Why are the robust but charming Scotch roses overlooked these days? They may have thorns but never get black spot and don't need pruning. Perfect for country-house gardeners.

Scotch roses were all the rage in Regency times, with some nurserymen listing more than 200 varieties. But by the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, they were described as being “quite out of fashion” and today few commercial nurseries list more than three or four varieties, and even these are mostly hybrids.

The fall in popularity of these ferny-leaved, scented shrubs is usually put down to their abundant prickles and over-abundant names. Their thin, bristly stems do not lend themselves to the budding techniques used to propagate modern roses and the descriptions that appeared in early garden lists were so unhelpful that their Who’s Who has never been sorted out. At least half-a-dozen different roses, for example, have been named as “the true Mary Queen of Scots”. Varieties were named after Sir Walter Scott’s heroes, classical Greek gods, Scottish towns and English aristocrats – and almost all have vanished.

As one expert puts it, “I can often tell you that a particular rose is not what it says on the label. But, on the other hand, I am unlikely to be able to put a definitive historic name to it.”

EARLY SEASON ROSES

The time to go looking for Scotch roses to discover their charms for yourself is early in the season, typically before the main flush of garden roses comes into flower. They are small shrubs, 4ft to 5ft tall, with a single, exuberant burst of blooms in May through to mid June. They are often survivors from an earlier era, many having formed a thicket that has occupied a sunny corner for ever, or possibly even longer than that. They cover most of the rose spectrum as far as colours are concerned, in singles, semi-singles and doubles, often in marbled and tinted variations. The flowers are about 2in (5cm) in diameter and later produce distinctive spherical black hips.

They are named “Scotch” – or “Scots”, if you prefer – because they were first developed as a garden race from the native Rosa spinosissima by the Brown brothers of Perth, who took their seed from the wild roses of nearby Kinnoull Hill. By 1803, they had eight double varieties on the market; by 1820, one London grower had “hundreds of new varieties in the sale catalogues” and Scotch roses were everywhere.

A particularly famous Scotch-based hybrid is the “Yellow Rose of Texas”, which accompanied the pioneers in the West and is said to persist beside long-abandoned cabins across some of the harshest landscapes of North America. Some Americans still have a soft spot for our little spinosissimas. I recently came across a New England web contributor who wrote, “What escapes me is why they are so overlooked. They aren’t gushed over the way so many of the other old roses are… They are the most low-maintenance, reliable, cold-hardy, toughest and most demure of all the roses we grow. Most in our collection are ones that we ‘found’ on our many excursions to old cemeteries near and far and they endeared themselves to us because of their tenacity and will to survive.”

Typically, an old Scotch rose bush is loved because “it was given to my grandmother”. The shrubs send up suckers, the shoots gradually extending the thicket. These suckers are easy to pull up and transplant.

A ROSE SAFE FROM RABBITS

The shoots have numerous bristles and thorns, which make them unattractive to rabbits although they are browsed by deer. They are difficult for the rose grower to handle and if grafted on to his usual briar stocks may turn into gawky specimens that need almost as much pruning as hybrid teas. Rose-growing nurserymen think of the Scotch roses as “largely uncommercial”. So your best hope of developing a collection is to beg for suckers and grow them on their own roots.

The happy hunting ground for Scotch rose fanciers has always been the north-east of Scotland, where the old varieties linger in the gardens of croft and castle, but ancient bushes can turn up anywhere. Woburn Abbey once had a collection of several hundred named types, now lost, but doubtless one or two survive in Bedfordshire cottage gardens.

The repeat-flowering roses that came on the market in the mid-1800s pushed the Scotch roses into near-extinction. They could not compete with large blooms and a long season, but they have the virtues of charm and good health. They need no pruning and the truly old-fashioned ones never have black spot on their leaves, which should recommend them to most country-house gardeners.

FURTHER READING

Hardy roses for hard winters

Growing flowers to cut for the house