses—hence, they also had the shape and other characteristics of garden roses. From the renowned breeder, Rosen Tantau, they are known as Freiland roses, Freiland meaning simply “outdoors.”
Alabaster, Ashley, Piano and Pink Piano all belong to this group. One is named for the imposing Habsburg ruler (and mother of Marie Antoinette), Mariatheresia; Baronesse is her darker sister.
The Rising Sun
Westerners may associate Japan more readily with cherry blossoms or chrysanthemums. But Japan has its native roses as well, and a robust tradition of hybridizing from the beginning of the Meiji period on.
The Japanese passion for natural beauty is well known, along with a penchant for painstaking attention to detail. In Japan, most flower farms are small, family-run affairs. It is not uncommon for growers to try to find or develop their own unique varieties, looking for a way to stand out from the crowd.
In the ongoing search for new garden rose varieties, then, it made sense for Alexandra Farms to turn to Japan. What our two Japanese collections have in common is an ultra-romantic look that is nonetheless refined and subtle, ringing sophisticated changes on the Western garden-rose tradition.
The eight-member Princess collection ranges in color from bright peach to white to bright green. Three different breeders have joined to create the collection.
The Wabara line hails from Keiji Rose Farm on the shores of a large lake northeast of Kyoto. Created by master breeder Ken Kunieda, the line brings together new combinations of form and exquisite color. Wabara means “harmony rose.” Launched in 2007 and released internationally in 2017, the exquisite line of new roses in the old style proves that the allure of garden roses is global—and their variety inexhaustible.