The Perfect Rose

Christine Allen shares the secrets of roses.

Credit: GardenWise

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein once wrote. She was wrong

The family of roses is so vast and varied that it takes a botanist to explain how this small shrub with large, bright blooms is related to that huge climber with dime-sized pastel flowers. Some roses have wonderful fragrance; some have none at all. Some will cover a pergola, while others can fit three to a hanging basket. All like a sunny location, but certain ones will also make a satisfying show in dappled shade. Here are a good 50 of my favourites for particular characteristics and situations.


More than any other flower, roses are associated with perfume. Among those that have it, the best are the damask roses that have been grown and harvested for centuries for their essential oils. They make quite tall, arching shrubs and look their best in a mixed border with perennials and other shrubs. ‘Ispahan’ is a superlatively healthy specimen, loaded down with heavenly scented, pale-pink rosettes for a good two months of high summer. ‘Kazanlik’ (sometimes called ‘Professeur Emile Perrot’) is a darker pink, while the exquisite ‘Madame Hardy’ (our cover flower) displays ruffles of purest white against grass-green leaves. ‘De Rescht,’ a more compact shrub, produces a succession of bright-crimson flowers that sit neatly atop its foliage. It does not bloom as heavily as the others, but compensates by having a second flush of flowers in early fall. Another old rose, soft-purple ‘Reine des Violettes,’ also offers two periods of bloom. Though not a damask, it has an equally sumptuous scent.

Winter Hardy Roses

The best way to ensure the survival of roses in cold climates is to buy plants that are growing on their own roots. This rules out a lot of hybrid tea and floribunda roses as these types of roses are usually grafted onto more vigorous rootstocks. If your red rose suddenly blooms with small white flowers, or vice versa, this indicates that the original variety has died and that the rootstock is now beginning to grow. However, many roses will thrive on their own roots, particularly wild varieties, such as our native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii), miniature roses, which are sturdier than they look, and most of the old-fashioned shrub roses. Of the last group, Alba roses are well suited to our northern climate, being extremely tough (some to zone 3) despite their delicate appearance. Their fragrant ruffled blooms of white or pale pink are framed by attractive, sage-coloured foliage that never seems to suffer from disease. The “White Rose of York,” ‘Alba Semiplena,’ makes a strong arching bush, strewn with pure white blossoms in summer and with bold red hips in fall. ‘Königin von Dänemark’ (pictured above) is more compact. Both it and ‘Great Maiden’s Blush,’ a paler pink, are much admired for the shapeliness of their flowers, as well as their lovely fragrance. Rugosa roses, already mentioned for their health, are also tough as nails. They flourish even in Newfoundland’s harsh climate and rocky soil. Hybrids of these, known as the Explorer series, were developed in Canada precisely for harsh winters. Standouts include deep strawberry-pink ‘William Baffin,’ vigorous enough to be grown as a climber; ‘Champlain,’ a small, neat bedding rose with continuous clusters of red velvet flowers; and ‘Henry Hudson,’ whose white flowers emerge from pink buds and will repeat all season if promptly deadheaded.

Among modern roses, the salmon-coloured hybrid tea ‘Rosemary Harkness’ has a lovely fruity perfume. White ‘Margaret Merril’ is lemon-scented, and richest of all is tawny-pink ‘Fragrant Cloud.’ The deep-crimson blooms of ‘Ingrid Bergman’ are as beautiful as its namesake and have a perfume to match. ‘Royal William,’ whose name in Germany translates as “fragrant charm,” is more of a fire-engine red. David Austin’s English roses are all fragrant, but my preferences are for rich-pink ‘Gertrude Jekyll,’ which inherits the glorious damask fragrance from one of its parents, and ‘Sweet Juliet,’ whose apricot flowers are infused with a tea-rose scent. Good climbing roses for fragrance include modern ‘Royal Sunset’ in shades of terra cotta and apricot, and old-fashioned ‘Madame Alfred Carrière,’ with its pearly citrus-scented flowers. The latter is also a good choice for pergolas.


This is a situation where you want a vigorous rose that doesn’t require much, if any, pruning. One of the best is ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans,’ whose dangling sprays of pink buds open to masses of small, creamy flowers with a wonderful primrose perfume. ‘Francis E. Lester,’ with apple-blossom flowers and a scent that carries on the air, will cover a substantial area with thorny canes. Thornless ‘Veilchenblau’ contrasts delicate grass-green leaves with lavender blossoms flecked with white. Pale-pink ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ is another vigorous rambler with cascading clusters of fragrant bloom. Largest of all, for a seriously sturdy structure, intensely fragrant Rosa mulliganii is famous for its use in the white garden at Sissinghurst in England. The size of all of the roses in this category rules them out for arbours.


An average arbour or arch is only 2.4 m (8 ft.) high, the perfect size for a miniature climber. ‘Warm Welcome’ puts on quite a show of little mandarin blossoms against plum-tinged foliage, ‘Jeanne Lajoie’ is pretty in pink and ‘Laura Ford’ has small lemon flowers. All have the advantage of blooming from top to bottom if well trained. Other options that work well for arches and gateways are some of the tall David Austin roses, like ‘Graham Thomas’ with its scented golden blooms or palest-pink ‘Heritage.’ Restricting these shrubs to a few strong canes coming from the base will encourage them to grow tall. A rose that I’ve recently come to like is a small climber called ‘Lavender Friendship,’ which has a succession of pretty wine-coloured flowers flecked with white and a winter display of tiny hips. Finally, I can’t ignore the virtues of ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde.’ This apricot-flowered rose is covered in bloom by the end of June, repeating the whole performance in September, and is never without a few blossoms all the way to December. It grows quite broad, but can be pruned to a few vertical canes if necessary, and is exceptionally disease-free.

Disease Resistance

The best roses for disease resistance have to be those of the rugosa group. Their abundant green foliage is slightly coarser than other roses, but totally resistant to the plagues that beset more delicate relatives. Tall ‘Hansa’ with its clove-scented, magenta flowers and silky white ‘Blanche Double de Coubert,’ need lots of space, while pale-pink ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ is a good compact variety. Rosa rugosa alba has single pure-white flowers that contrast well with its later bold-red hips. All these roses have the additional advantage of attractive fall leaves.

‘Royal William’

Species roses also enjoy remarkable health. Two grown as much for their lovely foliage as their modest pink flowers are Rosa glauca, whose grey leaves are edged and overlaid with plum, and Rosa villosa (formerly R. pomifera), with sage-coloured foliage. For a longer flowering season, the china rose Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ offers a succession of buttonhole-sized flowers that change from scarlet to buff to pink as they age. These three make tall, free-standing specimen shrubs. Among the climbers, ‘Kew Rambler’ has dusty blue-grey foliage offsetting clusters of pale-pink and white flowers. For a sharper contrast, ‘Sander’s White Rambler’ scatters fragrant, snow-white blooms over glossy, dark-green foliage. Among the long-stemmed modern bush roses, good for vases or bouquets, apricot ‘Sunset Celebration,’ orange ‘Westerland’ and red ‘Glad Tidings’ are unusually disease-resistant.


Ideally, roses should have at least six hours of sun a day, but some will cope quite well with less than that. ‘The Fairy’ usually waits until July to open its frilly pink buttons of flower, but then continues into fall. A friend of mine grows it under tall conifers where its flowers are paler and the display is not as generous as in sun, but still very attractive. ‘Bonica,’ also pink but a bolder rose in every way, and certainly more fragrant, can handle the north side of a house without suffering. Several make a good hedge, flowering for months over the summer. ‘Mutabilis,’ mentioned above, is also quite happy in some shade provided that it is in a warm, sheltered corner. Having developed their long, thorny canes to climb up above the forest floor, all rambler roses are at home with their feet in the shade, but flower best if they can climb into sunlight.

‘Margaret Merril’


Miniature roses are ideal for containers, either grouped together or mixed with other small plants, provided that their needs for water and nutrition are met. A sprinkling of slow-release fertilizer will last for a couple of months, but daily watering during dry spells is essential. Three plants will fit comfortably into a medium-sized hanging basket, and there are cascading varieties that look particularly pretty grown this way. Two popular varieties are honey-scented ‘Gourmet Popcorn,’ whose name describes it perfectly, and wine-coloured ‘Sweet Chariot.’ For really long trailing stems, pearl-pink ‘Nozomi’ is unbeatable. Most of these little roses will overwinter comfortably outside if protected from freezing. Full-sized roses like to put down deep roots, so the deeper the container, the better. Almost all of them will take to container culture for a few years at least, if given enough room. ‘Ballerina’ is a lovely small rose for an urn or half-barrel with its large sprays of little pink and white flowers. Crimson ‘De Rescht’ is another suitable subject. n The following roses are hardy to the zone number indicated: • ‘Adélaïde D’Orléans’ – zone 5 • ‘Alba Semiplena’ – zone 3 • ‘Ballerina’ – zone 4 • ‘Blanche Double de Coubert’ – zone 3 • ‘Bonica’ – zone 4 • ‘Champlain’ – zone 3 • ‘De Rescht’ – zone 5 • ‘Fragrant Cloud’ – zone 5 • ‘Francis E. Lester’ – zone 4 • ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ – zone 4 • ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ – zone 5 • ‘Glad Tidings’ – zone 5 • ‘Gourmet Popcorn’ – zone 4 • ‘Graham Thomas’ – zone 5 • ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ – zone 5 • ‘Hansa’ – zone 3 • ‘Henry Hudson’ – zone 2 • ‘Heritage’ – zone 4 • ‘Ingrid Bergman’ – zone 5 • ‘Ispahan’ – zone 5 • ‘Jeanne LaJoie’ – zone 5 • ‘Kazanlik’ – zone 5 • ‘Kew Rambler’ – zone 4 • ‘Königin von Dänemark’ – zone 4 • ‘Lavender Friendship’ – zone 5 • ‘Laura Ford’ – zone 5 • ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ – zone 4 • ‘Madame Hardy’ – zone 4 • ‘Manning’s Blush’ – zone 4 • ‘Margaret Merril’ – zone 5 • ‘Nozomi’ – zone 5 • ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ – zone 4 • ‘Reine des Violettes’ – zone 6 • Rosa eglanteria – zone 4 • Rosa glauca – zone 2 • Rosa mulliganii – zone 4 • Rosa nutkana – zone 4 • Rosa pomifera – zone 4 • Rosa primula – zone 4 • Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ – zone 2 • Rosa villosa – zone 4 • Rosa woodsii – zone 2 • Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ – zone 5 • ‘Rosemary Harkness’ – zone 5 • ‘Royal Sunset’ – zone 5 • ‘Royal William’ – zone 5 • ‘Sander’s White Rambler’ – zone 5 • ‘Seagull’ – zone 4 • ‘Sunset Celebration’ (a.k.a. ‘Warm Wishes’) – zone 4 • ‘Sweet Chariot’ – zone 5 • ‘Sweet Juliet’ – zone 5 • ‘The Fairy’ – zone 4 • ‘Veilchenblau’ – zone 4 • ‘Warm Welcome’ – zone 4 • ‘Westerland’ – zone 4 • ‘William Baffin’ – zone 2