US National Arboretum


Roses of China: Roots of the Modern Rose

image of Rose HOME RUN® Mainstays of the modern summer garden, roses are arguably the most popular flower across the world; indeed, the rose is the national flower of the United States and one particular variety, a now little-grown rose from the 1800s called ‘American Beauty’, is the official flower of the District of Columbia. You may stop to sniff a ‘Mister Lincoln’ or ‘Double Delight’ as you wait for the barbeque to heat up, or admire your HOME RUN® rose hedge as you trim the lawn, but have you ever stopped to think about where and how today’s seemingly endless variety of roses originated? Although the full explanation would touch upon every continent of the entire northern hemisphere, the vast majority of modern roses owe more of their genetic heritage to Chinese species than to all others combined.

Before the first ever-blooming rose was brought from China to Europe in the late 1700s, roses were still one of the most loved flowers in Western culture. The reason is simple: they offered unparalleled beauty and fragrance, even though nearly every variety known in those times bloomed for only about a month each spring. Richly colored gallicas packed tight with petals, decadently fragrant damasks, refined albas and voluptuous centifolias (bred by the Dutch, who favored painting them in their famous still-lifes) graced European gardens over the many long centuries; some hybrids appear to have been known even to the ancient Greeks and their true origins are shrouded in the mists of pre-history.  

image of Rosa fedtschenkoana
Yet even in such early times, we find evidence of Chinese influence in the genetic background of roses: recent genetic research has revealed that Rosa fedtschenkoana, an extremely hardy, repeat-blooming species hailing from extreme western China and adjacent lands, along with Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata, is one of three species to have contributed its genes to the making of the famous damask rose. It is this venerably ancient hybrid whose potent fragrance is literally synonymous with the word “rose” to billions of people today. We can only wonder at the circumstances that brought together these widely separated wild roses, but it may be no coincidence that the Silk Road threaded its way through and connected their homelands.  

image of Rosa 'Autumn Damask' As exotic and wondrous as the damask was, for most Europeans, the average rose still bloomed but once a year. It would be an understatement to say that it was something of a revolution, then, when in the late 1700s the first “China” (or “Bengale”, as it was originally known) rose known botanically as Rosa chinensis is said to have arrived in Europe by ship. Instead of blooming just once a year or a scant several times per season in a select few varieties, the West suddenly opened its eyes to a rose that could flower non-stop throughout the growing season. It had other novel attributes, too: the petals spiral open from an elegantly pointed bud instead of expanding uniformly like a peony, and the colors tended to intensify with age rather than fading. The race was on to combine this new seemingly miraculous repeat blooming rose, whose scent was mild, though fruity and pleasant, with the best of Europe’s once blooming roses.  

image of Rosa 'Louis-Philippe' The appearance of the China rose in the West was soon followed by that of the larger and generally more fragrant Rosa odorata, the “tea-scented China” – or “tea” rose, for short – which either smelled of tea due to its blossoms’ unique aromatic compounds, or because the plants were unloaded from a ship bearing a precious cargo of tea and had picked up the scent by accident. Many thousands of crosses between the roses of the East and the West produced a continuous parade of new varieties; although breeders’ efforts were frustrated at first when the desired combination of traits proved elusive, they were relentless and ultimately prevailed over a period of decades. Many new classes of roses were created in pursuit of breeders’ goals before the mid-1800s advent of the “hybrid tea”, the class that famously combined the elegant bud and flower shape of the ancient Chinese tea rose with sturdy, long stems suitable for cutting and, in some varieties, a deliciously strong damask scent laced with notes of fruit and spice. The rise to popularity of the new hybrid tea was immense, and it would leave an indelible mark on all future rose breeding that continues to the present day.  

image of Rosa odorata 'Mutabilis' Once grown almost to the exclusion of other classes, hybrid tea roses today have waned somewhat in popularity as garden subjects because of a reputation for disease susceptibility, lack of winter hardiness in northern regions, and a tendency to display a severe, vertical growth habit that appears awkward in the landscape. Yet just as the damask is the very essence of rose fragrance to most noses, the hybrid tea is precisely what most of us picture when we imagine what a rose should look like, and this very special flower shape would not grace our bouquets without the great ever-blooming roses of China.

China’s contributions do not end with China and tea roses, however. This expansive nation also happens to be the center of diversity for the genus Rosa, containing more species than any other country on earth. Not surprisingly, other lesser-known species have been used by breeders in recent times to help enrich the gene pool of modern roses. Rosa bracteata, the Macartney rose, with its
exceptionally leathery and dark, glossy foliage, has been used to create hybrids with particularly beautiful, disease-resistant leaves, heat tolerance and may offer hope for resistance to a new disease known as
image of Rosa bracteata “rose rosette”. Rosa soulieana, a highly fragrant white rambler, was used to help develop some of the newest purple shrub hybrids like MIDNIGHT BLUE™. Rosa davidii, a somewhat obscure species from western China, is in the background of the popular landscape rose HOME RUN® and lends its strong resistance to mildew as well as black spot. Look soon for an exciting new group of roses called “hulthemia hybrids” which have a conspicuous dark blotch at the base of each petal, a trait they derived from the very unique species Rosa persica, also known as Hulthemia persica, which also grows wild in western China. Thanks to today’s creative breeders and intrepid plant collectors, you can look forward to seeing many more unique contributions from China’s roses right in your own back (or front!) yard.  

Links back to:

 Back to the Arboretum Home Page
Arboretum Information || Events & Education || Gardens & Horticulture || Research Activities
Support the Arboretum || New Plant Introductions || USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map || Comments
Search Our Site

Last Updated   August 27, 2007 9:06 AM