Scents from the Past

Vancouver rose expert Elaine Senft shares the advantages of Old Garden Roses, plus a few fragrant favourites.

Credit: Barbara Fairclough

Elaine delights in the scent of Old Garden rose ‘Shropshire Lad’

Vancouver rose consultant Elaine Senft has been wild about Old Garden Roses (OGRs) since she first encountered a Vancouver Island garden filled with deeply fragrant ramblers and climbers over 30 years ago.

Now, she regularly delivers snappy and practical lectures to gardening groups all over the Lower Mainland. We asked her to explain the Old Garden appeal. 

How long have you been a rose enthusiast?

Going on 30 years this summer.

What kinds of roses do you like to grow?

That’s easy, the Old Garden Roses (OGRs), those bred before the year 1867. These magnificent old ladies and gents have so much involved history. They originally came from many different continents, including China and Persia.

Why do you like them so much?

Number one, for the fragrance, above all.

I’m also partial to the single blossoms. (Mother Nature is responsible for the single flower, man for the making of double roses.)

Third, for the esthetics of the entire shrub, whether it be a rambler, scrambler or climber (which is a combination of many things).

And fourth, they are mostly disease and fungus resistant.

What changes or trends have you noticed in hybrids since you’ve been growing roses?

On a positive note, hybridizers such as Kordes, Sam McGredy and, of course, Tom Carruth have delved into the genetic makeup of the parent roses to make sure that only the good shrubs should go into commerce.

The main problem, I think, was fragrance being bred out of our roses in the past. David Austin introduced his series of English roses in the 1960s. His idea was to breed the OGRs with more modern roses, mainly floribundas, thus achieving the fragrance and beauty from the first parent crossed with the “perpetuality” of bloom from the floribundas.

What qualities do you look for when you’re adding a new rose to your collection?

I take a good look at the shape of the shrub. See whether it is scented or not. I look at its growth pattern. Does it bloom only once a season? Of course, if it only blooms once, that doesn’t really affect my purchase… a multitude of OGRs put out just one flush, but ooohhhhh!

Your favourite rose for fragrance?

How many flavours of ice cream do you like? ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’, ‘Benjamin Britten’, ‘Ispahan’, ‘Westerland’, ‘Albertine’…

The most unusual fragrance?

There are many I grow, although I’m still fascinated with the myhrr scent of ‘Constance Spry’.

Favourite rose for colour?

There are so many… the rambler-scrambler “Wedding Day” and vanilla-white ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’.

Most interesting rose you grow?

Fascinating to watch, is Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ – no two single blooms are the same!

What advice would you offer to novices?

First, figure out what soil conditions you have. Secondly, take great care in choosing the healthy plants from the store.

Start slowly and gradually read everything you can on this subject whether it be online or in good books. The adage with us rose nuts is, “First year she sleeps, second year she creeps, and third she leaps!”…the rose that is!