E. H. Wilson (1876 – 1930) was a plant collector, at first for the firm of James Veitch & Sons in England and later on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts where in later life he worked until his early death in an automobile accident in 1930. Most of his exploring while hunting for plants took place in China and surrounding countries and there is a famous story of his having been caught while plant-hunting in the province of Szechuan, on a narrow mountain path, by an avalanche, breaking his leg, the path being so narrow that he had to lay, injured and in agony, while a pack-train of mules gingerly passed over him before he could be collected and carried to civilization to have his leg set. On that trip he discovered (and subsequently introduced) the beautiful Regal Lily (L. regale) for which he will be eternally remembered. Indeed there is a very long list of plants that he introduced to horticulture and it is amazing to think of the quality of many of them, considering that he was doing his hunting in the 20th century in areas that had been picked over by many earlier plant-hunters.

I have excerpted 3 chapters from his book Aristocrats Of The Garden (1917) that are as relevant today as when they were written; starting with The Story Of The Modern Rose (which we’ve touched on, in the past, here); I’ll follow that with two other posts, one on lilies and the other on lilacs.

The book that they are taken from, Aristocrats Of The Garden, can be downloaded here in a variety of formats; I’ve also posted the PDF version here if you would like to see the rest of the book.

Another of his books, A Naturalist In Western China, in two volumes, can be downloaded here & here.

Jim Thorleifson

aristocratsofgar00wilsrich – full book – PDF format





This universal favorite coming out of the east is the product of but a few species –  latent possibilities yet before the rose lover.

The establishing of a trading factory at Canton, in southern China, by the English East India Company toward the close of the seventeenth century, would appear to have very little if, indeed, anything to do with the development of modern horticulture in general and the Rose in particular. But as a matter of fact it has had a great deal to do with both, and garden lovers generally (though they may not know it) owe a big debt to the directors and officers of that grand old Company. The Company met with great opposition from the Chinese and others and it was a century before it fully established itself in China. Nevertheless, in the earliest days of its career there, an officer of the Company sent to England some dried plants, among them two Roses, known nowadays botanically as Rosa multiflora var. cathayensis and R. laevigata, and these were mentioned by Plukenet in his Almagestum in 1696. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, despite the Napoleonic wars and the fact that each vessel was armed and often had to do battle against foes, the captains of the East-Indiamen, as the Company’s ships were called, used to carry home plants which they, or the factory officials at Canton, found growing in the gardens of the Chinese.

These plants found their way into the gardens of the Company’s directors and their friends and from hence into the Royal Gardens, Kew, and elsewhere. To these agencies we owe our earliest varieties of Chrysanthemums, Camellias, Moutan Peonies, China Primrose, China Azaleas, and, what here concerns us chiefly, the first plants of the China Monthly, Tea, and Rambler Roses parents of the modern Rose.

Early in the eighteenth century India received through the same source many plants including these and other Roses. It is important to remember this since one of these, the China Monthly Rose (Rosa chinensis), was afterward erroneously considered to be native of India and became generally known as the Bengal Rose. This Rose and its var. semperflorens were introduced by the French into the Isle of Bourbon, doubtless from India, during the eighteenth century.

The Bengal Rose was known to Gronovius in 1704, and came into cultivation in Haarlem in 1781, having probably been introduced by Dutch East-Indiamen. But, preoccupied with their Tulips and other bulbous plants the Dutch have done little toward developing the modern Rose. In 1789, Sir Joseph Banks introduced it into England and, chronologically, our story here begins.

In 1789, the Crimson China Monthly (Rosa chinensis, var. semperflorens) , through the captain of an English East-Indiaman, came into the possession of Gilbert Slater, Esq. In 1804, Thomas Evans sent from China to England through the same agency the first Rambler Rose (Rosa multiflora, var. carnea). In 1809, Sir Abraham Hume received from China through a similar agency the first Tea-scented Rose, which had double pink flowers and was christened Rosa odorata. And, to complete the independent activities of the English East India Company, between 1815 and 1817 Charles Francis Greville, Esq., received from China a Rambler Rose (Rosa multiflora, var. platyphylla) which enjoyed lasting popularity under the name of Seven Sisters and by which name it will be remembered by many readers of these pages. Meanwhile, in 1792, Lord Macartney brought back with him from China a Rose (R. bracteata) which was styled the Macartney Rose and which is now naturalized in some of our warmer states.

Another Chinese Rose the Cherokee Rose the date of whose introduction into this country is unknown, is also naturalized widely in the warmer states and received its earliest name (R. laevigata) in 1803, from Michaux who firmly believed it to be native of this country.

In 1796, Rosa rugosa, native of Japan, Korea, and extreme northeastern Asia, was introduced into England by Messrs. Lee and Kennedy.

These new and amazing plants from China quickly attracted the attention of patrons of horticulture in England and men were despatched to China expressly to send home all the novelties they could find; and, intermittently, from the commencement of the nineteenth century down to the present day, ardent collectors have been busily employed, but this wonderfully rich country is not yet exhausted of its floral treasures! One of the first of these collectors William Kerr sent home in 1807 the double white-flowered Banksian Rose (Rosa Banksiae). In 1824, John Damper Parks sent home the double yellow flowered Banksian Rose (R. Banksiae, var. lutea) and a semi-double yellowish Tea Rose (R. odorata, var. ochroleuca). In 1825, the Small-leaved Rose (R. Roxburghii, better known as R. microphylla) with double reddish flowers blossomed for the first time in Messrs. Colville’s Nursery in London.

We have already mentioned that China Roses were introduced into India in the eighteenth century and that some of them toward the end of that century were introduced into the French Isle of Bourbon, south of the equator, where we learn they thrived amazingly and produced new forms.

From Mauritius in 1810, Sweet introduced into England the Fairy Rose (R. chinensis, var. minima) ; this I consider to be merely a variant of var. semperflorens, the Crimson Monthly Rose. About 1819, from the Isle of Bourbon, the Rose Edward reached France, and, crossed with the French Rose (R. gallica), gave rise to the Hybrid Bourbon Roses. This Rose Edward is of much interest; long ago it was cultivated in Calcutta and it is obviously a Hybrid China. The specimen I have seen strongly suggests R. chinensis X R. centifolia as its parentage.

The China Monthly Rose (R. chinensis) crossed with the French Rose (R. gallica) gave rise to the Hybrid China Roses. The Hybrid China and the Hybrid Bourbon crossed with the Damask Rose (R. damascena) gave rise to the Hybrid Perpetual or Remontant Roses. The Hybrid Perpetual crossed with the Tea Rose (R. odorata) gave rise to the Hybrid Tea Roses which to-day are the dominant class of Roses. Lastly, Rosa chinensis crossed with the Musk Rose (R. moschata) gave rise to the Noisette Roses, a beautiful class which, unfortunately, has gone out of favor.

But to return to the collectors: In 1846, Robert Fortune sent from China to England the yellow-buff Fortune Rose (R. odorata, var. pseudoindica), a Tea-scented Rose rather similar to the var. ochroleuca and widely known under the name “Beauty of Glazenwood.” In 1850, he sent home from China a Rose with relatively large double white flowers supposed to be a cross between the Banksian and Cherokee Roses and which was named Rosa Fortuneana. In 1886, the Wichuraiana Rose (R. Luciae) was introduced into Brussels from Japan. In 1878, Prof. R. Smith sent from Japan to a Mr. Jenner in England a Rose which the recipient named The Engineer in compliment to the profession of its donor. In course of time this Rose came into possession of a nursery- man named Gilbert who exhibited some cut flowers of it under the above name in 1890, and received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Soon afterward Messrs. Chas. Turner, of Slough, purchased the stock and changed the name to Crimson Rambler. This Rose is generally assumed to be a hybrid between Rosa multiflora and some China Monthly Rose, but to me this view is untenable. I do not think it has any China Monthly blood in it at all. It has long been cultivated in China and I consider that, like the Seven Sisters Rose, it is a sport from the common, wild pink-flowered China Rambler (R. multiflora, var. cathayensis). These various Chinese Roses were introduced from Chinese gardens where they have been cultivated from time immemorial and their wild prototypes were not discovered, much less introduced, until comparatively recently.

The true Rambler Rose (R. multiflora) is a native of Japan and has single white flowers in large panicles. This was sent to Lyons, France, from Japan in 1862, by Monsieur Coignet, an engineer. The pink-flowered Chinese variety has only just been dignified by a distinctive name. In 1888, General Collett discovered, in the Shan Hills of Upper Burmah, a Rose with white, pale yellow, or buff flowers six inches across and this was named Rosa gigantea. He introduced it into Europe and it thrives wonderfully on the Riviera but in England it flowers sparingly. This Rose is common in Yunnan, southwest China, and has given rise to a race of double-flowered Roses which are cultivated for ornament by the Chinese in that region. This Giant Rose is very fragrant and I believe it to be the prototype and parent of the Tea-scented Roses so long cultivated by the Chinese. The prototype of the China Monthly Rose (Rosa chinensis, var. spontanea) was first found growing wild in 1885, by A. Henry, in the province of Hupeh, central China, and in this same region the wild form of the Banksian Rose with single white flowers is extraordinarily abundant; so also is the Cherokee Rose; and further west, in Szechuan, the prototype of the Small-leaved Rose (R. Roxburghii) is one of the most common wayside shrubs.

The genus Rosa is confined to the Northern Hemisphere and its members are found scattered over the cool and warm temperate and the sub-tropic regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Some of them are found in northern Africa but no species is endemic there. It is an exceedingly difficult genus to classify and botanists differ greatly in the estimate of the number of species. One botanist asserts that all may be included under three species; in the Index Kewensis more than five hundred species are enumerated. In the Arnold Arboretum Herbarium twenty-six species are recognized as indigenous in North America; and of these virtually only one (R. setigera), the Prairie Rose, has been utilized by the hybridist to date, and this but sparingly. However, it is well to mention that a double-flowered form of Rosa virginiana, the Rose d’ Amour, has been known since 1768, and quite recently Rosa humilis has been crossed with Rosa rugosa.

Except in gardens devoted to forming collections of plants, species of Rose, with a few exceptions, are rarely cultivated and it is trite to say that Roses as ordinarily understood are “made,” not discovered wild. In other words, they are the product of the gardeners’ skill. I would I could take the readers of this work to the mountain fastnesses of central and western China, and to certain remote parts of Japan and there introduce him to the wild types the raw material from which have been evolved our “Killarneys,” “American Beauty,” “Mrs. Chas. Russell,” “Lady Hillingdon,” “Caroline Testout,” “Mrs. George Shawyer”; our “Rambler” and “Wichuraiana” hybrids and innumerable others, and his or her astonishment would be profound. Truly it hardly seems credible that the Roses of to-day had such lowly origins.

The French Rose (R. gallica), Provence Rose (R. provincialis), and Cabbage Rose (R. centifolia) are said to be the only Roses known to Pliny, and it must be confessed that the distinctions between these so-called species are not obvious. From earliest times in the Occident, down to the end of the eighteenth century, the Roses so much extolled by ancient writers and by our ancestors were either wild species native of Persia, Asia Minor, and Europe, or garden forms derived therefrom. These would include, in addition to those aforementioned, the White Rose (R. alba), the Musk Rose (R. moschata), the Damask Rose (R. damascena), the Cinnamon Rose (R. cinnamomea), the Moss Rose (R. centifolia, var. muscosa), Sweet Briar (R. eglanteria), Sulphur Rose (R. hemisphaerica), Austrian Briar (R. foetida), and the Austrian Copper (R. foetida, var. bicolor).

About the end of the eighteenth century the Ayrshire Roses were originated from R. arvensis, and early in the nineteenth century the Boursault Roses were developed, through crossing the Alpine Rose (R. pendulina) with R. chinensis, and the Scotch Briars from R. spinosissima. Virtually all have disappeared from general cultivation in the gardens of Europe and North America. And all the species of Rose indigenous in North America, Europe, and Asia Minor have fallen into disfavor and are no longer used by the Rose hybridist with the exception of those which have yellow flowers.

In Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and on a small scale in parts of India, the French, Cabbage, and Damask Roses are extensively cultivated for the preparation of Attar of Roses. But as garden Roses the old have given place to the new, and the gardens of today are resplendent with the products of the China, Tea, Rambler, and Wichuraiana Roses, natives of China and Japan.

New garden Roses are originated by the hybridizing of different species, varieties, and forms, and as sports from existing forms as in the case of “White Killarney” and many others. They are raised by means of seeds, cuttings, layering, budding, and grafting, but it is no part of my purpose to enter into these details. The object here is to tell of what has been, to show the source of what is, and to hint of what may yet be evolved.

Of the vast array of Rose species not more than two dozen have in the past history of the Rose been employed in the breeding of garden Roses. Thus, leaving completely aside the innate tendency to variation on the part of Roses of to-day, it is obvious that Rose breeders and specialists have still a wide untrodden field in which to experiment. It cannot be expected that every species will be found useful in the advancement of the Rose, yet at the same time only experiment, long continued, can decide which are useful or useless. Be it remembered that our present-day Roses owe their principal origin to forms cultivated, we know not how long, by the flower-loving Chinese. The prototypes of the China and Tea Roses have single flowers, and blossom but once a year. When these forms gave rise to “monthly blooming” Roses, or how the latter originated is unknown. Possibly, it was some erratic sport or maybe it was due to a radical change in environment caused by the removal of the parent plants to a region where the seasons were less fixed or winter unknown. However, be this as it may, a Rose with a decided tendency toward perpetual blooming was the most marked advance in the genus, from a garden view-point, that had occurred up to that time. How modern hybridists have taken advantage of this variation needs no comment.

All Rose breeders have their ideals, but in striving after size, form, color, freedom of blossom and of habit, after good foliage, hardiness, constitution, keeping qualities of the flowers and the like, fragrance should not be lost sight of. We want Roses good in all points. We want fragrant Roses in increasing quantities. We want a Rambler Rose with pure-white flowers as large and as freely produced as in the Crimson Rambler. Also we want yellow Ramblers, yellow Hybrid Perpetuals, more yellow Hybrid Teas and Tea Roses.

Where can we look for these yellow Roses? Now, of wild Roses with clear yellow flowers there are only known six species: the Simple-leaved Rose (R. persica), Austrian Briar (R. foetida), Sulphur Rose (R. hemisphaerica), Mrs. Aitchison’s Rose (R. Ecae) all natives of Asia Minor and Persia to central Asia (Austrian Briar is also found in the Crimea) Father Hugh’s Rose (R. Hugonis), and Lindley’s Rose (R. xanthina) natives of northern China. The latter, though named in 1820 from a Chinese drawing and long cultivated in Peking where double and single-flowered forms occur, was only introduced to cultivation in April, 1908, by F. N. Meyer of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Father Hugh’s Rose was raised at Kew in 1899. The others have been known for a long period and some have been and still are being used by Rose breeders. The Double Sulphur or Yellow Provence Rose has been known since the seventeenth century. The Yellow Persian was brought from Persia in 1838, by Sir Henry Willock, and is presumably a form of R. foetida. The Harison Rose is either a form of this or more probably a hybrid between it and R. spinosissima. All these Roses will doubtless play an important part in the future, but, personally, I am of the opinion that the yellow and buff-colored forms of Rosa odorata, var. gigantea are the Roses that will be found of greatest value in the evolution of the yellow Roses of the future. The rampant growth and sparseness of blossom may be urged against them, but who can say how much these characters may be modified under cultivation and by the hybridist? Forms of the Scotch Rose (R. spinosissima) have nearly yellow flowers, but the only other really yellow Roses known are R. Banksiae var. lutea and the single-flowered R. Banksiae, var. lutescens, neither yet known in a wild state.

Wild Roses are pretty and charming plants, yet it cannot be claimed that their beauty transcends that of other groups of wild flowers. Nevertheless, the Rose holds a unique place in the thought and estimation of civilized man. In poetry and prose its beauty has been extolled far and wide in many tongues. The old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, in the eleventh century, sang its praises and a Damask Rose now grows on his grave and also on that of his first English translator, Edward Fitzgerald.

The Rose is the one flower whose name is common to the polyglot people of this land. In English, French, German, Danish, and Norwegian its name is Rose; in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Latin it is Rosa; in Swedish it is Ros, in Dutch Roos, in Bohemian Ruze, in Hungarian Rozsa and in Greek Rhodon. Is not this both remarkable and significant? It is the national flower of one great race, but it is loved by all and is the monopoly of no one race nor creed. In one internecine war it was used as an emblem by opposing factions. In this country’s Civil War the Cherokee Rose was often planted as a memorial on the graves of fallen heroes by their surviving comrades. And to-day, the sight of the white flowers of this Rose wells up from the heart of many a veteran scenes of carnage and strife and brings back memories of comrades laid to rest beneath its shade.

In this and other lands the Rose has societies devoted to encouraging its advancement, and rightly so. But in some ways the Rose of all flowers least needs the help of special societies. It is the one flower which for some inscrutable reason has never lost its popularity and by this same token never will.

The story of the Modern Rose is a story of progress and as such holds a peculiar fascination over all. The Near East gave the first fruits to the West; the Far East in due course added its bounty. Europe began the improvement, and soon this country took up a share. The peoples of Asia, Europe, and North America have evolved the Modern Rose. With the rapid advance in the science of hybridizing and the introduction of species and forms from far and near new races will be evolved and new eras in the development of the Rose will arise. The story here briefly sketched is but the prelude to the full story of the Rose which the future will gradually unfold.