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Moss Roses
January 2002

Joan Shaw

Moss Hybrid Perpetual Rose 'Madame Louis Leveque'
Rose 'Madame Louis Leveque' –  a mossed rose
of Hybrid Perpetual origin

The Unusual Attributes of the Moss Rose 

Every spring I look forward to the first blossoms of our mossed Hybrid Perpetual, 'Madame Louis Leveque' (shown above). Her blossoms are enormous, of a satiny blush pink, globular in shape, held upright on stiff stems, and exuberant in the Centifolia, or Cabbage Rose, style. When fully opened, their more than one hundred silky petals curl back showing a faint blush of lavender in the middle. Here in Cache Valley, Utah, the rose has been troubled in the past with thrips which cause the fat buds to stay closed and finally grow brown and look fairly awful. However, one spraying for thrips early in the season before the buds start to form has eliminated this problem.

'Madame Louis Leveque' was introduced in 1854 by the breeder Leveque, but the first cultivated Moss Rose was mentioned in the literature as far back as 1696. Breeders now think that moss roses were most likely around long before that.

The moss roses are sports – naturally occurring mutations –  of the Centifolia and, to a lesser extent, of the Damask. Most Moss Roses have the characteristics of the Centifolia – large blossomed with many petals, often quartered, and mostly sterile as far as seed-setting is concerned. The one differing characteristic between the Centifolia and Damasks  and that of the Moss Roses is the hairy covering of small, globe-shaped glands on the stalks and sepals. (Sepals are the green modified leaves enclosing the rose bud). Occasionally, this moss even appears on the leaves.

A glance at a Moss Rose bud gives the impression of a coating of small prickles, but the moss covering is soft to the touch, slightly sticky, and so intensely fragrant that simply rubbing one's fingers up the stalk to the sepals leaves one's hands with a rose fragrance as strong and lasting as any perfume.

The English Rose breeder, David Austin, emphasizes the special charm of a just-opening moss rose bud and quotes George Bunyard's estimate of its "coziness" as a primary attribute leading to its popularity during the Victorian era – "Coziness," Bunyard wrote, "lay at the very center of Victorian taste." This was an interesting point to me since, up to consulting Austin on Moss Roses, I read only of the blossom's intense fragrance appealing to Victorian gardeners.

No matter what the driving forces behind it – fragrance or coziness – breeders were turning out moss roses in bewildering numbers during the 1800s. The choice of varieties has since been pared down to a more reasonable size as form and hardiness became more important to gardeners than scent alone, but there is still an impressive cohort to choose from.

Among the varieties listed in Beales, Thomas, and other reference works and in old and antique rose catalogues, we grow five here at DragonGoose Farm – 'Madame Louis Leveque,' described above, 'Salet,' 'Shailer's White Moss,' 'Crested Sweetheart,' and a rose we found when we moved here bearing a close resemblance to 'Henri Martin' (or Red Moss) and which we call for the time being "Jenny's Moss" (double quote indicates a study name). Jenny Bergeson was the nurse midwife who lived here on this farm from the 1920s to the 1960s.

A bud of Jenny's Moss
A bud of "Jenny's Moss" showing its moss
of glandular projections

The Joy of Moss

The blossoms of "Jenny's Moss" exactly match those pictured of 'Henri Martin,' and both stems, sepals, and blossoms are extremely fragrant as described, but her canes  appear more weak and wiry than that of  the 'Henri Martin' form. It's possible that this wiriness may be due to the fact it's on the north side of the house and nearly inundated by a neighboring Arborvitae. Last spring I moved two rooted cuttings of "Jenny's Moss" out into the sun (successfully this time; I failed the first time I tried it). Now we're anxious to see if the plant grows into the well defined shrub it's purported to be.

Moss Rose 'Salet'
A blossom and buds of the moss rose, 'Salet'

I would say that 'Salet' (pictured above) is the most fragrant rose we have here. It was introduced in 1854, the same year as 'Madame Louis Leveque,' and grows into a strong upright shrub of about four feet, taller than it is wide. Its blooms are very double with slightly narrow petals and, after a big flush of blooms in mid- to late June, repeats consistently here throughout the summer. Aphids love it, however – along with the aphids' shepherds, the ants – and it gets one spraying in the spring along with 'Madame Louis Leveque." This treatment keeps it clean and its blossoms clear and pink.

 'Shailer's White Moss'  (R. centifolia albo-muscosa shown at right) is a strongly scented white sport of the old 'Common Moss.'  Tracking down this rose can be confusing, since the rose is also identified by the names, 'White Bath,' 'White Moss,' and 'Clifton Moss.' Moreover, in some reference works and catalogs its introduction is listed as Moss Rose 'Shailer's White Moss' 1817 by Salter, while  Beales lists it separately and credits Shailer with its introduction in 1788. Vintage Gardens lists it under 'White Bath,' with  'Shailer's White Moss' listed as an alternate name, and gives its introduction as around 1810.

Whatever its origin, whatever its label, the rose grows wonderfully well here. It has thick, strong canes and fully double white blossoms with a faint pink blush while opening. It grows above five feet tall and close to five feet wide, more than the four feet given by most descriptions. The plant is so tall and so wide, in fact, that I've corralled it against a sturdy pole. David Austin calls it the best white Moss Rose, and though it flowers only once (in mid June here), that flowering is a long and abundant one.

The Crested Moss

According to the findings of C.C. Hurst, a pioneering researcher in the genetics of the genus Rosa in the early 1900s, the Crested Moss is a parallel sport of the Moss Rose. The glandular projections, normally so numerous on moss roses, is less so on the Crested Moss, but the sepals covered with this moss – appearing as wings around the rose bud – are so large that the bud looks to be buried inside a nest of greenery. The buds under all this greenery look cozy indeed, so it should come as no surprise that the Crested Moss was also a great favorite of the Victorians.

'Cristata,' discovered and introduced by the breeder Vibert in France in 1826, has especially long and crested sepals resembling the tricorn hat of Napoleon. This configuration has given the rose its other name, 'Chapeau de Napoleon.' Since this introduction, more Crested Moss roses have been developed, including some bred by Ralph Moore. Moore started breeding moss roses in the 1980s and continues to introduce new varieties, working toward a miniature repeat-blooming Crested Moss.

'Crested Sweetheart,' Moore's 1988 climbing moss, is grown by my daughter Melanie (blossom and buds are shown at left, below). She bought it as a Crested Moss Rose 'Crested Sweetheart' rooted cutting two summers ago and reports that it's now reached climbing size and will need support for the coming summer. Its 1988 introduction makes the rose a very recent entry in the ranks of a largely antique group. Peter Schneider writes in his Peter Schneider on Roses that this introduction by Moore was the first climbing moss since 'Wichmoss' seventy-seven years before.

Melanie also has 'Crested Jewel,' another Moore rose, which has yet to prove itself as a climber or a bush. Many, in fact,  are confused about another characteristic of these two crested roses of Moore's –  are they miniatures (Moore's specialty) or not? 'Crested Sweetheart' and 'Crested Jewel,' Melanie assures me, are both full-sized roses. While Moore continues his work toward developing a true miniature Crested Moss, he has been successful in breeding a race of roses with miniature moss characteristics –  Melanie's special interest. She has so many of these in her garden that we will give these charming plants an essay of their own later.

A couple of springs ago, I planted two rooted cuttings of 'William Lobb,' another Moss Rose, also grown under the name 'Velvet Moss' or 'Old Velvet.' This is a lovely variety, growing to six feet. The crimson-purple blossoms bloom in midsummer on what the Vintage Nursery catalog classifies as an arching, hummocking plant. Unfortunately the ones I planted never got to the "arching, hummocking" stage, since both plants succumbed to a sprinkler installation. I'm intending to replace them this coming spring – which , incidentally, I'm looking forward to right now with a good bit of longing.

In a Cache Valley January when the temperature drops to thirty below and the garden is covered with over three feet of snow, when Melanie's water pipes are frozen and the road down to the highway has turned into a toboggan run, what else is there to do but to dream of spring planting and summer blooming?

Joan Katherine Shaw
January 2002

Click for more on Roses:

Cascading Roses
Old White Roses
Prolific Climbing Roses for the North
Roses of the Middle East
Some Tough but Elegant Roses

All photos by Joan K. Shaw

Sources for roses:

'Madame Louis Leveque': Vintage Garden
'Henri Martin' ('Red Moss'): High Country Roses  Heirloom Roses , Vintage Gardens, Antique Rose Emporium
'Shailer's White Moss': Heirloom Roses, Vintage Gardens
'Salet': High Country Roses, Heirloom Roses, Vintage Gardens, Royall River Roses*
'Crested Sweetheart': Vintage Gardens,
'William Lobb' ('Old Velvet Moss'):   High Country Roses, Antique Rose Emporium,  Royall River Roses*

Click to enter American Rose Society site

* Both the telephone and website for Royall River Roses appear to be out of service in December 2001. I hope temporarily.

Excellent reference books on roses:

The Companion to Roses - a fascinating source book for both botanical information and the lore of legends; it's one of my favorite reference works on rose culture and history

The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book - a distillation of the world-famous rosarian's knowledge of the world of roses. Truly a treasure of information, drawings, and photographs

Classic Roses by Peter Beales - this is a book that, if you've declared a moratorium on buying any more roses, you should never open. Wonderfully erudite, yet easy to read, and filled with some of the best rose photography I've ever seen. Beales talks about roses here as part of the garden rather than as isolated plants

The Ultimate Rose Book - A sumptuous collection of more than 1600 roses with their full color photographs, descriptions, breeders, and years of introduction

Link for browsing for more rose books:

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