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A Sucker for Gallicas

Undemanding, tough, mostly fragrant and blooming in profusion, Gallicas are amongst my favorite roses. If I had to recommend any class of OGR roses to a novice enthusiast, it would be this one. They are well known for surviving against the odds in hedgerows, cemeteries, beside railroad tracks and in abandoned gardens, apparently impervious to drought, miserable soil and even shade. Gallicas don’t expect pampering and even if they are attacked by disease or municipal lawnmowers, bounce back the following year. They are the Energizer Bunnies of the rose world. One of the main reasons for their success, is the ability to migrate from a less than ideal growing space by suckering (if grown on their own roots) until a good spot is discovered, much like the first European settlers who brought them to America.

Gallicas are native to southern and central Europe and are found as far east as Turkey. Most are hardy to zone 5 and some to zone 4. Blooms can be single, semi-double or very double, with colors ranging from palest blush through various pinks, lavenders, mauves to deep purples. Few of them get really huge and are thus suitable for smaller gardens or large containers. Gallicas have been cultivated since Roman times, but after the fall of the Empire, they were associated with decadence and lost popularity for centuries. Survivors were found inside monastery walls and by the 13th century, they experienced a renaissance for medicinal use. The red Apothecary Rose, R. gallica officinalis, became the emblem for the English royal house of Lancaster. Legend has it, that its striped sport ‘Rosa Mundi’ was named for the mistress of Henry II, the fair Rosamund after it was discovered growing near her grave. The town of Provins, east of Paris, became well-known for the cultivation of these roses, which became referred to as Provins roses or French roses, hence Gallicas. At the height of their popularity in the 19th century, almost 1,000 varieties were known! The Empress Joséphine reportedly grew 150 of them in her garden at Malmaison.

The introduction of repeat blooming roses such as Hybrid Perpetuals and ultimately Hybrid Teas, caused a steep decline in the cultivation of Gallicas. High-centered blooms and orange and yellow colors became more popular in the 20th century. Nowadays the internet proves a wonderful resource for lovers of OGRs, helping with research, identification of found roses and the acquisition of rare roses. A number of nurseries carry a good selection of Gallicas. Try rooting cuttings or swap plants with fellow rose enthusiasts (did I mention I LOVED suckers?) or keep a sharp lookout in your local hedgerows or abandoned homesteads for any roses that need rescuing.

I love to see the hips on mine so I only prune dead wood and the occasional old canes to improve air flow and encourage new basal breaks. All are once flowering and some of them can be late budding out, so don’t be tempted to prune them until after they have finished flowering or you will diminish your display of blooms! Here are some of the Gallicas I grow in my garden:

Sweetly scented pink and white stripy ‘Camaieux’ is short at three feet and good for containers. ‘Duchess de Montebello’ has a lovely fragrance and wonderfully quartered blush pink blossoms, which sometimes reveal a green eye. ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ has the best dark plum color you will see on any rose, yet no scent. Nevertheless, I rank it in my top ten favorite roses of all times! ‘Charles de Mills’ has many tightly arranged, beautiful, crisp crimson petals that open flat and fade to a grayish purple. ‘Rush Family Gallica’ is a found rose I obtained from the now defunct Uncommon Rose nursery. Depending on your soil, it can be mauve/pink to purplish and can get up to 5 feet tall. It has happily suckered and keeps colonizing my neighbor’s lawn! I might be induced to trade some suckers if you ask me nicely.

If my garden were larger, I would definitely add more of these beauties. As it is, Zack gave me a ‘Tuscany Superb’ (deep maroon/purple) for my ‘Veilchenblau’ in the spring, so soon there will be no more room left.

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