The best roses for foliage

There comes a time in late April, early May, when the tulips have just gone over, and the poppies and peonies have yet to burst their buds, when fresh foliage is the most beautiful thing in the garden.

The new rose foliage catches the light, so that the whole garden twinkles.

My favourite roses are English roses, bred by David Austin. This is not only because they have beautiful blooms with the scent of old roses. It is also because they almost always have a lovely round growth habit and lush foliage. There is also a wide variety of foliage colours.

‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ has the darkest maroon foliage of all the English roses I grow (it also has the most deliciously scented and beautiful warm pinkish-apricot blooms. You can see them in this post).

English rose ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ (foliage)

You can see how full and rounded the shrubs become. I grow my roses in groups of three. I plant them in a triangular pattern, 90-100cm apart. Within two years, the gaps between them are filled, and they look like one generous shrub. Growing three shrubs together means that you have a profusion of blooms. You have plenty to cut for the house, and plenty to enjoy in the garden.

Foliage of English rose ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’

In contrast, the English rose ‘Roald Dahl’ is perfectly green. This variety also has a beautiful rounded and full growth habit. I also love English roses because they are very disease-resistant. Rarely are they touched by blackspot. They tend to retain this fullness of form for the whole summer.

‘Roald Dahl’ and ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ are rarely without flower from June to October, and so this is the only time of year that their foliage is their best feature.

English roses ‘Roald Dahl’ (centre) and ‘Jubilee Celebration’ (foreground)

The new leaves of some varieties of English rose are flushed with red. ‘Young Lycidas’ is a good example. The leaves mature to green, so you get layers of growth. The top shoots are red, and lower layers are green.

Foliage of English rose ‘Young Lycidas’

Some varieties have a fine red edging around their leaves. ‘Boscobel’ is a good example. I love the way the red outlines the fine-toothed edging.

Foliage of English rose ‘Boscobel’

The English rose ‘Benjamin Britten’ has foliage which is freshest green, tipped with vermillion. You can see the delicacy of this foliage. It is perhaps at its most beautiful just before the flower buds form (you can see it in flower here).

Foliage of the English rose ‘Benjamin Britten’

A variety which is perfect for the back of the garden is ‘Thomas a Becket’. It gets tall; mine is taller than me; and the flowering shoots will elegantly bend over when laden with bloom. For now I am enjoying the towering peaks of the shoots. Its orange tips are picked up by Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’.

Foliage of English rose ‘Thomas a Becket’ with Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’

As well as David Austin English roses, my rose garden also contains two gallica roses, ‘Tuscany Superb’ and ‘Sissinghurst Castle’ and a Rosa rugosa hybrid called ‘Hansa’.

I love gallica and rugosa rose foliage too. Rather than being glossy, like many hybrid tea roses, it is matt green, a little bit wrinkled and crinkled, like crepe paper, and slightly translucent. The light shines through it, giving it luminosity. Gallica and rugosa roses look healthy and vibrant from spring through summer and into autumn.

Foliage of rugosa rose ‘Hansa’

This is my Rosa rugosa hedge in the vegetable garden. You can see how fresh the foliage is. The flower buds are just developing. They are protected by a nest of new foliage at the tip of each shoot.

Rosa rugosa foliage.

I love to grow peonies alongside roses. The peony foliage is spectacular at this time of year. It bursts out of the ground, full of energy. Intersectional peonies have the best foliage of all. It looks to me like its leaves have been precision-cut. These will provide a sculptural feature in the garden for the rest of the year, long after the peony has finished flowering.

Intersectional Peony ‘Watermelon Wine’ with Gallica rose ‘Sissinghurst Castle’ behind.

The poppies and peonies will be here soon.

For now, I will sit here drinking my coffee, appreciating the twinkling from the rose foliage.

It is a lovely time of year.

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26 Comments Add yours

  1. Sally says:

    Thank you for your lovely telling of your roses and peony’s they are my favourite flowers in the garden but I can only grow them in pots as my soil
    Is to dry and stony but it’s better than not having any roses at all.

    1. That’s a good solution. I only realised recently that peonies are happy in pots; I always assumed they were too greedy for a pot.

  2. One of the things I love about reading your posts is that I get to learn all the names for these plants and flowers, and I love how create and colorful the names are. I forgot to mention this in one of your past posts, but I loved it that a brilliant, blood-red flower was called Thomas a Becket. And I love it that there are English Roses called Ronald Dahl and Lady Emma Hamilton. These names make me feel like your garden is populated by all these very interesting people from different time periods, which makes it feel like even more of an enchanted place than it already was.

    1. Hi Shelly, yes, the David Austin roses often have literary associations, and it is even harder to resist a variety if you feel a strong pull to the person! Roald Dahl and William Shakespeare 2000 were definitely like this. And sometimes you find out about a person because you love the rose, which was the case with Lady Emma Hamilton.

      1. I love this! How creative, and it feels like an adventure–both walking amongst flowers named after folks and also finding out who all the folks are.

  3. Always a pleasure to read your posts and virtually visit your gardens!

    1. Thank you Carol; it is lovely to have you here. I hope you and your family are safe and managing lockdown.

  4. That spring-green glowing foliage is really beautiful. Aren’t we lucky to be locked down during this wonderful season!

    1. Absolutely. I keep thinking that; it would have been so much harder if all this happened in autumn or winter.

  5. Heyjude says:

    Your rose posts are poetic. Love the freshness of the leaves and the different colours. I wish I had a bigger garden to plant in threes!

    1. Thank you, Jude. Yes, it is a bit of an indulgence. In my previous small garden, I still planted in 3s, but just grew three varieties (a gallica rose, ‘Charles de Mills’, which I grow now, an English rose ‘L.D Braithwaite’, and a modern climber ‘Warm Welcome’.) They were very coddled!

      1. Heyjude says:

        I can’t think of a better way to indulge oneself than a large garden 🙂

  6. Anna says:

    I bought ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ last year as a bare root plant last year after reading about her here and on other blogs 😄 She is still small but the new foliage is indeed most beautiful. My favourite rose for foliage is the wild rose – rosa glauca.

    1. Ah, that is lovely to know, Anna. Yes, rosa glauca is stunning, isn’t it? I love the diversity of roses.

  7. Ann Mackay says:

    Your roses look wonderfully healthy. Love that red line around the edge of the Boscobel leaf – it’s a lovely detail.

    1. Isn’t it? I am glad that I planted it near the seating area so that I can admire it more easily.

  8. Ali, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tribute to rose foliage before, and it is exquisite. I love rose foliage in the spring and your photos are fresh and gorgeous.

    1. Ah, thank you Lynn! That is such a lovely comment to read.

  9. Cathy says:

    Yes, I have been admiring it here too, Ali and I knew Lady Em would be the first one you mentioned! Interestingly, she seems to be the only one of mine that is not in bud…

    1. Same here! I can’t remember noticing this before. It is amazing me how quickly the buds are developing. And my Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ has literally made flower buds in a day today. They weren’t there this morning. I LOVE SPRING!!!

      1. Cathy says:

        But I have found buds on it today, Ali! I have had a half-open ‘Olivia Rose Austin’ for several days and can’t decide whether to say that is my first to open, or the much smaller Rural England rambler which has a couple of fully open flowers today. There is something new each time I ramble round and several things doing really well that have never done so before – definitely an Exciting Time, and I know you agree.

      2. I am with you there, Cathy. ‘Young Lycidas’ and ‘Princess Anne’ have been joint first in my garden. Rosa rugosa has also started. Oh, the scent! I think it might be my favourite smell. It has so many layers.

  10. It looks like you’re going to be in for an abundance of roses this spring and summer. Is there any more glorious sight than a mass of roses in bloom?

    1. Oh Cindy, you are so right. Just the thought of it gives me a thrill. La la la! 😍🤸🏽‍♀️

  11. Oksana says:

    Hi Ali, thanks for another lovely post. I have some of these Austins in my garden and they are in buds now! Have you come across Rosa glauca rubrifolia? It has the most beautiful cool green, almost blue leaves with red veins. It is also great for foliage.

    1. Hi Oksana, I have come across Rosa glauca in other gardens and another reader recommended it to me. It is beautiful, and such an unusual blue-green. Thank you for recommending it; I will certainly seek it out and enjoy it when I come across it again.

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