Harbingers of the Rose Revolution
And China opened her shut gate
To let her roses through, and Persian shrines
Of poetry and painting gave the rose.
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
When China Roses were first brought to Europe, the impact they would have on the future of rose growing was not at first recognised. Compared to those roses already known in Europe, the early introductions were generally considered inferior. They did however possess one desirable characteristic that set them apart and this was their habit of blooming in flushes throughout the growing season. When rose breeders of the mid to late 19th century started working in earnest to breed the China Roses with others, it would be this quality of repeat flowering that they would try, with varying degrees of success, to breed into a new generation of roses.
But it was not the repeat flowering alone that moved the China Roses into the spotlight. It was the colour a handful of them possessed – a colour not yet seen in roses: Bright crimson. In nature, true red is a rare colour among flowering plants including roses, so when the roses like ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ and ‘Cruenta’ arrived with their glowing red flowers, they created quite a stir. Redouté illustrated a number of crimson red China Roses in Les Roses, including two he raised from seed.
Ancient cultivators in China
So what of china roses before they came to Europe?
European botanists at first mistook some of the roses they brought back from China as true Species roses. In actual fact, some like the first Tea Roses were already complex hybrids, having been bred into existence by generations of Chinese gardeners. During the time of Confucius, over 2500 years ago, there were said to have been hundreds of books at the Imperial Palace that mentioned the rose. That says a lot, considering the rose was not given the same admiration as other flowering plants in China. It was though, a staple part of the many curative formulas used in Chinese medicine to restore and maintain health. Long before the West discovered the virtues of rosehips with their high vitamin C content, children in China were being fed rose-hip syrup to ward off ills.
China Roses arrive in Europe
Once the China Roses entered Europe, the first significant examples of hybridisation brought about two new classes of rose and this actually occurred outside Europe. These new classes were the Noisettes from South Carolina, USA and the Bourbons from Bourbon (now Réunion); a French island near Madagascar.
At the same time, China Roses grown from the seed of the imports were being raised by growers in England and France although it would be in France, Belgium and the Netherlands that most rose breeding would take place in the 19th century. At first this was a somewhat hit and miss affair, relying on bees for pollination. The end result was often doubt as to which rose had been the pollen parent. Thanks to research into the sexual reproduction of plants undertaken by the Swedish naturalist Linneaus, rose breeders started to better understand how to deliberately cross roses to achieve a desired outcome.
The rose revolution begins
Breeders soon set to work crossing the China Roses with every rose they could. The rose breeding industry, in mid-19th Europe, was posed on the brink of a major revolution that would transform the garden rose forever. This revolution would bring into the world tens of thousands of new rose varieties in years to come, almost all claiming one of the original China Roses as its parent.
Old China Roses today
Today, a few of the original China roses still exist outside China, although they are not as widely grown as the thousands of roses they helped create. On the whole, they tend to be cold-tender, performing best in warmer climates. There are both bush and climbing varieties. Their flowers vary in shape, often unfurling from slim, pointed buds. Colours run the spectrum, from soft pinks and yellows to bright crimson and violet. While many of the China Roses are only faintly scented, the hybrid varieties known to be prototypes of the Tea Roses, brought with them a distinctive ‘tea’ scent, that passed on to many of their children.
Redouté painted the portraits of a number of China Roses for Les Roses. Click on each picture at left to discover more about the individual rose.
'Old Blush' Rose
Sharp-Petaled China Rose
Dwarf Single China Rose
Velvet China Rose
Starry China Rose
'Bengale à Bouquets' Rose
Animating China Rose
Carnation China Rose