Repeat flowering old roses part II by Peter Harkness

The true heralds of the age of repeat-flowering roses are the Chinas. And by now the story has moved well into their era. Indeed, as early as 1529 what, according to Graham Thomas, appears to be a pink China rose was depicted by the Florentine painter Angelo Bronzino, but as far as anyone knows it played no part in the development of modem roses.

Charles Quest-Ritson has helpfully drawn my attention to a tantalising reference in Flora ovvero Cultura di Fiori, published in Siena in 1638, to “a rose that produces flowers every month”, and it would be fascinating to know what that was.

It is, however, generally accepted that the pink China rose which transformed the world’s roses came to Europe via Sweden in 1752. The first mention in England I know of comes in 1771, when William Malcolm included in his nursery list ‘Evergreen Chine’ and ‘a new Chine’. Seven years later he added a botanical name for the first one, Rosa indica, Indica in this context in fact meaning China.

The names Indica and Bengal, long used in Europe to denote new roses from the east, serve as reminders of the vital intermediate role played by the staff of the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta m this formative period of rose history, in providing skilled care for plants brought to them, in transit so to speak, from China and elsewhere.

The first mention of ‘Parsons’ Pink China’ in England refers to 1793, when it was being grown at Rickmansworth, in the garden of Mr Parsons, of course. Such was its impact that by 1823 it was said to be “in every cottage garden”. From now on, when you ordered ‘Monthly Roses’, you would expect to receive, not ‘Autumn Damask’, but ‘Parsons’ Pink China’ or one of its near relations The Chinas revolutionised the garden appeal of the rose, bringing not only an unprecedentedly long flowering period, but new colours and forms also.

‘Slater’s Crimson China’, known also as R. chinensis semperflorens, was, as mentioned in Part I, in England by 1791, grown by Gilbert Slater of Leytonstone, and it was a sensation due to the rich deep scarlet colour. It was long thought lost, but a mystery rose in Bermuda known there as ‘Belfield’ from the property it grows on was noted by Richard Thomson in 1953, and is believed to be the true ‘Slater’s Crimson China’.

China roses tend to naturalise themselves in Bermuda and on a visit in 1979 I was shown another mystery rose named ‘Spice’. Could it, I wondered, be the long lost China rose ‘Hume’s Blush Tea-Scented’, first recorded in the west in my own county of Hertfordshire in 1809? Future genetic testing will, one hopes, throw more light on the matter.

The fourth of these ‘stud’ Chinas, so called because of their genetic impact in the years ahead, was ‘Parks’ Yellow Tea-Scented’, which arrived in 1824. I have my doubts whether the rose currently claimed to be ‘Parks’ Yellow’ is correct.

There is an elusive rose called R. chinensis spontanea, which is believed to be the species from which many Chinese garden roses sprang. It was seen in 1884 and 1910 but not botanically recorded again until 1983, by the Japanese botanist Mikinori Ogisu. Phillips and Rix had the great joy of seeing it in the early 1990s when preparing The Quest for the Rose. Although it only has one period of flower, seedlings from it are reported to yield repeat flowering dwarf forms. This resembles the behaviour of seedlings of the once flowering multiflora ramblers raised in France in the 1870s, which led on to the Polyanthas, Floribundas and many modem shrubs.

Among others from China let us not forget a climber which does repeat its flower. It is R. bracteata, alias the ‘Macartney Rose’, brought back in the 1790s after a government mission to the Chinese Emperor, and said to be the only fruitful outcome of that mission. It is repeat flowering but does not thrive in Britain, and proved reluctant to pass on its genes until William Paul succeeded with ‘Mermaid’ over a century later.

Two roses that have already featured give rise to the next item in our story. A rice farmer of Charleston, S. Carolina, named John Champneys, around the years 1802-5 found in his garden a chance seedling, thought to be a cross between R. moschata and a pink China bush rose, which if not ‘Parsons’ Pink’ was something very like it.

A seedling from this union bore sprays of prettily formed flowers of blush pink with a hint of violet, on plants which in the mild climate grew readily, forming, with support, a climber. It became known as ‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster’. Some say it repeats its flower, others not, and perhaps it depends on the climate where it is growing, or maybe the original rose produced self-pollinated seed from which a repeat-flowering seedling grew.

Noisette roses

This certainly happened when one of his friends, Philippe Noisette, sowed seeds of it. One seedling was whitish pink, scented and repeat-flowering. It was compact in growth, but if the gardener was patient it could be trained to clothe a pillar to excellent effect. A repeat-flowering pillar rose was a wonderful novelty.

Philippe Noisette sent this item, which he labelled ‘Blush’, with other seedlings to his brother Louis, one of France’s leading horticulturalists, who received the material in 1814. Philippe also supplied stock to Jacques Durand of Rouen. Louis was the first to exploit its potential, and introduced this new strain as ‘Le Rosier de Philippe Noisette’, soon shortened to ‘Blush Noisette’ and ‘Noisette’.

‘Champney’s Pink Cluster’ was also forwarded from the USA to France and England, and further seedlings were raised from it. Such was the interest that only ten years after the introduction of these roses, a hundred Noisettes derived from them were on sale. As well as their repeat flowering ability and vigorous growth, Noisettes are treasured for their beauty and scent, and the attractive silky texture of the petals.

An early favourite, still grown today, is ‘Lamarque’, a beauty of 1830. Their remontancy and colour range were soon extended by the infusion of further China rose genes, and also those of Tea roses, resulting in a spread of white, cream, buff, yellow, apricot, pink and crimson forms.

As a class the Noisettes were and remain ill-defined, for whether or not a rose is a Noisette has always been a matter of consensual judgement based more on appearance than anything else, and some varieties have, as Jack Harkness put it, “dodged from Noisette to Tea and back again”.

The most beautiful survive and are with us still, and their predominantly light colours cause them to stand out in the garden and appear especially lovely in the evening light. In warm climates they excel, giving richer colour, extra bloom and greater vigour, well deserving the Frenchman Vibert’s judgement that “Nature has given the Noisettes a liberality without precedent”.

What else?

An important rose appeared in a royal garden in France, remarkable for its rich red colour and long period of flower. Named ‘Rose du Roi’ after Louis XVIII, it is considered the forerunner of the Hybrid Perpetuals, of which the red ‘Général Jacqueminot’ is a fine example and a prolific progenitor in its own right.

‘Rose du Roi’ may well lie behind reddish Hybrid Chinas like ‘Cramoisi Supérieur’ and ‘Louis-Philippe’. The name of this last reminds us that from the 1820s onwards there developed a fashion for giving roses names with royal connections, which got rather out of hand as may be judged from these examples: ‘Souvenir du Voyage de Sa Majeste la Reine d’Angleterre’ ‘Souvenir de la Princesse Alexandra Swiatopolk Czetwertinski’ ‘Souvenir des Fiancailles de la Princesse Stephanie du Pays-Bas et de l’Archiduc Rodolphe’.

Yet another new rose class came from the unlikely source of a remote island in the Indian Ocean, which had been annexed by the French in 1638, and proclaimed Ile de Bourbon to honour the royal house. The island proved admirably suited, thanks to fertile soil and a reasonable climate, to the cultivation of two particular rose varieties, which were often planted to form a double hedge around the fields. One is described as “the common ‘China Rose’” and the other was named ‘Tous-les-Mois’, a red rose with clusters of fairly full petalled flowers, and, as the name tells us, a long period of flower.

One day in the early 19th century, as Monsieur Perichon was planting out his hedge of the China Rose and ‘Tous-les-Mois’ on his estate of St. Benoit, he came across a plant “very different from the others in its shoots and foliage”. He took it home and put it in his garden, where it grew on and was later acclaimed the first of the Bourbon Roses.

As with the Noisettes, the Bourbons were eagerly multiplied by French raisers, and became very popular in the later 19th century. At the Caria Fineschi Foundation in Cavriglia, Professor Fineschi currently holds 78 Bourbon varieties, giving the lie to a premature death certificate issued by George Paul in 1914: “The Bourbons are almost a dying race, and will probably be absorbed by the Hybrid Perpetuals and the Hybrid Teas, so that while they must be retained for the present, the family will not long survive.”

Further repeat-flowerers deserving of mention are the Perpetuals, such as ‘Stanwell Perpetual’, the later Portlands such as ‘Jacques Cartier’ and ‘Comte de Chambord’ (which some claim are actually ‘Marquise Boccella’ and ‘Madame Knorr’), and the lost class of miniature Lawrenceanas, though, thanks to the survivals of ‘Oakington Ruby’ and ‘Rouletii’, doubtless our modem Miniatures do descend from them.

Finally we come to that serendipitous oddity, ‘Mutabilis’. Of all the roses in our Hertfordshire garden, ‘Mutabilis’ is my wife’s favourite, and the “unsolved mystery” of its origin was fascinatingly investigated in the Autumn 1998 journal of the Historic Roses Group. As I mentioned earlier, one is hopeful that DNA testing in the years ahead may reveal many secrets about the evolution of these and other roses which are hidden from us today.

This article appeared in the Spring 2002 issue.

Part I of this article (HRG Journal Autumn 2001) discussed the possible contributions to repeat flowering of R. moschata and the ‘Autumn Damask’ as well as the origins of the Portland roses.

← Repeat-flowering roses Part I