When we moved into our house twenty-five years ago, I remember a low-flowering red rose with several high canes growing along the driveway. I just left it there. The rose turned out to be the climbing rose ‘Excelsa,’ which had a link to the ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose, introduced from England into the American garden in 1893.
In the early twentieth century, summer residences dotted Woods Hole, a seaside town on Cape Cod. City dwellers with money built
sprawling estates on the water that often included a staff for the house and the garden. James Story Fay (1812-1897), a former cotton broker and businessman, hired Michael Walsh, an Irish gardener who had arrived in America in 1868.
While working on the Fay estate, Walsh introduced over fifty roses. He specialized in climbers, including the rose ‘Excelsa’ in 1908. ‘Excelsa’ won the 1914 Gertrude M. Hubbard Gold Medal for the best American rose introduced in the previous five years.
After Fay’s death in 1897, Fay’s daughter Sarah (1855-1938) encouraged Walsh to continue to cultivate his roses. Cape Cod historian Susan Fletcher Witzell wrote in her article “Gardeners and Caretakers of Woods Hole” that by the early twentieth century, the fame of the Fay rose garden attracted visitors from around the country to see the roses at the estate.
Walsh was able to make a business of his climbing roses for himself and for Miss Fay. During the years from 1907 to 1917, Walsh published yearly catalogs of his roses, hydrangeas, and hollyhocks. The roses, especially ramblers, were shipped all over the United Sates and became popular also in England.
Rosa ‘Excelsa’ is a combination of Rosa wichuriana and ‘Crimson Rambler.’ The wichuriana came from Asia and Japan to Europe in the 1890s, and to America in the early 1900s. Stephen Scanniello and Tania Bayard in their book Climbing Roses write that the wichuriana characteristics predominate in the ‘Excelsa.’
The ‘Excelsa’ shines with scarlet-crimson cupped flowers on small, glossy green leaves that remind me of a holly. The flowers turn more pink as the color fades after blooming in late June.
Pruning this rose is not easy because the thorns or prickles are sharp. I try to wear gloves when I prune it. Mine is a low shrub, though the canes can reach several feet high. I grow it in partial shade.
When I first saw this rose on my property I had no idea that it was Walsh’s most famous rose introduction, and, according to garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson who wrote in his Climbing Roses of the World it was an improved version of the old ‘Crimson Rambler.’