Roses are the royalty of the flower world, having been cultivated for over 5,000 years. These beautiful flowers have long been used as garden ornamentals and cut flowers, and made into perfumes, flavorings, condiments, medicines…even ice cream! They have had an honored place in art, literature, and movies, and are prized as much for their appearance as for the deep and heartfelt emotions they conjure up.
There are around 150 wild species of roses and a staggering 30,000 cultivated varieties. Organizing them all can get complicated, so this article will try and simplify how types of roses are categorized and highlight the distinct characteristics of each kind.
Types of roses by category
Roses can be sorted into three groups: species roses, old garden roses (before 1867), and modern roses (after 1867). They can also be grouped informally into categories by their growth habits (more on that later).
These wildflower roses are the ancestors of old garden and modern roses. Most are native to Asia, but others come from Europe, North America, and northern Africa. They generally bloom once a year and have simple flowers with five flat petals and a strong fragrance. Many are grown as garden flowers, some are involved in the hybridization of new varieties, and still others are used as rootstocks because of their vigor and hardiness.
Types of species roses
Lady Banks’ rose (Rosa banksiae)
Originally from China, this rose has small, light-yellow flowers that grow in bunches at the ends of its long, arching branches and have a sweet, violet-like scent. It is an evergreen, thorn-less, shrubby vine that can grow 20 feet high and blooms earlier than most other rose species. It is often grown as an accent or border plant, or against a support, such as a fence.
Musk rose (Rosa moschata)
Native to the Himalayas, the musk rose is a medium-sized rambler that can grow to 10 feet tall. It has simple white flowers with yellow centers that grow in loose groups at the ends of the branches and bloom repeatedly from spring to fall. The musk rose does well as a hedge or border plant, or in a wildlife garden.
Prairie rose, Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana)
The prairie rose is native to eastern North America and is grown in coastal gardens — it is a salt-tolerant plant — as well as in cottage and pollinator gardens. It has pink petals with yellow centers, fiery red-orange leaves in the fall, and red rose hips. It has not been used much for hybridization, but it is grown for its fragrance, repeat blooming, fall colors, and fleshy fruit.
Sweetbriar, eglantine rose (Rosa rubiginosa)
This wild rose, originally from Europe and western Asia, grows along roadsides and is known as a screening or border shrub. It grows to about six feet high and has pink flowers that bloom in the late spring and early summer. Both its flowers and leaves are fragrant; the former have a spicy scent and the latter’s smell is reminiscent of apples. Attractive red rose hips develop after the flowers have faded.
Old garden roses
Old garden roses, or heritage roses, were developed from early European and Chinese cultivars before the arrival of the hybrid tea rose in 1867. They are typically disease resistant and very hardy, and their double flowers are highly fragrant. European cultivars bloom once a year on old canes, and Chinese hybrids of China and tea roses bloom continuously from spring to fall on new canes.
Types of old garden roses
One of the earliest old garden roses, these fragrant flowers are cream colored to pale pink and bloom once in late spring or early summer. They are vigorous climbers, disease resistant, hardy in northern climates, and tolerant of cold and shade.
These beautiful roses were developed on Bourbon Island (now called Réunion Island, a French island located in the Indian Ocean about 600 miles east of Madagascar). They are intensely fragrant, almost thorn-less, possess a dense flower head with up to 40 petals, and bloom repeatedly in hues of pink, white, or red. Bourbon roses are tender in northern climates but adaptable to sun or shade, and can be trained to climb.
Centifolia (cabbage roses)
These roses were developed in the Netherlands and named for their dense, cabbage-like flower heads. They were popular during the 17th century and frequently appeared in the Dutch Old Masters’ paintings. Nodding flowers in white, pink, lavender, or red bloom once in the early summer. They are hardy and can grow tall, but their floppy canes bend over and often need support.
These four- to 10-foot-high shrubs from China bloom from spring to fall and have single, and sometimes double, fragrant pink or red flowers. They have been used extensively in the development of tea roses and long-blooming varieties. China roses are a perfect addition to cottage gardens but are not hardy in colder climates.
Damask roses are named for the city of Damascus, Syria, and were important in the lineage of old European garden roses. Light pink to red fragrant flowers grow in groups on tall, thorny stems and bloom either early or late, depending on the variety. Damask rose hybrids were the start of the hardy, repeat-flowering roses that are so popular today.
Gallica roses originated in Europe and western Asia, and are considered the first hybridized roses of the old garden category. Their highly fragrant double, or semi-double, flowers come in various shades of pink, red, or maroon, or can be striped. They bloom once in the summer on canes that grow to 4 feet high and are tolerant of cold and shade.
Hybrid musk roses
These roses grow in clusters on long, arching canes up to six feet. Their delicate light pink, white, yellow, or peach-colored flowers have a strong, musky scent. They are disease resistant, repeat flowering, and vigorous — perfect for growing against a wall or fence.
Hybrid perpetual roses
These hybrids of the repeat-flowering Asian roses and the old European hybrids were all the rage in Victorian England. They are tender, upright shrubs with clusters of large, fragrant, double flowers that bloom profusely in the spring and then sporadically until fall. Their popularity began to fade as hybrid teas gained favor in the gardening world.
Hybrid rugosa roses
Originally from Asia, hybrid rugosa roses have dark green, wrinkly foliage and highly fragrant, repeat-blooming, single or double flowers. They are hardy, disease resistant, and salt spray tolerant, and are excellent for a wildlife or pollinator garden.
These roses, known for the moss-like growth on the sepals that give off a woodsy scent when touched, originated from mutations in cabbage or damask roses. Those with a cabbage rose heritage flower once, and those hybridized from damask roses are repeat flowering. They are hardy and densely branched, with fragrant flowers in a variety of colors.
A chance cross between a China rose and a naturalized musk rose led to the development of the blush noisette. Other varieties were developed and became highly popular in Europe and the United States. They have deliciously fragrant flower clusters on tall, bushy plants and are usually repeat bloomers, but are tender in northern climates.
These fragrant flowers were developed from one rose that was sent from Italy to the English Duchess of Portland in 1775. They grow to no more than 12 inches in height, with small, pink flowers that mainly bloom in the summer. Abundant in the early 19th century, Portland roses soon saw their popularity diminish with the development of the bourbon and hybrid perpetual roses. Today, only a handful of varieties remain.
Hybrid tea-scented roses arrived in Europe from China in the early 19th century, when breeders crossed them with China roses, bourbons, and noisettes. The results were tall, elegant tea roses in white or pastel, with high central petals and wide lower petals that curl under. Tea roses are not hardy in cold climates but are disease resistant, with repeat-blooming, fragrant, gently nodding flowers. They are still grown today and are used for breeding modern hybrid teas.
The introduction of the hybrid tea rose “La France” in 1867 marked the starting point for modern roses. Since then, breeders have developed thousands of varieties that can be grouped by their growth and flowering habits. Unlike old garden roses, most modern roses are repeat bloomers from summer to fall. They are generally not fragrant and less hardy and disease resistant than old garden roses, but their blooms are larger, and they have a longer vase life.
Types of modern roses
English/David Austin roses
British rose breeder David Austin developed new varieties of roses in the 1960s with the rosette shapes and intoxicating fragrances of old garden roses, and the repeat-blooming traits and color spectrum of modern roses. These were highly successful, and new varieties are still being developed today.
Floribundas are small, bushy, easy-to-grow roses that present lavish flower clusters from spring to the first frost. Their flower color varies with the cultivar, and they are fairly hardy and disease resistant. Floribundas are excellent in mass plantings and are often seen in public and commercial spaces, in addition to home gardens.
Hybrids of floribundas and hybrid teas, grandiflora roses were fashionable during the 20th century. They are tall, vigorous, hardy shrubs that have large, showy flowers with rolled-under petals similar to hybrid teas. Like floribundas, they grow in clusters and are reliable repeat bloomers.
Hybrid tea roses
Hybrid teas were created from hybrid perpetuals and tea roses, and have qualities of both. They are important in the floral industry, as their long, upright stems and large, regal blooms make them perfect cut flowers. Hybrid teas were the most popular roses of the 20th century because of their elegance, fragrance, and spring-to-fall flowering. They have a reputation for being difficult flowers to grow, though, due to their lack of hardiness and need for high maintenance.
These roses are perfect for the garden or containers. The small bushes, covered in bunches of tiny flowers in white, pink, or red, were developed by crossing two species of roses, Rosa chinensis and Rosa multiflora. Polyanthas bloom prolifically from summer to fall, and are disease resistant and easy to maintain.
Types of roses by growth habit
In addition to the categorizations above, roses can also be loosely grouped into five categories according to growth habit.
These tiny plants are hybrid teas or grandifloras in miniature, ranging from six inches to 18 inches tall. They come in a number of colors and are profuse repeat bloomers from spring to fall, usually for two to three weeks at a time. Miniatures do well in containers indoors or outdoors and are excellent border plants in the garden.
Climbers can grow up to 15 feet tall on stiff canes. They are repeat bloomers with large flowers in clusters of five, and they bloom more profusely if allowed to grow horizontally. Climbing roses can be encouraged to grow upright against a wall or fence, or tethered around a pillar or trellis while the canes are young and flexible. They are not hardy and will only survive the winter in warmer climates (USDA hardiness zones seven and above, generally speaking).
Also known as landscape roses, groundcover roses are typically one to three feet tall and wide, and are excellent for mass planting. They are hardy, low-growing, fragrant roses with disease and pest resistance, repeat flowering, and little to no maintenance. These roses do well in the garden, window boxes, or hanging pots.
Ramblers have flexible canes and will grow over anything near them, such as a trellis, fence, or arch. They have clusters of seven medium-sized flowers and usually bloom once a season.
Shrub roses are any type of rose that does not fit into any other category. They are often hybrids of modern roses that have been crossed with species or old garden roses and can be almost any shape, with blooms either singly or in clusters. They are generally repeat bloomers, very hardy, and easy to grow.