Gallica Roses

Very soon stocks of new season's roses will be arriving in the garden centres, if they're not already there. Indeed, to be sure of getting the most sought after varieties it may have been necessary to put an order in some time ago. However, in their rush for the new, those who are slaves to fashion often overlook gems, leaving some of the best tried and true plants for those prepared to simply wait and see what is available.

Gallica roses are a case in point. While the popularity of Old Roses waxes and wanes as each new generation discovers them and then seeks something new, the best of them carry on regardless.

Rosa gallica, also known as the French Rose or Provins Rose, is a species that grows wild from southern and central Europe to the Caucasus. Because it readily produces sports, has a tendency towards double flowers, and may have hybridised naturally with other species, it is likely that the earliest European garden roses were forms of Rosa gallica.

The earliest recognisable Gallica still grown is 'Officinalis', the Apothecary's Rose. It is a deep pink semi-double thought to have been introduced into France from the Middle East by returning 13th century crusaders. It has even been suggested that 'Officinalis' was the first cultivated rose, though that is impossible to prove. A similar rose was used medicinally and in perfume manufacture in Charlemagne's time, but it can't be traced back beyond around 1200 with any certainty. Nevertheless, 'Officinalis' can be seen in many medieval manuscripts, paintings, and stained glass windows, and while deep pink rather than red, it earned fame in the War of the Roses as the Red Rose of Lancaster. (The White Rose of York was Rosa × alba.)

'Rosa Mundi' (syn. 'Versicolor'), which probably dates from the late 16th century, is a very popular sport of 'Officinalis'. It has striped and sectored bicolor white and deep pink flowers, and is thought to have been named after Rosamund, a mistress of Henry II. It may date back to the 13th century or even earlier but can't be traced beyond 1580 with certainty.

Gallicas were at the height of their popularity from the 18th to the mid-19th centuries, and it is from that period that most of today's plants date. Early nurseries kept few records but it is likely that by the early 19th century there were well over 1000 varieties of gallica in cultivation, possibly up to 3000. It is therefore not surprising that several other recognised groups, such as the Damask Roses, have Rosa gallica in their parentage.

Their flowers, which are abundant and often heavily scented, tend toward the pink, red and purple shades. White gallicas are also available and many of the darker flowered types are flecked or otherwise marked with white or pale pink. The flowers appear only in spring and early summer, with perhaps the occasional late bloom, though vivid hips often follow the flowers, providing colour well into autumn.
The fleeting beauty of the flowers and the historical connections is certainly why Gallicas tend to be regarded as the most 'romantic' of all the roses. It's not hard to see why. Their beautiful, rather formal shapes with an air of elegance, their textures and colours, so often reminiscent of faded purple velvet, and their fragrance combine to create roses of which memories are made.

The very name Apothecary's Rose conjures up images of alchemy, love potions and the like. Associations with the French aristocracy also enhance the gallica's romantic appeal. Marie-Antoinette had made in 1770 a bed of 'Officinalis' petals and the Empress Josephine so adored Gallicas that her rose gardens at Malmaison were a virtual shrine to the type.

Many nurseries, especially rose specialists, stock a good range of gallicas and as you might expect, those that have survived long enough to still be in production in the 21st century tend to be sturdy, easily grown plants.

In addition to 'Rosa Mundi' and 'Officinalis' look out for 'Charles de Mills' (double, velvety crimson) 'Cardinal de Richelieu' (double, clustered dark purple red flowers), 'Hippolyte' (double, purple, many small flowers), 'Belle de Crécy', 'Tuscany Superb' (double, dark purple-red, very fragrant), 'Duchesse de Buccleugh' (double, deep pink, late), 'Duchesse de Montebello' (double, soft pink), 'Complicata' (single, bright mid-pink, fragrant), 'Nannette' (double, purple-red), 'Anaïs Ségales' (double, purple-pink, very fragrant), 'Ipsilanté' (double, mauve-pink) and 'Gloire de France' (double, purple-pink fading to pale pink edges).

Sure, you could wait until next year and check out the local botanic gardens before making a selection, but take my word for it, gallicas are beautiful. Why not start your own private Malmaison now?

Cultivation tips

Gallicas are very frost hardy and tend to be fairly small bushes with light or bright green that is usually quite lush. They can be bought budded or may be grown on their own roots. Own root plants will produce suckers that help to thicken up the bush and will sometimes even allow them to be grown as a hedge. Removing rooted suckers is an easy way to start new plants, which is probably why Gallicas were such a suitable subject for medieval plant propagators. Summer softwood cuttings under mist are reliable and winter hardwood cuttings outdoors strike quite well.

Their compact habit is easily maintained by light overall trimming and thinning, which can be done in winter or, if keeping the hips is not important, as soon as flowering is finished. You can even trim and shape in summer and winter if necessary. Very old bushes on their own roots may be cut back almost to ground level to encourage vigorous new growth. Gallicas are bristly rather than really thorny, which makes pruning a fairly pain-free experience.

Naturally, you need to keep an eye open for all the traditional pests and diseases of roses, though you needn't expect more trouble with Gallicas than any other roses. Just don't believe those comments you may read that suggest that they are particularly pest- or disease-resistant.

Did you know?

The Greeks and Romans cultivated Rosa gallica, though apart for the odd sport it is unlikely that they grew anything greatly different from the wild form. So should you feel the need to have rose petals strewn in your path in the manner of a Roman emperor, they should be those of Rosa gallica.

I am a garden book author and horticultural photographer based in Christchurch, New Zealand. I run a stock photo library called Country, Farm and Garden ( This article may be re-published provided this information is published with it and is clearly visible.

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