The Garden of Old Roses is an ethnobotanical collection of plants selectively cultivated by humans for their beauty and fragrance. This garden was initiated in 1982 to display the history of rose cultivation up to the development of modern hybrid tea roses. Representatives of most important “Old Rose” classes, predating modern roses, are shown in a garden layout common in “English-style” gardens of the 1800s. Growing among the roses are traditional companion plants including hollyhocks, foxgloves, petunias, and penstemons, giving the garden drifts of color between the rose bloom cycles. An arbor and armillary complete the traditional garden design and enhance the view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
According to the fossil record, roses are 35 million years old. 100–150 species of the genus Rosa occur as natives in Europe, North America, the Middle East, North Africa, and China. The oldest roses were originally grown for rose petal syrups and conserves, and were highly prized for skincare uses. To the Romans, the rose was a sign of pleasure, the companion to mirth and wine, but also used at funerals. Rose garlands were even thought to prevent drunkenness. Suspending a rose above a dinner table meant that all confidences would be held secret—sub rosa.
Roses have been hybridized by gardeners for hundreds of years into distinct classes, each with their own set of flower and leaf characteristics. In Europe, the major classes are Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas, Scots, Portlands, Bourbons, Hybrid Perpetuals, and Noisettes. Most of these roses were light in color, usually white, pink, or pale red, with one bloom cycle per year. In China, the major classes are Chinas and Teas, with multiple bloom cycles, and yellow and red colors. Hybridization continued, and in 1867 the hybrid tea emerged, which is now the predominant horticultural rose class. These hybrids bore larger flowers in more colors, including bright yellow and crimson, with multiple bloom cycles. New, modern rose classes have continued to be developed and include Polyanthas and Floribundas.