It is entirely conceivable that our resilient heroine Scarlett could have raised roses, along with the traditional crepe myrtle, magnolia, and zinnias in the garden of her antebellum family home, Tara. Traditional “heirloom,” “antique,” or “old garden roses” are those varieties identified before 1867, consistent with the novel’s setting.
Like the fictitious Scarlett O’Hara, old garden roses are strong and stubborn with staying power. They have been so hardy and disease resistant over the years that they still thrive today. Several varieties can be viewed at the South Carolina State Fair Old Rose Show every year. Bill Patterson, owner of Roses Unlimited in Laurens, has judged old roses at the fair for nearly 30 years.
“They have really gotten competitive, and I like to see that,” he says.
An award-winning exhibitor and judge, Bill has been growing roses since he was in the sixth grade with a rose obtained from his great-grandmother’s garden. Through 4-H, he continued to garden and learn about plants. He often exhibited roses at county fairs. Bill’s father had a business mining and processing vermiculite for potting soil, so horticulture already was a big part of the family’s culture.
“It basically went from a hobby to a little business,” he says. “Now we ship to 48 states. We carry 22 classes of roses and have some 15,000 plants in our greenhouses.”
Judging entries for the State Fair Old Rose Show takes place the morning the fair opens to the public because cut roses generally don’t last more than five to seven days. Bill says it takes about an hour to complete the judging. On average, about a dozen rosarians enter.
Francis Robinson is past president and historian of the Palmetto Garden Club of South Carolina, which established the State Fair Old Rose Show in 1935.
“It’s the oldest continuous old rose show in the country,” she says. “We encourage all of our members to grow old roses. Usually when someone is invited to join, one of the gifts we give them is an old rose.”
Francis notes that old roses are mostly carefree and need far fewer chemicals to stay healthy. She says most people can get by without spraying them at all, and they are relatively easy to grow. However, modern roses are less resilient. Therefore, they require some spraying and are more high maintenance.
“We have several members who know how to propagate old roses. It’s amazingly simple,” she says. “You will find old roses in historic cemeteries. They just stay around forever. We do a workshop for our new members. We want to encourage people to grow old roses … and keep the show going.”
As a member of the Palmetto Garden Club of S.C., Julianne Sojourner served as chair for the show. While the show is in its 72nd year, 2022 was Julianne’s first year as chair. It was not, however, her first involvement with the show. In the past, she has served as Bill’s “scribe” while he examines the entries during judging. In the rose world, the “scribe” is an actual term used for the person taking the judge’s notes.
“I see Bill look for a rose that is a great example of how it grows and represents in the garden,” she says. “He looks for roses that are full-blown open and well-groomed. He also prefers when the roses stand straight in the vase. Because many old roses may grow with a curved stem, it is a bit of a trick to make them stand up straight and look pretty in the vase.”
In conversation, Bill himself noted that old garden roses may tend to be a little “floppy” because their blooms are generally larger in proportion to their stem. But their unique quirks are part of the charm. “The hybrids are the most difficult to grow,” he says. “They tend to get black spots, a type of fungus. Roses love water, but they don’t like to sit in it. In the greenhouse, we have fans to keep the moisture down.”
Rose judges also note the petal count, as the number of petals is a measure of the fullness of the flower. They also observe whether petals are thin and delicate.
Without question, old roses steal the show with their lush, incomparable fragrance.
“Not that many people grow old roses. Our garden club has always promoted them,” Julianne says. “They are great roses to include in your garden. They may not be as showy and well known as the hybrid tea roses, but they smell so good. They are the ancestors of today’s roses.”
Julianne says that people often confuse “old garden roses” with “hybrid tea roses,” the first of which was discovered in 1867. Roses existing after 1867 collectively are considered modern roses and comprise about 80 percent of roses grown in the United States.
Roses come in myriad varieties. Bill recognizes 22 classes of old garden roses and 14 classes of modern roses. While picking a favorite is difficult, Julianne could think of two she personally favors.
“Most roses have fancy names, but the ‘Green Rose’ is simple. It doesn’t look like a traditional rose at all. It looks like a little ball of leaves, yet it’s a rose, and I have seen them win blue ribbons,” she says. Another of her favorites is the ‘Dainty Bess,’ a hybrid tea rose that emerges as a single bloom with a light pink color, often with darker pink at the ends and long eyelash-like stamens. It generally has a sweet but not overpowering fragrance. Julianne explains that old roses or any modern rose introduced before 1950 qualify for the Old Rose Show. ‘Dainty Bess’ was introduced in 1925.
Among this year’s winners at the 2022 fair was the ‘Mary Washington’ old Noisette, which comes from the only class of roses developed in the United States — Charleston, to be specific. It was developed by a farmer named John Champneys from an Old Blush China Rose given to him by Phillippe Noisette, who later became superintendent of the South Carolina Medical Society’s Botanical Garden. Champneys then crossed that gifted rose with another to begin the hybrid class of roses known as Noisettes.
Most old roses bloom only one time, but modern hybridized roses are repeat bloomers, which has added to their wide appeal.
In an article he prepared for workshops at Roses Unlimited, Bill Patterson wrote, “It was the French growers who recognized its importance to the rose world. The repeat blooming, above all other great qualities, quickly attracted the French hybridizers to this rose.”
Bill notes that one of the wonderful, little-known facts about old roses is that, with a little bit of knowledge and diligence, even amateurs can grow them.
“If you want to grow roses, find a soil with good drainage,” he advises. “Include some kind of organic matter and vermiculite to hold moisture. Roses are fussy about moisture.”
Because drainage is so important, Bill recommends installing raised beds in full sunlight. Raised beds tend to drain better than ground-level beds, and most roses need about six hours or more of direct sunlight to thrive.
“If you take good care of a rose bush, it will bloom from May to October,” he says. “The main requirements are watering and fertilizing once a month. You also need to deadhead them. That’s very important. Maintaining healthy roses is generally a two-hours-a-week commitment.”
Francis said she often recommends the 2004 book Antique Roses for the South by William C. Welch to garden club members looking for a good reference publication. It’s still available and can be found on Amazon.com.
When asked if there was a consistent competitor in the show who might be referred to as a “rose rock star,” Francis says there have been many over the decades, but one that comes immediately to mind is Satish Prabhu, M.D., a pediatrician and multi-award-winning rosarian who moved away from the Midlands in recent years. He is well known in the rosarian community, and his insights now can be found in American Rose: The Magazine of the American Rose Society, to which he is a regular editorial contributor.
Everyone needs to start somewhere, and some gain confidence by growing plants in pots. Container gardening is popular with beginners who may lack a lot of yard space. While people may think they need a lot of land to grow roses, they really can grow and flourish in well-tended pots.
“One good thing about all roses is that they do make excellent potted plants,” Julianne says. “Many of our blue-ribbon winners over the years have come from roses grown in pots.”
Growing old roses is as American as apple pie, so it should be no surprise that the rose is actually our country’s national flower. Therefore, growing roses could be considered an act of patriotism, which is appealing and important to many today.
While South Carolina seldom receives much measurable snow, it does occasionally endure a hard freeze. Old roses scoff at such hardships, proving their mettle again and again in stunning fashion.