At the end of the eighteenth century, as China Roses were prominently
introduced to the West, there was a great revolution in the world of
roses. The arrival of the China Roses changed the rose world profoundly. There are many
poignant changes that occurred with the introduction of the China
A China gene is thought to be responsible for repeatability of
bloom. Up until their introduction, the only cultivated roses with any repeat
bloom were the Autumn Damasks. The increased productivity of bloom
was greatly prized in the gene pool.
The Chinas brought another dimension to the color range
in roses. The Chinas have a unique aspect of defying the color
principles commonplace with roses before that time. They have the
unusual characteristic of darkening with age. Most of the roses up
until that time faded with age. A China Rose may open yellow, then
blend to crimson through gradations of orange and pink. This is the
case with 'Mutabilis'. The Chinas broadened the color range to include
shades of yellow and a deep crimson that were not known to European
garden roses before that time.
The China Roses broadened the scents of roses. New blends
became apparent when the Chinas hybridized with other roses. In A
Fragrant Year, Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell, state that Chinas are vaguely
scented on their own. They remark that they are able to detect the
fragrance of nectarine in 'Old Blush'. They go on further to say that
'Old Blush' gave a pepper smell to some of its offspring; in
others a fruity smell was heightened. They believe that 'Parson's
Pink' and 'Slater's Crimson China' had little scent. The
mating with European fragrances produced a pronounced fruity bouquet, notably
nectarine or raspberry, that can be found in the Bourbons.
The China Rose brought a change to the form of the flower.
The high centered exhibition rose owes its form to the China genes.
The China Roses also brought the rose world slender buds that unfurl when opening.
The China Roses have a mysterious origin. Although there is no evidence of how
they were developed, they are the product of a rich culture of ingenious
people. They were not seen in art before the tenth century, were not a
part of mythology, and little is known of their history. What we do know is
that they were cultivated for many centuries in China; however, the Chinese
did not prize the rose as they did the chrysanthemum, which appears in
their art from long times past.
Our cultivated plants are usually small (an exception is 'Mutabilis'), although the
wild variety Rosa chinensis var. spontanea is described as big,
sprawling, and like a climbing rose. Our cultivated plants are somewhat lax,
airy, twiggy and sparse. The leaves are pointed, and new growth is tinted red.
They usually are not very fragrant. They are loosely petalled, and can nod from
weak stems. They are not very winter hardy. Some are nice in pots as they are small
in stature: 'Slater's Crimson China' or 'Cramoisi Supérieur' are two examples. Others
are effective when massed in borders: 'Archiduc Charles' is a beautiful and
dramatic rose to this effect. They usually are best in a border when
planted in groups of at least three; their delicate features may be
overwhelmed by neighboring plants.
The value of the China Rose
should not be underestimated. Graham Thomas believes that the China Roses are
the species upon which modern roses are built. The work of Dr. Hurst pinpointed
our China roses back to four garden roses known as the Four Stud Chinas
(the dates indicate what is generally accepted as an official date of introduction to Europe):
'Slater's Crimson China' (1792), 'Parson's Pink China' (1793, Identical to 'Old Blush'),
'Hume's Blush Tea-scented China' (1809), and 'Parks' Yellow Tea-scented China' (1824)
There may be evidence that the China Rose was known in Italy long before the
official introduction dates.
In Dr Hurst's own words: "The earliest trace of the introduction of the China Rose to
Europe that I have been able to find is in the National Gallery, London, where there is a
painting by the Florentine artist, Angelo Bronzino, dating from about 1529, which shews
Cupid with hands full of Pink China Roses in the act of throwing them over Folly, who is
embracing Venus (Bronzino, No. 651). The small rose-pink flowers with translucent petals,
incurved stamens, reflexed sepals, and small ovate shining leaflet are precisely those of
the Pink China, and we may conclude that this Rose was cultivated in Italy early in the
sixteenth century." (To see a Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly
link here: Bronzino,
No. 651) There was a rose that was noted by Montaigne when he visited Ferrara,
Italy, in November 1580. That Rose may have been a China because he was told it bloomed year
An early botanical specimen of a Crimson China named 'Chineeshe Eglantier Roosen' by
Gronovius in 1733, was later rendered and named Rosa chinensis by Jacquin in 1768.
This rose was actually a cultivated variety and not the true species as the name would
suggest. Graham Thomas states that our Four Stud Chinas may all be hybrids of the Tea rose,
Rosa gigantea, with Rosa chinensis. He believes that the 'Old Blush' and
'Slater's Crimson China', also known as Rosa chinensis semperflorens are closely related
to Rosa chinensis, whereas 'Hume's Blush' and 'Parks' Yellow' are more infused with Tea
Rose. Dr. Hurst stated that he knew of two varieties of 'Old Blush', the Pink China. One variety
was described as common; the other was noted as having more petals, a brighter color, and a sweet
scent. Graham Thomas writes that his pink variety may be nearly unadulterated China, whereas
some of the coppery forms of 'Old Blush' are probably infused with Tea Rose. The 'Crimson China'
also has variations. Dr. Hurst noted a graceful, short climber at the Gravereaux collection at
La Roseraie de l'Haÿ, which he felt was a close descendent of to the wild 'Crimson China',
bearing single cherry red blooms. The true species rose, which has changed our rose breeding
so profoundly, is believed to be Rosa chinensis var. spontanea. Hurst stated
that this rose was found and collected by Augustine Henry in 1885, while in Central China. The
rose was later found and photographed in 1983 by Japanese botanist Mikinori Ogisu, in the Ichang
Gorge of the Yangtse Kiang River. The rose bears rich single pink flowers which mature to deep
crimson, and is described as being like a rambler. (There are pictures of the rose in The
Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book and in The Quest for the Rose by Phillips and Rix.)
Martin Rix described a remarkable population of the species roses, which Mikinori found in
other parts of the same area (Sichuan) where the rose was found initially: "The flowers were not
only the deepest red, but all shades of pink and buff through to nearly pure white, the plants
both climbing high into trees, and forming arching shrubs in the open." (From the Roses
Anciennes en France newsletter, Autumn 1998) Peter Beales has described the Chinas as
having chameleon qualities. 'Slater's Crimson China', usually semi-double with two or three
rows of petals, has been known to bear single flowers; sometimes one may even be pink. In any
case, 'Slater's Crimson' and 'Old Blush' are closely related to one another.
A real mind twister exists with what is named
Rosa indica. Dr. Hurst noted that Peter Osbeck, a pupil of the great Swedish
botanist Linnaeus, discovered Rosa indica in 1750, while in Canton. It is
noted in Linnaeus' handwriting that 'Blush Tea China' was his own specimen plant
of Rosa indica. The single crimson China portrayed as Rosa indica by Redouté
is not Linnaeus' blush colored rose. Rosa chinensis is the same rose as Lindley's
Rosa indica; however, Graham Thomas and Dr. Hurst do not mention Redouté's version of
Rosa indica as being Rosa chinensis. Krussman believes Redouté's rose is Rosa
chinensis sanguinea, also known as 'Bengal Crimson'. Graham Thomas is uncertain of this
rose's origin. He contemplates that it is either a sport or a rose that is derived from an
ancient hybrid of Rosa chinensis. Rosa chinensis sanguinea, 'Bengal Crimson', is a
single China, whose color varies from light to dark crimson. It does not display the same color
gradations that are found in either Rosa chinensis spontanea or 'Slater's Crimson'.
Redouté also painted a rose labeled Rosa indica, La Bengale bichonne. Graham Thomas
notes that this double rose may be 'Slater's Crimson China', also known as Rosa chinensis
semperflorens, and Le Rosier du Bengale. It is generally recognized that Redouté's
Rosa indica vulgaris, also known as Common China, is 'Old Blush' In any event, several
Chinas were named 'Bengal Roses' because they reached Europe via Bengal. Roy Shepherd notes that Slater even distributed his Crimson China
under the name 'Bengal Rose'. We are still searching for the links between these Bengal or
China roses. The true gift of their arrival may overshadow their origins, which have been
locked in secrecy or lost over the years.