Although lilies are the quintessential white flower, roses come a good second and I like white roses. They are an obvious ingredient in a white garden and, in common with other white flowers, the problem is when they age and I am very critical of any white flower that ages to brown which spoils the purity of the show. Ideally white flowers should drop their petals and not hang onto their dying blooms. Somehow it doesn’t matter as much with coloured flowers but it is difficult to tolerate in white flowers.
Fortunately roses are good at dropping their petals, unless wet weather makes them rot or causes pink spotting. ‘Iceberg’ (above) is a deservedly popular rose dating to 1958. It has few thorns and slender growth and loose clusters of pure white, lightly fragrant flowers. It can be prone to blackspot but is worth the effort for a long succession of colour.
I would personally prefer Margaret Merril because of the pretty stamens when the flowers are fully open, and a slight blush of colouring in the semi-open flowers, but even she is surpassed by Jacqueline Du Pre (‘Harwanna’ 1984). This modern shrub rose from Harkness has lightly scented flowers with red and gold stamens and repeats through summer. It is not as disease free as I would like but it is a good grower and very pretty.
There seems to be a theme of poor fragrance going on here – and it is about to get worse as we get to one of my absolute favourite roses – ‘Little White Pet’ (1879) . This is a strange confession to make since the tiny flowers have mini petals that often dry if the weather is fine and then the flowers tend to mummify on the plants, but giving the clusters of blooms a knock as you pass cleans the plants effectively. Pink buds open to creamy white, pompon blooms which have almost no scent. A vigorous, bushy plant with dark leaves and few thorns, large, airy heads of flowers are produced all summer and into autumn. It is good at the front of the border or could be grown in a pot and only reaches about 60cm high and a little more across.
The County series of roses is not as popular now as they were in the 1990s, probably because of the (deserved) domination of the FlowerCarpet series. You probably won’t find them in garden centres but if you look you can still find Avon (‘Poulmuti’ 1992) which is a low, ground cover rose with small, semi double flowers 30cm high and three times as wide. It is disease resistant and, yes, you guessed it, has little scent.
And so we come to Kew Gardens (‘Ausfence’ 2009), a David Austin English Rose that has many unusual features. It has masses of small, single flowers like a ‘wild’ rose but it continues all summer and autumn, rarely gets disease and it is thornless, making a great screen or hedge up to 1.2m high. And perhaps most notably, for a David Austin rose, it has very little scent!
Don’t despair about scent though, there are white roses with scent. If you want something old then try the Rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’. I have posted before about creamy Champagne Moment which has great perfume and I would also recommend The Diamond Wedding Rose (‘Meidiaphaz’).