In the world of botany, few names are as revered as Graham Stuart Thomas. A man whose lifelong passion for old fashioned roses led him on a four-decade-long quest to save these beautiful blooms from the brink of extinction. His dedication to these roses, their history, and their preservation is a testament to his love for botany and his commitment to preserving the beauty of the past.

Graham Stuart Thomas and Mottisfont Abbey

Thomas's journey began with a deep appreciation for the old roses - Gallicas and Damasks like 'Belle de Crecy’ and 'Mme Hardy’ - that had fallen out of fashion due to their single flowering season. Despite their lack of popularity, Thomas saw their potential, not just for their beauty, but also for their commercial viability. His work at Sunningdale Nurseries in Surrey in the 1960s saw him championing these old roses as a quality product, far superior to the more common Hybrid Teas and Floribundas.

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Rose 'Mme Hardy' or Madame Hardy at Mottisfont Abbey - Damask rose - 1832

In response to the decline of the old fashioned roses, Graham Stuart Thomas began building a collection of them. This was a lifelong passion - he spent nearly forty years in search of rose varieties that had become very rare, and saved many from extinction. He visited great historic gardens and began to hunt for forgotten roses, using his connections and friendships to ask for cuttings or sections of root that he would then patiently grow on and study. By examining the formation of the bloom, the shape of the foliage, the prickles and the 'hip' or 'hep' produced after flowering, Thomas was able to identify roses long thought lost, and to cultivate them once more.

His dedication to these roses led him to collect them from all corners of the globe, trialling them and selecting the best for British conditions. His book, The Old Shrub Roses, first published in 1955, has become one of the most popular rose gardening books of all time, constantly reprinted and updated, and a testament to his love for the vintage roses.

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Mottisfont Abbey - Walled garden

When the time came for Thomas to retire, he sought a place to preserve his collection of old roses. His search led him to Mottisfont Abbey, a National Trust property in Hampshire. Here, within the old brick walls of a handsome walled kitchen garden, Thomas was given permission to create a new formal garden to house his collection.

The garden, which opened in 1974, was designed to celebrate the beauty of old roses. It was laid out in such a way that visitors could study and compare the different varieties, interplanted with herbaceous plants to show off the roses in mixed plantings. Today, the garden attracts over 150,000 visitors a year, with nearly 60,000 visiting during the high season of June alone.

Among Thomas's greatest rediscoveries are the Four Seasons rose, grown by the Romans, and the only rose known to have existed 2000 years ago that flowered again in the autumn. He also re introduced to the british gardens such old roses as Officianalis, the apothecary's rose, Rosamundi, 'Madame Hardy' and 'Charles de Mills', all supreme in terms of the volume of their blooms or the quality of their fragrance.

Charles de Mills at Mottisfont Abbey - Gallica Rose - Pre 1746

Thomas said that it was usually the best roses that survived - they were so stunning that their owners had loved them and tended them, even if they no longer knew their names.

Graham Stuart Thomas's work with old fashioned roses has left a lasting legacy. His dedication to preserving these beautiful blooms has ensured that they will continue to be enjoyed by future generations. His garden at Mottisfont Abbey stands as a testament to his love for these roses, a place where visitors can experience the beauty of these old fashioned roses and appreciate the work that went into preserving them.

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Mottisfont Abbey - Graham Stuart Thomas's rose garden

Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses

Surprisingly, not all of Graham Stuart Thomas's favorite roses can be found in his signature rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey, as he listed in his article for the HRS Rose Magazine. However, this does not detract from the rose experience. You will still find many other fantastic old rose varieties in the garden, as well as some of the roses he mentioned as his favorites.

If you're interested in knowing Graham Stuart Thomas's favorite roses, here is the list of them.

1. Gallica Roses - Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses:

  - Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ Known for its light crimson color and historical significance.

  - 'Versicolor’ (Rosa Mundi): A striped sport of ‘Officinalis’ with pale pink striping.

  - ‘Tricolore de Flandres’: Noted for its murrey and grey tints.

  - ‘Belle de Crécy’: Soft tints from warm cerise to pale lilac-grey, well-scented.

  - ‘Du Maïtre d’École’: Large, fully double flowers, intense cerise-pink fading to grey and lilac.

  - ‘President de Seze’ and ‘Gloire de France’: Close runners-up to ‘Du Maïtre d’École’.

  - ‘Assemblage de Beautes’, ‘Surpasse Tout’, and ‘Duc de Guiche’: Vivid cerise-crimson, magenta-tinted flowers.

2. Damask Roses - Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses:

  - ‘Madame Hardy’: Incomparable for its perfection of tints and shape.

  - ‘Madame Zoëtmans’: Preferred for smaller gardens.

  - ‘Celsiana’: Lax habit, well-depicted by Redoute.

  - ‘Comtesse de Chambord’: Repeats flowering until autumn, well-shaped and fragrant.

  - ‘Indigo’: Murrey-colored, repeats well, sturdy bush.

Old Rose Indigo at the Mottisfont Abbey - Portland 1830

3. Alba Roses - Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses:

  - R. alba ‘Maxima’: Creamy white, fully double, well-scented.

  - R. alba ‘Semi plena’: The White Rose of York, with a fine show of heps in autumn.

  - ‘Celeste’: Pure soft pink, greyish leaves, shapely bud and open flower.

  - ‘Königin von Danemarck’: Intense cerise-pink, greyish leaves, shapely double flowers.

  - ‘Félicité Parmentier’: Exquisite for smaller gardens.

Old Rose 'Königin von Danemarck’ at the Mottisfont Abbey

4. Centifolia Roses - Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses:

  - R. centifolia: The original, with nodding, globular flowers.

  - ‘Cristat’ (‘Chapeau de Napoléon’) and ‘Bullata’: Forms of R. centifolia with gracious poise.

  - ‘Petite de Hollande’: More compact variant.

  - ‘Fantin Latour’: Superlative pink rose, pure pink shapely blooms, fragrant.

  - ‘Tour de Malakoff’: Huge loose blooms with shades of pink, crimson, purple, and murrey.

5. Moss Roses - Graham Stuart Thomas's Favourite Roses:

  - Common Moss: Clear soft pink, well-scented, lax open growth.

  - ‘Gloire des Mousseux’: Preferred for its clear pink blooms.

  - ‘General Kleber’: Upstanding bush with clear pink blooms.

  - ‘William Lobb’: Rich purple fading to soft parma violet, giant grower.

  - ‘Capitaine John Ingram’ and ‘Nuits de Young’: Compact bushes with extra dark blooms.

If you're curious about the source of his favourite roses list, it comes from the article "My Favourite Roses by Graham Stuart Thomas," published in the HRS Rose Magazine.