Once considered a separate species, Albas are now thought to be very ancient hybrids of unknown origin, though it is suspected that they are the result of natural hybridization between Rosa canina (similar foliage, fruit and stems) and Rosa damascena. Grown in Ancient Rome, predominantly for its medicinal qualities, Albas were introduced into England by the Romans before 100 AD, where they quickly naturalized. The Alba rose became the symbol for the House of York during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, gaining the name ‘The White Rose of York’, as well as bearing other titles : ‘ The Jacobite Rose’, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Rose’, ‘Cheshire Rose’ and ‘Great Double White’. Gerard grew R. alba in his garden at Long Acre in 1597. Albas were widely grown during the Middle Ages for their medicinal properties. Botticelli painted Alba maxima in his famous painting ‘Venus’ in 1485 and this fampous old rose was also the subject of Dutch masterpieces in the 18th century. At the time of Dupont (1813), there were only 10 Albas known, but Jean-Paul Vibert grew over 70 different types of Albas in 1824. Today, there are less than 20 – Peter Beales lists 16 Albas in his book ‘Classic Roses’.
Also known as Tree Roses, due to their vigorous tall upright growth to over 1.8 metres. They have lax, arching stems and distinctive grey-green (sometimes described as blue-green) foliage with grey scentless leaflets (an identifying feature, as other roses have scented leaves). Once blooming in Spring and early Summer, they have few-flowered clusters of highly fragrant, white and blush to soft pastel pink blooms. The scent has been described as refined and even as a mix of spicy apples, white hyacinth and honey! These roses are the toughest and most disease-resistant of all roses. They are Winter hardy, mildew-free and tolerate more shade and root competition than other roses, so are good near trees or on a south-facing wall (Southern Hemisphere). They still require at least 3 to 4 hours of direct sunlight to bloom. The photo below is Celeste.I used to grow both Alba Semi-Plena and Alba Maxima in my garden and I loved their tall growth, attractive leaves and simple pure white flowers. Both can revert to each other, Alba Maxima basically looking like a fuller version of Semi-Plena. Maxima is one of the oldest roses and is a healthy upright tall shrub, 1.8 metres high and 1.2 metres wide. With healthy grey green foliage with a blue glow, it bears upright clusters of 6 to 8 pure white to creamy white, very double, fragrant blooms, with the scent of damask and citrus, followed by oval hips in Autumn. Semi-Plena, also known as Rosa x alba suaveolens or R. x alba nivea, is taller (2.5 metres high by 1.5 metres wide) with matte grey-green leaves and sweetly scented, semi-double, pure white blooms with pronounced stamens and good Autumn fruit, which look like large orange Dog Rose hips. It can be traced back to the 14th century.Another very old Alba (pre-15th century) with a host of interesting names is Great Maiden’s Blush, also called ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’, ‘Incarnata’, ‘La Virginale’, ‘La Séduisante’ and ‘La Royale’. They are 1.5 metres tall with arching, almost thornless branches and blue-grey foliage. Creamy white or white buds open to loosely-double, pale blush pink flowers, fading white again, with a very refined pefume. Cuisse de Nymphe émue is the name given to more richly coloured clones of this rose. I grew this rose in my old garden, but now grow Maiden’s Blush 1797, also referred to as Small Maiden’s Blush, a slightly smaller sport of Great Maiden’s Blush, both in stature (1.2 metres tall by 0.9 metres wide) and flower size, but otherwise looking much the same. Because I cannot find any old photos of Great Maiden’s Blush, I have included this link to Peter Beales’ site, as it was one of his favourite roses from since he was a young boy: https://www.classicroses.co.uk/roses/maiden-s-blush-great-shrub-rose.html , and maybe next Spring, I will be able to insert a decent photo of my Small Maiden’s Blush blooms!
Another favourite ancient alba is Celeste or Celestial (1.8 metres tall and 1.2 metres wide). I love her semi-double, beautifully scented, light pink flowers and leaden grey foliage.I have never grown Mme Plantier (1835), a hybrid between an Alba and a Noisette. It has a sprawling mound of compact growth; pale green foliage; and creamy-white, sweetly fragrant, small pompom-like blooms with a pointed green eye in the centre.Again, because this is not a wonderful photo, though it does give a good idea of its sprawling growth habit (!), I have included a link to this post: http://hedgerowrose.com/rose-gardening/2012/09/06/growing-madame-plantier-or-the-brides-rose/, which also demonstrates the similarities and differences of this lovely rose to Damask rose, Mme Hardy.
Next month, we will be looking at the Centifolias and Moss roses, the final group of Old European roses, their heavy globular blooms adored by the Dutch still-life painters and the start of a rose breeding in earnest! Next week, I will be posting about the roses in the cottage gardens of Gamble Cottage, South Australia, and Ziebell’s Farmouse and Heide in Victoria.