China roses by Martyn Rix

The name Rosa chinensis was given by Jacquin to a cultivated Chinese rose in 1768. Jacquin’s drawing is very feeble, showing a single stem and a bud, but with the characteristic small, acuminate leaflets, and close to ‘Semperflorens’.

Later the name came to refer to two of Hurst’s Stud Chinas, ‘Old Blush’ syn. ‘Parson’s Pink’, a strong bush with branching beads of pink flowers and ‘Semperflorens’, syn. ‘Slater’s Crimson China’, a dwarf with more solitary dark red flowers. Low-growing hybrids derived from these two species became known as Chinas, distinguishing them from the larger, more tender, Teas derived from ‘Parks’ Yellow’ and ‘Hume’s Blush’.

Wild Rosa chinensis was not known in the west until Augustine Henry found it flowering in San-yu-tung glen near lchang in western Hubei. Henry arrived in Hong Kong in 1881, and travelled up the Yantze to the customs post at Ichang the following March.

Henry describes the glen as a narrow ravine, entering the Yantze from the north; San-yu-tung, the cave of the three pilgrims, was the site of a temple near the junction with the main river, and the ledges on the limestone cliffs here were covered with Primula rupestris, possibly an ancestor of the cultivated P. sinensis , which flowered in December and January. Henry probably collected both the primula and the rose in the spring of 1883.

A drawing of Henry’s specimens was published in The Gardener’s Chronicle in 1902, but the wild plant was not formally described until 1916, as forma spontanea (Rehder & Wilson in Rehder’s Plantae Wilsonianae) E. H. Wilson found fruiting plants in north-western Sichuan in 1910, but either did not collect seed, or else the seed he collected did not germinate; as he found the plants in July and August, the seeds were probably unripe.

No reports of the rose being seen again appear until 1983, when it was found by the Japanese botanist Mikinori Ogisu, at 1700m (560Oft) near Leibo in SW Sichuan, flowering in May. This collection from SW Sichuan is now well established in cultivation in England and South Africa. It is a once – and very early – flowering rambler with usually solitary flowers which open pink from red buds, soon becoming all dark red in sun and heat. Here in Devon I have grown it in the greenhouse, where it has thrived and flowered freely, and it has also done well in several gardens in SE England.

Mikinori Ogisu has since found var. spontanea in other parts of western Sichuan, both near the base of Mount Omei, where it generally grows at low altitudes below 1000m (330Oft) and flowers very early in the spring in March or April, and further north, not far from the localities mentioned by Wilson.

In May 1983 he showed Roger Phillips and myself a remarkable population near Ping-wu. Large bushes were spread across the scrub-covered hills around a pass at 1400m (450Oft), and lower down scrambled into trees; the flower colours ranged from a dark crimson, red or pink to buff, pink with a dark eye and creamy white with a pink edge through to nearly pure white; the plants both climbing high into trees with Rosa banksiae, and forming arching shrubs in the open.

The flowers are always borne singly on a short shoot from the main stem. In village gardens nearby were roses very similar to the pink ‘Old Blush’, the very pale ‘Hume’s Blush’ and the crimson ‘Semperflorens’, and one local rose lover was growing a plant of the wild China as well as some modern Hybrid Teas, which he showed off with pride.

Seedlings from the Ping-wu population have now reached flowering size, and it will be interesting to see if they are significantly different in colour from the Leibo collection. At least the potential for different colours should be present in the four seedlings. The plants are evergreen and very hardy.

Apart from doing well in an unheated greenhouse, the wild China will make a fine tall shrub on a sunny wall. It should also become a large self-supporting shrub in grass, with stout arching branches set with upright, cup-shaped flowers. It starts flowering early, but continues for at least a month.

Most village gardens in China contain plants of cultivated roses, and some of them appear to be the same as those first imported to Europe in the 18th century. Several of the Chinese garden roses of the period are illustrated in the Reeves’ drawings, painted in Canton around 1800, and now in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London; these very accurate drawings form a valuable record of what other Chinese roses were likely to have come to Europe around that time.

‘Semperflorens’, or ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ as we grow it in Europe, was seen among other roses in the garden of the Sluice keeper’s in Ping-wu. Hurst regarded this almost sterile rose as a pure descendent of wild R. chinensis , sterile because it is a triploid. It is known in China as the Monthly rose, the name written on the Reeves drawing of that variety. ‘Wilmott’s Crimson’, a smaller but similar rose is the diploid of this, and is known in China as ‘Pearl in the Red Dragon’s Mouth’.

We saw other red-flowered shrubby Chinas, more robust and in villages, and some showed the colour change from pink to red, characteristic of other old Chinas such as ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’. Many semi-climbing red-flowered roses were found in several temple gardens on and around Mount Omei. These were seldom in proper beds, but usually climbed into trees or grew in hedges. Many had white streaks on their inner petals and were very like the rambling China ‘Fellemberg’ syn. ‘La Belle Marseillaise’.

Pink-flowered Chinas were also common; a single one, similar to ‘Single Pink China’ was seen in the garden of a restaurant in central Chengdu, still flowering freely in October; its flowers also deeper in colour after opening. Double-flowered varieties similar to ‘Old Blush’ were seen in several villages in Sichuan, and a recent article in The Rose , Christmas 1998, shows very similar ones from Fujian (Fokien). These repeat-flowering China roses usually have branched heads of flowers, which raises the question as to whether ‘Old Blush’ and the double-flowered China-type roses are old hybrids with the repeat-flowering Rosa multiflora, and not pure repeat-flowering sports of wild R .chinensis.

European rose breeders, especially those in France, soon sowed seeds from the Chinese roses and produced new varieties, which fed the rose craze initiated by the Empress Josephine and recorded by Redouté. The distinction between the Teas and the China soon became blurred; the smaller-flowered roses generally being called Chinas, in spite of having the buff and very pale colours associated with the Teas.

Around 20 so-called Chinas are available in England at present. All are worth growing for their interest, and several are found in nearly every collection. They are particularly long in flower, good in warm, damp weather, and easy to raise from cuttings. They do need rich soil and careful cultivation to grow well, and can then be lightly pruned and grown up into large bushes which will continue to flower until Christmas. The notes which follow show how interest in breeding Chinas continued throughout the 19th century, though it reached its peak in about 1840.

The red Chinas are closest to the original ‘Semperflorens’. ‘Cramoisi Superieur’ and its climbing form are like larger versions of the originals, with broader, more coarsely toothed leaflets. It was raised by a M Coquereau at la Maître Ecole near Angers in 1832, and said to be a seedling of ‘Slater’s Crimson’. ‘Fellemberg’ is similar, but looser and smaller-flowered; it was raised by Fellemberg in 1835. It is particularly free-flowering, and often shows streaking with white in the flower.

‘Gloire des Rosomanes’ is another similar rose, raised by M Plantier in Lyon in 1825. In California it used to be used as an understock, and was called ‘Ragged Robin’, so it appears in old gardens. It is tall-growing, to 4.5m (15ft), and has a long flowering season and good scent.

‘Louis XIV’ is a very different and distinct rose, with its flat flowers of deepest crimson, becoming almost black. I grew it for a few years, then gave it to a lady who admired it. It proved especially susceptible to blackspot, unlike true Chinas, in wet Devon, and did best indoors in a large pot. It has some of the characteristics of a Hybrid Perpetual in its habit.

‘Duke of York’ I have never seen, but it is described as rosy-pink to deep red and white; it was raised by William Paul in 1894. If the flowers are pink in shade, turning to red in sun, as I suspect, this is the true China-type colour change, as is seen also in ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’, a China of unknown breeding, named in 1928. Sophie was the Countess Beckendorf, wife of the last czarist Ambassador in London.

We saw roses with just this colour change in a temple near Lijiang. ‘St Priest de Breuze’, raised by Desprez in 1838, is another with similar colour, unknown to me, but available from Peter Beales. An even earlier double, showing the colour change was ‘Bengale Centfeuilles’ raised, or at least listed by Noisette in 1804; the flower was said to open light pink and end up dark maroon.

In the so called ‘Sanguinea’ group, the flowers are single, red in summer but pink in cold weather. ‘Bengal Crimson’ (or ‘Single Red China’) is a fine plant which can make a large shrub, which it does in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, or even a climber on a wall. It flowers nearly all the time, and has quite large flowers perhaps almost 9cm (3.5in) across. ‘Miss Lowe’ is similar but smaller, remaining dwarf to about 0.6m (2ft). Miss Lowe, of Wimbledon, was a friend of E. A. Bowles.

The second group of Chinas are those allied to ‘Old Blush’, also called ‘Pallida’, or ‘Parson’s Pink’. Various improvements on this theme appeared during the 19th century. ‘Hermosa’ has fuller, more globular flowers, and some authorities have considered it a Bourbon, a hybrid between ‘Old Blush’ and the Bourbon ‘Mme Desprez’. It was raised by a M Marcheseau in 1834.

Near Paris, at Malmaison, we found a deeper pink rose, its flowers nodding in the rain, called ‘Bengale d’Automne’ or ‘Rosier des Indes’; it is recorded as a Laffay creation, in 1825. That horror ‘Viridiflora’ is said to come from here, a sport or diseased version of ‘Old Blush’.

Of all the cultivated roses , climbing ‘Pompom de Paris’ seems to me closest to the wild China, in its small, acuminate leaflets and early flowering. Its origin is not recorded, but it has been known since 1839. At the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley it grew through a Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’ below the window of the pathology laboratory, and the two flowered together in April.

‘Papa Hemerey’ is an unusual hybrid, the rambler ‘Hiawatha’ crossed with ‘Parson’s Pink’ to give a remontant rose with clusters of small, single flowers. It was raised in 1912. ‘Lady Stuart’ listed sometimes as a China, seems closer to the Hybrid Perpetuals, with its large, pale flowers with a deeper centre.

‘Mme Laurette Messimy’ (1887) and ‘Comtesse du Cayla’, raised by Guilot in 1902, share the same parentage, said to be (‘Rival de Paestum’ x ‘Mme Falcot) x ‘Mme Falcot’. This makes them two thirds Tea and a third an unusual pale China. ‘Rival de Paestum’ is a small, almost white rose, often classed as a Tea, so by parentage both should perhaps be classed Teas.

In ‘Comtesse du Cayla’ the leaves are bronzy, the flowers coppery orange and pink, reddening as they age, especially in full sun. Its scent is also reported to be good, not usually a characteristic of Chinas; the flowers are semi-double and open rather flat. ‘Mme Laurette Messimy’ is paler, pinkish with yellow centre, and loose, quilled petals.

‘Le Vésuve’, raised by Laffay in 1825, is one of the loveliest of all old roses with long buds and flowers of exceptionally beautiful shape, mainly pink, but with red and orange flushes in hot weather. Its parentage does not seem to be recorded, but its thorny stems are closer to Teas than to pure Chinas.

Last, but by no means least, comes ‘Mutabilis’. This appeared in Italy (and its history there is recorded by Helene Pizzi in the Autumn 1998 issue of this journal), but it is almost certainly an old Chinese rose, and Mikinori Ogisu has told me that he has seen it in a garden in China. Its colour change links it with the Chinas, its large, floppy flowers with R. gigantea , so it may well be an old hybrid between China and Tea. Perhaps, in a short time some of these questions will be answered by studies of DNA.

Dickerson, Brent C. The Old Rose Advisor Timber Press 1992
Pim, Sheila. The Wood and the Trees, A Biography of Augustine Henry Macdonald 1966
Rehder, A. Plantae Wilsonianae vol 2. Reprinted 1988. Timber Press.
Thomas, C. S. The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book . Timber Press 1994.

Martyn Rix has travelled widely as a botanist and plant collector. He is the author of many books and articles including several on roses.

This article appeared in the Spring 1999 issue