Could you fall in love with Bad-Girl retro roses?

October 11th, 2015
Posted In: Garden style & living

Why not try what I call ‘Bad-Girl’ retro roses?’

For the past three decades, roses have been romantic, tasteful flowers, tumbling artfully over an arch or sprawling across a wall. They have been grown in discreet, ladylike shades of soft pink and white – very Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West.

Now – maybe – it’s the turn of brash, 1960s/70s Mad Men style retro roses, aka ‘Bad Girl’ hybrid teas.

Harry Wheatcroft roses bad-girl retro

I think this retro rose should probably have been called ‘Gin Rummy’ or ‘Circus Runaway’ rather than ‘Harry Wheatcroft’, but it is named after the extrovert rose grower, who bred many award-winning roses in the 60s and 70s.

I blogged about the communally-gardened West London Bowling Club, where volunteers are clearing the bracken from what were 1970s award-winning rose gardens.

A stripy circus-tent of a rose, with the unlikely name of Harry Wheatcroft’, had survived three decades under a thicket of self-seeded trees and bushes. My daughter, aged 24, was so entranced by its sheer vibrancy that she photographed it and kept it on her phone as a screen-saver saying: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

Harry Wheatcroft retro roses - outrageous and extrovert

‘Harry Wheatcroft’ retro roses emerging from three decades of smoking, drinking and brambles at the West London Bowling Club…

My childhood memories of such roses are the surburban ‘rose beds’ of the 1960s and 70s. These were stiff upright rows of bare-legged bushes in traffic-light shades of yellow, red and shouty pink (or all three together). Underneath the earth was bare and kept strictly weeded.

New generation, different eyes…

But the twenty-somethings of today see these vibrant blooms in a new context.The impact is completely different. My daughter is interested in vegetable gardening – but for her to keep a rose picture as her phone screen-saver shows that these retro roses have the power to engage a new generation of rose-lovers.

Upcycled Chic & Modern Hacks shows how stylish 'retro' is.

One of the interiors in Upcycled Chic & Modern Hacks. My co-author, Liz Bauwens, always instinctively has her finger on the button of emerging style – and I think I spot a vermilion, Bad Girl retro rose in that vase. On its own in a contemporary arrangement, its colours are perfect for retro style.

There’s also a strong interiors trend towards retro. Furniture from the 1960s and 70s is being re-discovered in junk shops or is inherited from elderly relatives. Modern design – as in mid-century modern – is back in young fashionable homes, as Liz Bauwens and I discovered when we did our book ‘Upcycled Chic & Modern Hacks‘ (sorry, shameless book plug). Louder, brighter colours are being used in contemporary ways. Surely gardens will follow?

Stylish tips for upcycling mid-century modern furniture - and the roses to go with it.

The sitting room at the top is from Upcycled Chic & Modern Hacks (Cico), photographed by Simon Brown. The mid-century modern chair and sofa was re-upholstered by writer Penny Rich. Surely 1960s and 70s roses must follow…?

Retro furniture would suit retro roses

In Upcycled Chic, writer Penny Rich has re-upholstered 1950s and 70s retro furniture in zingy colours – it would suit retro roses…

At Hampton Court, I set out to test my theory in the famous Rose Tent, marching up to rose growers with the question: ‘Do you think that 1960s and 70s retro roses in bright colours might be coming back?’

People backed away from me as if I had contracted an infectious disease. ‘Ah, er…’ and ‘um…’ were the most common responses, along with ‘I’ll go and find someone who might know.’

Roses add colour to gardens

Glorious colour in the Hampton Court rose tent – not many Bad Girl Roses, though…

‘Not very good plants’….

When I mentioned ‘Harry Wheatcroft’ as an example of a retro rose that could, possibly, be popular again, one rose grower dropped his voice and murmured: ‘You see, in horticultural terms, these aren’t very good plants.’

Yes! Bad-Girl Roses! These are not roses that sit in drawing rooms making polite conversation about Jane Austen. They’re roses that climb in the bathroom window at 6am having been smoking and drinking all night with unsuitable men.

1960s retro roses

Not a Bad-Girl rose – too tasteful, but this 1960s rose in a neighbour’s garden quite literally flowers all year. Perhaps ‘as tough as old roses’ should replace the phrase ‘as tough as old boots.’

‘Not good’ in horticultural terms, however, he explained, was about resistance to disease and other factors. However any rose that can emerge from three decades under brambles is a pretty tough rose (it probably swore, drank and smoked its way through)

As I walk my elderly dog slowly along the road, local front gardens show some survivors of what were clearly 1960s roses, that are being maintained, in an absent-minded way, by those that inherited them. These retro roses are pretty tough.

Guy's Gold rose from Harkness

A very popular rose from Harkness – Guy’s Gold. The RHS’s 2015 garden trends report identifies gold roses as a design trend.

Rose trends

I also asked the rose growers what roses were popular (very different from fashionable) to see if there were any raucous contenders for Naughty Rose of The Year amongst them. Some of the yellows and variegated ones had a distinct whiff of rebellion about them.

However, the RHS’s 2015 trends report identifies red or gold roses as on the up – ‘designers are breaking up swathes of perennials with strong shapes like yucca. They’re also using stronger colours such as red or gold, especially in roses which are growing in popularity.’ So perhaps I’m not completely on the wrong track.

Tequila Sunrise vibrant rose

A popular rose from Eastcroft Roses even has quite a Bad-Girl name: Tequila Sunrise.

I visited Peter Beales rose gardens in Norfolk to see if I could discover any Bad-Girl Roses. It was September – late in the season – and there was still a good display of blooms. I realised that roses offer a good long season of colour. They don’t just have to be June flowers.

One of the Peter Beales rose advisors said that yellow was emerging strongly as a direction. For example, Summer Sky, Rose of the Year for 2016, is a yellow rose. Its tight, sculpted rose shape is quite retro. I also saw alot of roses planted with dahlias, which I think is a good, colourful – slightly raucous – combination.

Rose of the Year Summer Sky retro roses

‘Summer Sky’ is more sculpted and retro than the romantic, blowsy shapes we’ve been seeing in the last few decades.

Retro roses come in lipstick colours

I’ve just planted my own Bad-Girl Rose. ‘Cheshire Life’ (1972, David Austin) was planted in Posy Gentle’s front garden, probably in the 1970s. I loved its vermilion, lipstick-orange flowers from the moment I saw them. But Posy likes flowers that are ‘the colour of old ladies’ knickers’ (her words).

Plant a Cheshire Life rose amongst dahlias

‘Cheshire Life’ amongst my dahlias.

She dug Cheshire Life up, and gave it to me in a pot this spring.  We pruned it down to a stump with a few twigs sticking out of it. It bounced back with vigour. Having kept it in the pot all summer (on advice), I have just planted it in the dahlia bed. So if your neighbours are re-vamping their gardens and getting rid of their Bad Girl Roses, do swoop down and offer them a home.

'Cheshire Life' rose with dahlias

‘Cheshire Life’ (1972) has been in Posy Gentles’ front garden for about 30 years, and has been uprooted. I love it in the autumn mix.

So what do you think? Are you tired of good taste and soft, romantic roses? Are you ready for the Mad Men world of retro roses – smart, artificial, hard-living and colourful?

Do let me know, and I’d be really chuffed if you share this using the buttons below – thank you.

9 comments on "Could you fall in love with Bad-Girl retro roses?"

  1. Jenny Bracelin says:

    Thank you for championing ‘bad girl’ roses. My ‘new to me’ 1960’s bunglagow is full of them!!

    When one came out with a hedge, I replanted the dead looking stem in a pot, encouraged by you. Now it’s buds are bright orange, opening to a very loud, blousy peach. The whole plant is so healthy I have put it by the front door and am planning my colour scheme around it. Magnificent.

    I look forward to your blog every Sunday, so useful for a novice gardener like me. Thank you.

    1. I’m so glad you haven’t just chucked them all out – I really think that ‘bad girl roses’, otherwise known as ‘hybrid teas’ are due a revival for their outrageous colours and stylish shapes. Whenever I suggest this to a rose grower, they are horrified.

  2. Shirley says:

    I have never had a lot of luck with roses in my garden although I do love them and would dearly love to grow them. I have 2 which I have grown in pots this year with some success, and reading this I am inspired to keep trying as these roses do certainly look stunning.

  3. Shirley says:

    Have just found this blog – lots if interesting info. I never have much luck with roses in my garden, but think that I will give it another try after reading this.some of these roses certainly do look stunning, but it’s just keeping them disease free that I have found to be problematic in the past

  4. Sandy says:

    I love bad girl roses and I have one that falls into that category. I love stripes on roses as well as the more traditional colours. Not sure they would fit into every planting scheme but there is always room for innovation. Great article.

  5. Jo Turner says:

    Always interesting to stretch the boundaries of horticultural ‘good taste’. As long as these roses don’t require masses of chemicals to keep them healthy, it really is a matter of taste. Christopher Lloyd removed the roses at Dixter long before the wild chaotic look in gardens was accepted, and to plant a meadow was definitely suspect. Dixter at present, however, one of the most respected gardens in the world.
    Now that we are more aware of imperilled pollinators and the effects of pesticide use on humans, pets and other creatures, many gardens are opting to follow the ‘right plant, right place’ mantra, which would also apply to which roses to grow. These retro ones sound pretty tough. Funny how each generation looks at the past through their own perspective. Of course, how could it be otherwise?

  6. ‘Fragrant Cloud’ is what you need (and a copy of The Rose Expert 1981). Some wonderful roses for cutting with amazing scent. Ugly as hell in the garden and still to be seen everywhere, actually.

    Love the idea of them – maybe as a kind of ‘spot plant’ in a prairie/meadow garden. Way to go… Xxxx

  7. Lucie says:

    Hmm.. I might take some persuading although I did buy a gorgeous pink and purple rose at Faversham Open Gardens and Market this year. Forgotten it’s name, but it might qualify.

    1. I’ve just had a comment on Twitter from someone saying they weren’t sure how these roses would go with today’s prairie look. Love the thought!

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