Lily Shohan: A Life with Old Garden Roses

Patsy Cunningham

Lily Shohan at convention      When Old Garden Roses are mentioned, many of us have only a vague picture in our heads of rather muddled blooms that are so unlike typical hybrid teas that they’re hard to connect with.  The feelings of October’s guest speaker towards these historic roses, is anything but vague and disconnected.  Lily Shohan has had a passionate relationship with Old Garden roses for decades and is one of the foremost authorities in the country on that subject. She has definite opinions on Old Garden Roses (OGRs) and their care and shared this knowledge and her slides with us.. 

            I asked Lily what her favorite OGR was and she promptly replied ‘Celsiana’.  Celsiana must indeed be special, because this is the same answer she gave when asked to write about her favorite OGR for the American Rose Annual (ARA) in 1985. Her bush of Celsiana was planted in 1959 and is still thriving.

“A damask that was introduced before 1750, it is very much an old-style rose, a rich pink, semi-double, fragrant flower, borne profusely on arched canes.  As the bush comes into bloom, the weight of the flowers bows down the branches which fountain over with tips touching the ground, overwhelmed by the long-stemmed clusters of four inch flowers.

            These blossoms have a peculiar elegance as the whorled petals unfurl to petals slightly fluted but never untidy, with a crisp twirl reminiscent of a dancer’s tutu. Usually a half-folded petal partially conceals the center ring of golden stamens, but removing that petal in the interest of neatness fatally mars the characteristic informality of the bloom.

            The plant is very hardy, surviving temperatures below -25 F. without damage…And, last but not least of its charms, it is an excellent cut-flower and if gathered in the bud will unfold indoors over a period of days.  In fact, since it tends to fade in hot sun, the best flowers will be those cut and allowed to open inside.”

There’s more in the ARA article, because Lily is intimately acquainted with her roses and is a keen observer with a gift for apt descriptions.  She used to grow 400 varieties of mainly OGRs, but as she cares for them herself she has cut back recently  to about 125.  Independence has always been her style.  She travels widely, driving long distances to lecture on OGRs.  In 1989, Thomas Christopher described her the following way in his book, “In Search of Lost Roses”.

Lily Shohan “Lily Shohan couldn't have presented a more striking contrast to the fragility of her flowers. She is the daughter of a dairy farmer, a sturdy countrywoman with a no-nonsense manner. Past middle age now, she still splits firewood that heats her house and digs her own garden."

            Only one hybrid tea, ‘Touch of Class’, is in her garden.  It came in from her local society’s “Project Rose” and stayed because it hasn’t died in her zone 5 garden in New York.  Its toughness has won her approval.

            Lily is an ARS horticultural judge and was chairman of the OGR Committee of the American Rose Society.  She founded the Heritage Roses Group and was its North East coordinator for over 25 years. She’s had at least five articles in the American Rose Annuals over the years.  She was asked to write the “appreciative forewords” for two reprints of important old books on OGRS: John Lindley’s “Rosarum Monographia” and Roy Shepherd’s “History of the Rose”.

            Her 1980 article for the ARA, “Old Roses for Small Gardens” debunks some firmly held modern ideas of OGR culture.  She spoke about the reasons that modern gardeners feel that most OGRs are just too big for their limited size gardens. In her opinion one reason is lack of adequate pruning.

“It is almost impossible to understand why modern authorities state that the old roses need little or no pruning.  The writers who were contemporaries of those roses knew better.  Theophrastus (circa 400 BC) recommended burning or cutting the rosebush to make it bear better flowers. His roses were probably gallicas and damasks, the most ancient roses of all…In the 19th century, Robert Buist wrote this about gallica roses, “cut back the young shoots to three or four eyes of the wood of the preceding year’s growth”…Thomas Rivers wrote of Centifolias,” in pruning they require a free use of the knife; every shoot should be shortened to three or four buds”…

            In short, the idea that old roses do not need pruning is of modern origin and the sooner it is discarded, the sooner these rose will be admitted to a wider range of gardens.”

Her other suggestion for pruning OGRs is definitely contrary to modern practice; she recommends pruning even once-bloomers prior to bloom rather than after.  When I asked why she said that by the time they finish blooming, they can be ‘like a jungle”, making it hard to judge what to prune, and that delicate new growth is too easily broken if the bush is pruned after blooming.

            Old garden roses are known above all else for their fragrance.  Lily wrote about this in her 1999 article for the Heritage Rose Groups bulletin.  Some excerpts from this article follow:

“My own favorites are the Centifolias, large double flowers bred in an age when fragrance was truly appreciated. ‘Juno’, ‘La Noblesse’ and ‘Crested Moss’, all have that sweet somewhat fruity but alluring scent. The Moss roses have it too-at least those of Centifolia ancestry do, but in the Mosses that simple fragrance is sometimes enhanced by the resinous smell of the moss itself.”

“Gallicas are well known for fragrance and it is these roses that are often used for potpourri since the fragrance is strengthened rather than lost when the petals are dried. ‘Charles de Mills’ is an old favorite but the oldest is probably ‘Tuscany’; both it and the more double ‘Superb Tuscan’ are roses to count on for fragrance.”

“Remember too that it is truly said, “A rose without fragrance is a flower without a soul.””

Her appreciation of rose fragrance is not strictly limited to OGRs.  “Crimson Glory” is described as having a damask scent “deep enough to drown in”, and David Austin’s “’Othello’ could give pointers to any red Hybrid Perpetual.”

chevy chase
'Chevy Chase' photo
by John Mattia
In the periodical, “The Rose Rambler”, Lily wrote about the popular old red rambler ’Chevy Chase’.  With the mention of ‘Chevy Chase’ came a discussion of ARS rose classification.  Lily, along with other lovers of ramblers, feels they should not have been reclassified and merged into the hybrid Multiflora and hybrid Wichuriana classes.  “The American Rose Society wants consistency [within its rose classes] but roses are not consistent”.  She also does not care for the way that newly bred roses, if they are bred from OGRs, are classified as OGRs and that conversely some very old roses are just considered shrubs.

As an ARS horticultural judge, Lily had noted that not all of her fellow judges shared her enthusiasm for these older varieties.  She wrote an article for the American Rose Annual in 1984 instructing them in the techniques of judging OGRs.  She concluded with saying:

“The growers of old garden roses do not expect to convert the judges to a preference for their favorite roses, but they are entitled to the same consideration and attention paid to modern roses.  A little appreciation is all you need for these ancestors of our present-day Queen of Show.  Such care and consideration cannot hurt the judge…it might do him some good…and every show would benefit from it.”

(reprinted from the May 2004 Rhode Island Rose Review, Angelina P. Chute. editor)

(Three of  Lily’s American Rose Annual Articles and the heritage Rose Groups article are reprinted on the  website of http://rirs.org under articles)


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