What are Roses, Anyway?
by Ann Hooper
Roses belong to the botanical family ‘Rosaceae,’ which includes more than 5000 plants including almond, apple, cherry, cotoneaster, strawberry, and firethorn. Their genus is ‘Rosa,’ and within the genus, there are three main groups. These groups are the wild, or Species Roses; the Old Garden Roses, which were in existence before 1867 (which was the year the first hybrid tea was introduced;) and the Modern Roses, which were developed after 1867.
The species roses have been around since the beginning of recorded time, and they are the ancestors of all roses. They include rugosa, canina, and chinensis, among others. Species roses occurred naturally in all parts of the world, and their different growth habits and colors provided the basis for the growth habits and colors of the roses we enjoy today.
Old garden roses are also known as OGRs, old-fashioned roses, heirloom, or heritage roses. There are around 20 classifications within the old garden rose group, the more familiar of which include hybrid perpetual, bourbon, alba, and damask. Old garden roses include both once-blooming and repeat-blooming classes, but generally, the repeat bloom is sparse and/or sporadic. The once-bloomers generally bloom in the spring, and their display can be devastatingly beautiful for a couple of weeks. Nearly everyone who grows roses has at least one old garden rose. Old garden roses are almost a separate rose hobby, as aficionados study their history and go to great lengths to procure nearly forgotten varieties.
But it’s the modern roses that the majority of rosarians grow. These roses are the ones that bloom continuously throughout the growing season. Not only do modern roses offer the benefit of season-long color in the garden, but they provide that immediate gratification rosarians need— not only with flowers to enjoy, but as a measurement of the effect of the rosarian’s determination to control them. They’re also immediately available at almost any garden center.
Within the modern rose group, there are several classes of plants. They are hybrid tea, grandiflora, floribunda, polyantha, miniature, mini-flora, climber, and shrub. It's very important to know the classifications of the roses you grow. A rose plant's classification will tell you the kind of growth habit you can expect, and therefore, where to plant it and how to care for it.
The final entries, at the bottom of the taxonomic chart for roses, are the variety name and the cultivar name. The common name of a rose is its “variety,” such as Iceberg or Betty Boop. In the last 20 years or so, new varieties are also identified by a code name or denomination, which is the definitive method of identifying a rose. It eliminates confusion in a case where a rose might have a different name in another country, or where two different roses might have the same name. For example, if you're visiting England and see a lovely rose called Fellowship that you can't find when you get home, you can look up its denomination, 'HARwelcome' and find that in the U.S., that rose is called Livin' Easy. The denomination begins with three capital letters that signify the hybridizer (in this case, Harkness Roses in England) and some other letters that may or may not be pronounceable. If the variety of rose you buy was introduced within the last 20 years, the denomination will be printed on the tag affixed to the rose plant, in parentheses just under the rose's variety name.
Roses that were introduced before the use of a denomination (also called code name or cultivar name) was instituted in the 1980s, the variety name, or common name, identified the rose. Sometimes this caused some confusion. For example, there’s a lovely red hybrid tea that was introduced in 1971 called Toro. Or Uncle Joe. For some reason—and there’s probably a pretty good story there—the same cultivar had two different names. The International Rose Registry tried to standardize the name, proclaiming the “real” name as Uncle Joe. But you still see it sold under both names.
So, when you buy a new rose, for example, the floribunda from Weeks Roses, Cinco deMayo, here’s what it is:
Group: Modern Rose
Variety: Cinco de Mayo
Here’s my final word on rose names: Don’t bother being confused. Buy your roses the way everybody else does-- by variety name. Do, however, put that name on a garden marker and stick it in the soil at the base of the plant. That way, you’ll remember the name in case you want to buy another one or if someone asks you the name of that fabulous rose!