No one knows how long roses have been gracing the Earth but it is thought to be thousands of years. There is sufficient evidence to prove this in the form of fossils, archaeological finds and writings. It is also not known how many species of rose were the first ancestors of the roses we have today. What is known is that roses only grew in the Northern Hemisphere and they grew right across from the Far East through Western Europe to North America.
It is now thought that the number of species roses was between 100 and 150 but only about 24 of those species roses were the ancestors of all the millions of roses we have in our gardens today.
Three species roses: R. alba, R. arvensis and R. canina
What is interesting is that until relatively recently, the middle of the 18th century, the rosarians of the West and the East had been growing and developing their roses without any knowledge of each other. Opportunities for travel and exploration were limited so the Europeans did not know of the glorious range of colours of the Chinese varieties and the Chinese did not know of the glorious fragrances of the European roses. Each followed their own course but it is fair to say that in the Far East, probably as a result of the fact that 85% of all species roses were indigenous to this area, the rosarians were ahead of the game as they were in gardening generally.
Throughout the centuries the species roses hybridised and in Europe we had the beautiful Gallicas, Centifolias, Damasks, Moss and Albas. The colour palette was limited as all these roses ranged from a creamy white through to a dark magenta. There were no yellows, oranges or reds. There is little documentation in English on the range of hybrids in the Far East to determine the extent of the range, but their roses certainly had a greater range of colours.
At the end of the 18th century there was the start of a ‘rose revolution’. One or two hybrids from China began to creep into Western Europe but their origins were difficult to trace. The first of these were Slaters Crimson China, introduced in 1792, Parsons Pink China, introduced in 1793, Humes Blush China introduced in 1809 and Parks Yellow Tea Scented China introduced in 1824. Not only did the Chinas bring a greater colour range but they also had another useful attribute; that of repeat flowering, something that most European roses did not do. The roses from China also had fewer thorns and smoother leaves.
The China roses were, and still are, grown in Europe in their own right. However, there is evidence to show that they are in the parentage of many of our more recent old roses that came after the introduction of the Chinas, such as the Portland, the Bourbons, The Teas and the Hybrid Perpetuals. They are very much in the parentage of the first of the modern roses, the Hybrid Teas but sadly because rose breeding was left largely to chance and parentage could not be accurately recorded it is difficult to prove parentage of many of our early roses. Fortunately another ‘revolution’ in the rose world took place towards the end of the 19th century but that is another story.
The Chinese roses have allowed us to develop bright yellow and orange roses.
Two of our modern roses.