Moss Roses

Credit: Barbra Fairclough

Sometimes, in gardening as in other subjects, going forward involves looking back to what an earlier generation embraced and then discarded for the next novelty. This is particularly true of roses and, as our 21st-century aversion to pesticides and high maintenance increases, it seems a good time for moss roses, once the darlings of Victorian society, to return to favour.

Moss roses first appeared 300 years ago, when “nature decreed . . . that some of them should have whiskers,” as English rosarian Peter Beales explains in his book Classic Roses. The whiskers take the form of fine hairs on the stems and calyxes of these roses, giving them a mossy appearance. Leaves are also more furry, although you don’t normally notice it until they are touched by autumn frost.

The Victorians loved moss roses as cut flowers, decorating ball gowns and hats with them or tucking them into buttonholes. However, as the majority flower for about four weeks only, usually from mid-June to mid-July, they lost much of their popularity when modern, repeat-flowering roses were introduced. In today’s all-season garden, moss roses suit a cottage style where they can mingle with perennials and bulbs that bloom at other times of the year. There are a few cultivars that have a second flowering, but this attribute often comes with less desirable traits.

Moss roses range in size from compact plants suitable for growing in a container to large, lanky shrubs that can also be trained as climbers. Colours are traditional – white through shades of pink to deep crimson. Darkest of all is ‘Nuits de Young,’ also known as ‘Old Black Moss,’ which has rounded, richly scented flowers of a deep-maroon velvet. It is a wiry, undemanding plant that will grow where other roses fail, even in rough, stony ground, although naturally its show is less impressive in such conditions. It can also take more shade than many roses, an advantage, as hot sun tends to fade the colour.

‘Capitaine John Ingram’ is another dark crimson with warm brown moss. This vigorous plant grows 90 to 125 centimetres tall, is richly scented and compensates for lack of later flowers by taking on attractive autumn tints before its leaves drop.

If you prefer strong bright reds, ‘Henri Martin’ would be an excellent choice. A true scarlet, it produces clusters of well-scented blooms on a mid-sized plant with good contrast in the crisp green of its leaves. In full bloom, the flexible stems carry so many flowers that they bow gracefully to the ground.

‘William Lobb,’ sometimes called ‘Old Velvet Moss,’ is dark pink taking on tints of lavender and purple as the petals age. When I see it in full bloom, covered in big, blowsy, fragrant flowers, I always feel it should have been named Mae West. Its tall, strong stems make it a good choice for clothing a lattice screen or bending over an arch, uses which encourage more lateral growth on the stems and consequently more flowers than if you let it grow straight up. The moss is a brownish-green and in fall there appear nice clusters of hips the size of hazelnuts.

Another tall cultivar, ‘Eugénie Guinoisseau,’ has smaller, intensely fragrant blooms in similar shades of purple and cerise pink. The upright growth and short flower stems make it an excellent choice for training horizontally against a fence. This is one of the most heavily mossed varieties, both buds and stems coated in woolly olive-green.

‘Célina,’ more compact in growth, offers flowers for the connoisseur – five simple petals washed with deep pink and lavender, and marbled like the endpapers of old books. Dark, matte-green foliage allows it to blend well with purple-leaved plants or contrast with light greens.

Among the pastels, ‘Common Moss’ is not at all common with its pretty powder-pink flowers, bright-green moss and outstanding fragrance, exactly the rose scent of your imagination. Like ‘Nuits de Young,’ it thrives in conditions that make most roses sulk. My own plant is in a distant part of the garden, where it grows shorter than it might in better soil, but this doesn’t seem to affect the volume of blooms it puts out each summer. ‘White Bath’ is very similar, but has pure-white blooms.

Mid-pink ‘Salet’ grows taller, and is one of a few moss roses that flower in June and again in September, when the colour is deeper. It is not very mossy and the many thin, silky petals tend to stick together in wet weather, causing the flower to rot and turn brown, but in a dry summer it makes a superb show.

Another repeat bloomer is ‘Alfred de Dalmas,’ a small rose suitable for container growing, with delicate flowers of palest shell-pink opening wide to show their golden stamens. Pink highlights in the green moss complement the flowers. It can be temperamental and is more likely to offer a few exquisite flowers spread over a long season than put on a grand display.

For balcony gardeners who have limited space there are several moss roses in the miniature class, one of the best being shell-pink ‘Dresden Doll.’ Another colour option is provided by pale-yellow ‘Lemon Delight,’ which has a light fragrance to match its name. Three of these little plants, installed in a 30-centimetre pot and fed regularly, will flower all through the summer. In spite of their size, they are as tough as nails and will overwinter quite nicely outside as long as their roots are insulated against freezing.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Rosa ‘Alfred de Dalmas’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Capitaine John Ingram’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Célina’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Common Moss’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Dresden Doll’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Eugénie Guinoisseau’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Henri Martin’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Lemon Delight’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Nuits de Young’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Salet’ – zone 4 • R. ‘William Lobb’ – zone 5

Christine Allen is a past president of the Vancouver Rose Society and author of Roses for the Pacific Northwest.