Looking at rose catalogues—or better yet, walking through a rose fancier’s garden—it’s quickly apparent that white has many hues, from snowy blue-white (the colour of skim milk) to palest butter yellow or shell pink. From the variety of whites among modern rose cultivars, it’s also clear long-ago antecedents continue to exert their influence. Certainly white roses were among the many wild species found in ancient Europe, the Levant and Asia. By medieval times, a few cultivated forms of white and near-white roses were gathered into the Rosa alba category of old shrub roses, characterized by their intense scent and strong disease resistance.
Although the progenitors of early roses are difficult to identify, these early white albas are possibly derived from R. canina, the dog rose, which has similar foliage, hips and stems. The flowers of R. alba can be described as shades of white, and many change colour as they mature. For instance, ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’, also known as ‘Incarnata’ or ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’ (2 x 1.5 m, Zone 4) carries long-lasting blooms that open flesh pink and gradually turn creamy white.
Over time, white and near-white roses became so coveted that by 1840, there were more than 40 distinct alba cultivars. Today, white roses are represented in every antique and modern category, and many of them carry colour and scent genes from the old R. alba plants, with a similar propensity for ranging from pure white to ivory, cream, light butter yellow and palest pink. Take the charming rambler ‘Albéric Barbier’ (5 x 1.5 m, Zone 5), with its long-lasting, quartered, scented flowers that open pale butter yellow and quickly fade to gleaming ivory. Like all ramblers, it makes a scrambling mass of delicate twiggy canes and stems, blooming once in summer for six weeks and adorning a fence or arbour with its romantic form.
The R. pimpinellifolia ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ (1.5 x 1.5 m, Zone 4) is another quick-change artist, blooming palest blush pink but soon fading to creamy white. Its mound-shaped mass of fine twigs and fern-like foliage carries small, double, sweetly scented flowers for most of the growing season. This rose makes a good specimen at the bottom of a driveway, or can be grown as an effective boundary hedge.