Botanical name: Rosa odorata or Rosa x odorata (Family: Rosaceae)
Common names: Chinese tea rose, Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China, Tea-scented China, Rosiers à odeur de thé
Etymology: The Chinese tea rose owes its name to both its country of origin and its smell. It is said that the first plant samples imported from China to Europe smelled like black China tea. Some garden historians hypothesize that, during the 19th century, most Asian-origin plant cultivars were categorized into ‘Teas’ (those with tea flower form) and ‘Chinas’ (those with different flower form).
Natural habitat: The Chinese tea rose is an oriental cultivar belonging to the genus Rosa. The original plant was native to Yunnan, a southwestern province in China.
History of Chinese tea rose cultivation: Not much is known about the history of cultivation of the Chinese tea rose prior to 1810. Scientists speculate that the flower is an ancient hybrid, developed in the gardens of China by crossing Rosa gigantea and Rosa chinensis. Rosa gigantea (wild tea rose), a climbing rose with pale-yellow flowers, is the largest rose species native to regions in India, upper Myanmar and Yunnan (China). Rosa chinensis, known as Yue yuehong in China or Chinese Rose elsewhere, is an ornamental plant that has been cultivated in China for many centuries.
The Chinese were very fond of roses. Confucius wrote that many roses were grown in the Imperial Gardens, and that the Chinese emperor’s library contained several hundred books on roses. During the Han dynasty, the rose gardens kept expanded so much that they started encroaching upon agricultural land. Chinese emperor was forced to order closure of several rose gardens.
The arrival of the Chinese tea rose in Europe: The first Chinese tea rose was introduced to the gardens of Europe in 1810. John Reeves, an agent of the East India Company acquired the plant from the Fa Tee (Flower Gardens) in Canton, South China. The rose carried the name Hsian Shu Yue Chi (‘Fragrant Monthly Rose’). During the nineteenth century, the Fa Tee nursery, rich in exotic and fragrant flowers, held high reputation among the European plant collectors.
The flower was dispatched on a long and difficult journey by ship from China to England. It has been estimated that only one in a thousand plants survived such sea voyages. The Chinese tea rose was sent to Sir Abraham Hume, a politician in the British House of Commons. Hume and his wife, Lady Amelia, were horticulturists — more specifically, rosarians — and they have been credited with the development of several rose cultivars.
Hume was impressed by the continuously blooming, large pale-pink flowers of the imported rose. The flowers were semi-double (with 17-25 petals each), had a darker center, and possessed an ‘elegant tea scent’. He named it Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China, in honor of his wife who had just died. The first versions of the botanical name given to the plant were R. indica odorata and R. indica fragrants.
Several years later, another tea-scented rose was imported from the same nursery in China. John Damper Parks, a gardener from the Horticultural Society of London brought to flower to London in 1824. Its Chinese name was Danhuang Xianshui (‘Light Yellow Sweet Water Rose’). In Britain, this rose became known as Park’s Yellow Tea-Scented China. Some say that the rose had large yellow blooms and the characteristic faint tea fragrance. According to other sources, the color petals turned from pale-yellow to ivory-white shortly after opening.
The Chinese tea roses possessed several traits that had not been present among the European rose species. Gardeners particularly appreciated their repeated (perpetual) blooming, scrolled buds and peculiar tea scent. In addition, their foliage was nearly evergreen. Therefore, shortly after their introduction into the gardens of Europe, these original China tea roses were crossed with European rose lines (mostly the Noisette and the Bourbon roses). This led to the development of new hybrids — yellow Noisette-Teas and pink Bourbon-Teas.
The Chinese tea rose of Napoleon and Josephine: Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China made a fascinating journey from England to France. In 1811, at the height of the Napoleonic War, arrangements were made between French and British Admiralties for the Chinese tea-scented rose to reach from England to France. In France, these roses became known under the name Rosiers à odeur de thé. Empress Josephine Bonaparte was known as a patroness of roses, and nurtured over 250 rose varieties in her English-style garden. It is said that, during the war, Napoleon had ordered for all plants from seized enemy ships to be sent to Josephine’s flower nursery. Josephine’s ambition to grow all known rose varieties in her garden near Paris earned the epithet ‘rose renaissance’.
The decline of Chinese tea roses in Europe: By 1833, as many as 27 different tea rose varieties have been reported in the literature. Within a century (by 1920), the rose breeders developed more than 2000 cultivars. However, most of these cultivars were not hardy enough to thrive in the colder climate of Europe and North America. In addition, the hybridization led to a loss of the tea-like scent, one of the hallmarks of the Chinese tea rose. Eventually, by the end of the First World War, the interest in the Chinese tea rose diminished significantly, and many varieties have been irreversibly lost.
Although the early hybrids no longer exist, today’s modern Chinese tea roses are their descendants. Today, the Chinese tea roses are more commonly known under their trade names as tea roses or hybrid tea roses.
The Chinese tea rose is sometimes popularly called a Bengal rose or Bengal Crimson. The reason for this mistaken epithet is the fact that the ships of the East India Company, on their route from China to Britain, often stopped at the ports in India. The plants were usually offloaded at the Calcutta Botanical Garden for temporary recovery. The German and French botanists believed that the Chinese tea-scented roses and their related hybrid varieties originated from India. Consequently, they named the whole botanical section Indicae.
Color: Chinese tea roses can be white, cream, yellow, pale pink or apricot.
Popular varieties: There are four popular varieties of the Chinese tea rose. These are:
- Rosa odorata var. erubescens — characterized by pink, semi-double or double flowers with a diameter of 3-6 cm.
- Rosa odorata var. odorata — characterized by white or pale-pink, double or semi-double flowers with a diameter between 5 and 8 cm.
- Rosa odorata var. pseudoindica — characterized by yellow or orange, double or semi double flowers with an approximate diameter of 8 cm.
- Rosa odorata var. gigantea — characterized by single, white flowers with a large diameter (8 to 10 cm).
Plant characteristics: The Chinese tea rose is a slender shrub that, depending on its variety, can reach a height of two and six meters. Depending on the hybrid, it can be deciduous or semi-evergreen. Compared to other rose species, the Chinese tea rose has weaker, typically weeping and nodding stems, with makes it a scrambling climber. A spiral petal opening pattern characterizes the anthesis (blooming period). The flowers are either solitary or clustered. The petals usually roll back at the edges and sometimes display a pointed tip. The stems are thorny, with compound pinnate leaves.
Pollinators: The plant is pollinated by bees. The Chinese tea rose is a hermaphrodite plant (it has both female and male reproductive organs within the same flower).
Gardening instructions: The plant requires abundant sun or at least a semi-shade exposure. It thrives on most soils (moderately fertile, clay/sandy/chalky/loamy, any pH type), except for water-logged ones. While some hybrids are hardy, many Chinese tea rose varieties need protection from winds and other extreme weather. The most common method of propagation for the Chinese tea rose is by seed. It may take two years for the seed to germinate. When transplanted, the plant may take a few years before they begin to bloom again.
Suitable garden styles and garden arrangements: Chinese tea roses are typically planted in rose beds. However, they can also be used in mixed flower borders with other shrubs and perennials. They are sometimes used as informal garden hedges. Chinese tea roses are a charming addition to any cottage garden.
Known pests and risks: Similar to all rose species, the Chinese tea rose plant is susceptible to rose rust, rose black spot and perjury mildew. Some fungal conditions can be prevented with proper air circulation. Well spaced and mildly-pruned plants are less prone to developing powdery mildew. In terms of insect predation, there is risk of caterpillars, scale insects, aphids, rose leaf-rolling sawfly. The plant has no tolerance to low temperatures and generally extreme weather conditions.
Use in food and medicine: The Chinese tea rose fruit is typically red to purple, reaching a diameter of approximately 3 cm. It is not toxic. The fruit is rich in vitamins A, C and E. It also contains flavonoids which are powerful antioxidants. There are claims that the plant contains several bioactive compounds which might be useful in the treatment of cancer. Ground into a powder, the seed can be consumed as a food supplement. Before consumption, the layer of seed hairs should be removed, as they can cause irritation to the digestive system.