The Garden Spotter

Heirloom Roses: The ‘Seven Sisters’ Story


When we moved into our house in Bath two summers ago, the yard was a tangled mess of old growth and cobwebs. Who knew what lurked beneath.

Gigi, my elderly neighbor, remembered what it was once like. I caught her outside one day, sitting on a low stool, pruning bush roses. She told me the woman who lived in the house many years ago, when Gigi’s children were young, had loved gardening. And Gigi remembered one plant in particular, a rose by the name of ‘Seven Sisters’ that grew in the front of the house near the porch. “Spectacular flower,” Gigi said. Being a rose person, she would know.

As I started to work on our front bed, I found a rose cane lying well hidden below the much overgrown flowering quince. I was hoping it was the long-lost ‘Seven Sisters’ so I promptly purchased a cedar trellis and lifted the cane up off the ground where it could soak up the bright sun and warmth, which roses like. I also very gingerly pruned the plant, and trained it somewhat along the trellis. But disappointingly, no blooms. I thought maybe it would never bloom again.

I thought I’d give it one last shot early this spring. I threw on some new compost, and waited, and waited. At some point I think waiting for the plant to bloom became like watching that metaphorical kettle that will never boil; the rose would never bloom. Or would it? I tried not to look too much.

In June, the buds started to appear, huge clusters along wiry, thorny canes. Rainy days in the early part of the month seemed to slow the progression, but by July 1st, the blooms began to explode like fireworks of red, pink, magenta, and cotton candy.

Hello ‘Seven Sisters.’

At least I think it is the Seven Sisters heirloom rose.  Online accounts describe it as a rose that was brought to America in 1817 from China or Japan and was at one time painted by the French artist Redoute.  It is called Seven Sisters because of its variations in color dependent on the time of bloom. This heirloom rose blooms in large clusters of flowers that range in color from dark purple or magenta through a range of pinks, light and dark, to an almost white.  Like many heirloom roses, Seven Sisters blooms but once a year, after which it can be trimmed or pruned. Most accounts describe it as a very fragrant rose, hardy through Zone 6. (We teeter on Zone 6 here on the southern Maine coast.)

My sense is that Seven Sisters became very popular at one point, and was hybridized to some degree. So what I have in my yard, if it is Seven Sisters, may very well be a later version of the climbing rose. At this point in time, the variation in color is not striking, and the rose has very little fragrance. It seems very happy in the front of the house, where it gets full sun most of the day.

Is it truly the legendary “Seven Sisters” rose of Redoute? I am not sure, and I will likely never know for sure. But thanks to my neighbor Gigi at least I know its relative age, and have learned a little more about old roses.

Sources of heirloom roses in Maine and elsewhere:

Old Sheep Meadow Nursery

North Creek Farm

Heirloom Roses

The Antique Rose Emporium


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