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The History and Legacy of the China Rose

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By Howard Higson

Of the nearly two hundred species of roses, found exclusively within the subtropical and temperate northern latitudes, two have contributed uniquely to our rose heritage:  Rosa chinensis var. spontanea (Rehd. & Wils.) T.T. Yu & Ku and R. odorata var. gigantea (Collett ex Crépin) Rehd. & Wils. (or R. gigantea) have provided the world with traits highly prized in the modern age of rose culture, thanks to centuries of domestication in China and subsequent hybridizing in Europe . China has, in fact, an unparalleled richness of overall biodiversity, and its roses are found to be no exception: 93 species and 144 varieties are native to China , while 80 percent of these are endemic (occur naturally only in one area).

References to Chinese floriculture date from at least the 11th century BC and probably include references to roses, although chrysanthemums appear more prominently in the most ancient art forms of China . The Zhongguo Huajing (China Floral Encyclopedia) specifically indicates widespread rose culture in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. By the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), references exist to “Yuejihua,” or perpetual-flowering roses that were extensively cultivated in large cities with ever-increasing numbers of varieties (41 were recorded in Luoyang alone). By the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), Yuejihua and Qiangwei (rose culture) were common, with many varieties in cultivation. Considering this far-reaching history, rose culture in China was doubtless the most advanced in the world until at least three hundred years ago, in regard to cultivars developed and cultivation techniques.

The “China rose” is actually a complex of natural and cultivated hybrids that have evolved over more than a thousand years in Chinese gardens. Screen paintings from the 10th century depict a blush China rose identical to Hume’s Tea-Scented China, one of the four China stud roses brought to Europe in the early 19th century. The painting “Allegory with Venus and Cupid” (1529) by the Florentine Angelo Bronzino (1503 to 1572) is the first reference to the China rose known in Europe . The same pink China may also be the subject described in 1678 by Montaigne at the Jesuit Monastery at Ferrara , Italy , said to be in perpetual flower. Several 18th century references to the China rose, from Italy , Sweden , Holland , and England , make clear that Europe was well aware of this relatively new exotic at this time.

The British Museum possesses a remnant of a crimson China rose from the Herbarium of Gronovius, labeled “Chineesche Eglantier Roosen” (1733). It has been confirmed as the type specimen of R. chinensis Jacquin, named in 1768. This taxon has persisted to this day, yet is now known to represent a diverse group that has been evolving in cultivation for many centuries. Its wild ancestor was discovered nearly one hundred and fifty years after the naming of R. chinensis and was named R. chinensis var. spontanea. The Koushin (“every other month”) rose of Japan, for example, imported from China over a thousand years ago, is quite distinct from the specimen of Gronovius and Jacquin, yet both are R. chinensis, with their defining characteristics and cultivated history.

Peter Osbeck, a pupil of Linnaeus, identified a similar specimen in the gardens of the Custom House at Canton , China in 1751. It became his type specimen for R. indica and yet is certainly R. chinensis, probably identical to the “Blush Tea China ” in Linnaeus’ herbarium. Other China rose specimens in this herbarium include three crimsons, one pink, and one recognized hybrid.

In 1885, when Dr. Augustine Henry (1857-1930)- made his famous discovery of what would later be named as the wild species, the primary ancestor of R. chinensis and the China roses was finally identified. Henry, having arrived in Hong Kong in 1881, later traveled up the Yangtze River to the customs post at Ichang. He found the rose in a narrow ravine extending from the Yangtze to the north, near the San-yu-tung glen, and the cave and temple of the Three Pilgrims. It was a climber like R. banksiae with three to five leaflets per leaf and solitary flowers generally of deep red but sometimes pink. It is now known that flower color of this wild species varies from almost white to deep crimson.

The wild Tea rose, R. odorata var. gigantea, is native to upper Burma and southwestern China and was introduced to Europe in 1888, having been discovered by Sir Henry Collett in the Shan Hills of Burma in 1824. R. odorata, in like manner as R. chinensis, refers now to garden varieties and hybrids (the “old” Tea roses), and so the wild species, also identified later in this case, was named R. odorata var. gigantea, or R. gigantea, depending upon the authority cited, to distinguish it from its cultivated descendents. Ascending up to 40 feet, with strong shoots and hooked prickles, it is less hardy than R. chinensis var. spontanea and consequently more temperamental in northern European climates. It has large drooping leaves and large silky flowers of creamy to lemony white, up to 5 inches across. It contributed its long petals and elegant texture to the China roses, as well as its remarkable fragrance, sometimes ascribed to its foliage when crushed, but more likely from its Tea-scented flowers. In contrast to the above description, a second variety with white flowers and smaller leaves has also been in cultivation in Britain . Having been absorbed into the Hybrid Tea lineage, old Tea roses, as developed in China over the centuries, are now very rare. One very popular survivor is Fortune’s Double Yellow, discovered in 1845 by Robert Fortune in “a rich Mandarin’s garden at Ningpo.”

Lineages of the European Roses

What exactly did these China roses have to offer to the western world that was otherwise lacking in European roses? To answer this question, a cursory look at rose lineages in Europe , before the introduction of the China rose in the early 19th century, is necessary. The elucidation of both ancient and modern rose genealogies was greatly advanced in the early and mid-20th century by the pioneering genetic research of Dr. C. C. Hurst (1870-1947). His studies of cytology and chromosomal inheritance, though performed at the infancy of genetic science in the 1930s, have not been significantly challenged to this day.

Inspired by Mendel’s papers on inheritance, which were discovered in 1900, and working with William Bateson of the John Innes Horticultural Institute, Hurst developed a foundation for studies in both plant and animal genetics. He founded the Burbage Experiment Station for Genetics in Leicestershire , England , working with pedigree rose stocks and many other genera, and collecting numerous books. After World War I, with his station facilities in neglect and depleted of specimens, staff, and money, he performed extensive cytology research on roses at Cambridge University . He planned a monograph on rose genus classification, based on his findings of genetic inheritance, yet was hindered by the advent of World War II. He died soon after the war, and his widow, Rona Hurst, carefully maintained his copious and detailed notes and, being skilled and knowledgeable herself, edited her late husband’s materials and submitted them to Cambridge . Among the publications of C. C. Hurst are “Notes on the Origin of the Moss Rose” (1922) and “Notes on the Origin and Evolution of our Garden Roses” (1941). Full versions of both appear in The Rose Book by Graham Stuart Thomas. The following description of rose lineages reflects these findings.

The “old roses” of Europe owe much of their character to the Red Rose of Lancaster , R. gallica L. (previously R. rubra Blackw., native to Europe , Turkey , and Iraq ), the Rose of the Persian Magi, known in antiquity and later to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was used by the Median Fire Worshippers in the 12th century BC, and Pliny, in the 1st century AD, describes it as a vivid red with up to 12 petals. It was also known to the Arabs in Spain during the 12th century. When dried, its petals developed a unique, pungent perfume, reputedly lacking when freshly gathered (“feebly odoriferous,” as the chemist Sawer noted in 1894). This is a significant physiological distinction when compared to the Damask roses, which lose their rich scent upon desiccation. From this lineage came R. gallica officinalis, the Apothecary’s Rose of Provins, not to be confused with the very ancient Provence or Cabbage Rose, R. centifolia. It was named after the town in France that developed a thriving industry for the production and distribution of its aromatic dried petals, one which prospered for several centuries. Rose water was also a product of this rose and it was used in oils, perfumes, and medieval cooking. Though referred to as the Red Damask Rose for hundreds of years in England , it is certainly a gallica, the misnomer stemming from the belief that the Crusaders brought it from Damascus . In the 16th century, a sport of this became the sensational Rosa Mundi, displaying a striking flower with pink and white stripes.

Damask roses are perhaps the most elusive and diverse of the ancient lineages, their nomenclature being highly confused and lacking standardization. Two classes have been distinguished based principally on flowering period: the Summer and Autumn Damasks. Both are probably the products of ancient hybrids of R. gallica, in one case combined with R. phoenicia (a native of Turkey and Syria ) to produce the Summer Damasks, and in the other with R. moschata (the Musk Rose, native to southern Europe , northern Africa and western Asia ) to produce the Autumn Damasks. This latter parent comes to us from ancient times, shrouded in mysteries relating to its flowering period, fragrance, foliage, and numerous literary references. Thomas acknowledges no less than three distinct varieties of Autumn Damask, known, respectively, to herbalists, botanists and gardeners, and writers such as Shakespeare (The Rose Book, 1994). It has been named as both × R. bifera and as R. damascena var. semperflorens (Loisel) Rowley. Before the arrival of the China roses in the late 18th century, this rose enjoyed the distinction of flowering a second time in the autumn, though only under “favorable” conditions. This capacity dates at least to the writings of Virgil (70-19 BC) in his literary work Georgics, in which the “biferique Rosaria Paesti” (“twice-flowering Roses of Paestum”) are described. Frescoes found in the ruins of Pompeii depicting this rose further attest to its existence in southern Italy at least two thousand years ago. In later centuries, the Monthly Rose or Four Seasons Rose of England ( Quatre Saisons in France ) evolved from the Autumn Damask.

Among other ancient roses of historical importance are: the Portland Rose (named after the Duchess of Portland) , long believed to be of China rose ancestry (specifically, from Slater’s Crimson China, one of the China stud roses), but more likely the offspring of R. gallica and the Autumn Damask; × R. alba L., the White Rose of York, a product of R. canina (the Dog Rose, native to Europe) and the Summer Damask. It was long loved in European gardens and by artists as the standard white garden rose, possibly a natural hybrid originating in the Crimea or Caucasus region; and R. centifolia L., the Cabbage Rose of England, believed to be a hybrid of the White Rose of York, mentioned above, and the Autumn Damask. The Cabbage Rose is probably the ancestor of the Moss rose, derived in Holland from a bud-sport of the latter, and maintains its own historical confusion. For years, it was believed to be the same as the R. centifolia of ancient legend, referred to by Herodotus and named by Theophrastus and Pliny. Hurst believes, however, based on literature and artwork from “many varied sources”, that it is a highly evolved and manipulated garden hybrid (now known more accurately as x R. centifolia) of more recent origins, a product of intense efforts by Dutch breeders between 1580 and 1710.

Gordon D. Rowley of the John Innes Horticultural Institute created two diagrams that depict the genealogies proposed by Hurst . They appear in Thomas’ The Rose Book (pp. 321-322) along with Hurst’s treatises on the Moss rose and the modern garden roses.

The China Roses’ Valuable Characteristics

The China roses that influenced rose breeding so heavily in the last two centuries offered several distinct traits that had been lacking in European roses of the 18th century: repeat or perpetual (remontant) blooming, from early or mid-summer to late autumn (depending on the climate), previously occurring only among the Autumn Damasks; true crimson red coloring that did not fade with age (“red” roses prior to this time are thought to have been of deep or dark pink colors at their reddest, and not the true red of the China roses); and a lower, or “dwarf,” bushy habit. Also, a complete new range of yellow colors appeared in conjunction with Chinese roses, particularly from the contribution of R. foetida Herrm. (R. lutea, of old), the Austrian Briar Rose, native to western Asia . In addition, new fragrances were perceived in the China roses, some as Tea-scented, others as fruity or “nectarine-like,” and others as peppery. Lastly, the flowers demonstrated a higher center than in the old roses, and flower buds were more slender, unfurling upon opening. The old European varieties, on the other hand, contributed their traditionally loved and familiar characteristics, including their wonderful scents and many-petaled flowers.

Hurst ’s research uncovered a vitally important characteristic pertaining to repeat flowering: this capacity resulted from a recessive gene, found only in the China roses. Hurst believed that this trait was the product of a mutation, yet it has been consistently found among cultivated Chinese roses. He also deduced that growth habit and flowering period were closely linked Mendelian characters, dwarf form and repeat flowering being coincident, and that their determining genes were found on the same chromosome. Martyn Rix notes that sports demonstrate this linkage, with dwarf sports of once-flowering climbers showing repeat-flowering, and climbing sports of repeat-flowering dwarfs being “sparing of second crops.”

The desirable traits evident in the China roses found their way to European breeders by way of four distinct imports that arrived between 1792 and 1824, named the China stud roses. The vast majority of our modern hybrids include one or more of these four specimens as their progenitors. These are not the typical “primary” hybrids as would be seen in a breeding program, but are “derivative” hybrids, the results of many generations of incidental and intentional crossings in Chinese gardens. Such roses, in fact, still can be found in China today and are quite similar to these stud roses. Drawings of Canton roses by John Reeves, from the early 1800s, reinforce this belief, and can be seen at the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London .

The Stud Roses

Hurst determined that three of the four stud roses are hybrids of the two wild-source species mentioned in the introduction, the exception being Slater’s Crimson China, determined to be a product solely derived from R. chinensis var. spontanea. All four are perpetual-flowering and of dwarf habit, and demonstrate completely different leaves, twigs, and fragrance than had previously existed in the old roses of Europe .

Slater’s Crimson China was imported by Gilbert Slater of Knot’s Green, Leytonstone in 1792, and by 1798 the French, who dominated rose breeding efforts at the time, had begun hybridization experiments. Within a couple of years, material had been distributed to Austria , Germany , and Italy . (A very closely related form is actually believed to have existed in Italy since the mid-17th century.) Descriptions of this rose, as well as drawings by Willmott from 1911, indicate a close similarity to Henry’s discovery of its wild progenitor in 1885, yet differ in regard to the perennial flowering, dwarf habit, and semi-double flowers displayed by Slater’s Crimson. Additionally, this hybrid’s extremely low fertility rate of 14 percent, as determined by Hurst , argues for its status as a facilitated hybrid, only able to have survived and evolved in cultivation.

Parsons’ Pink China was introduced in 1793 by Joseph Banks, the Director of Kew Gardens in England , having most likely been collected near Canton by Sir George Staunton, a member of Lord Macartney’s embassy to China , in 1792. It may very well be identical to the rose brought to England in 1751 by Osbeck. James Colville propagated and sold it under the name of Pale China Rose and later it acquired the name Old Blush. It made its way to France in 1798, as well, to become the subject of successful breeding efforts and a source of many hybrids to come. By 1800, it had also appeared in North America and would eventually give rise to a wide array of popular descendents, including Noisette roses, Tea roses, Hybrid Teas, and Hybrid Perpetuals.

Hume’s Blush Tea-Scented China was introduced by Sir A. Hume from the “ East Indies ” (then including China ) in 1810. It was originally named R. indica odorata and later R. indica fragrans. Hurst estimates that its Tea rose characteristics predominate by a 2:1 margin over those of its R. chinensis parentage. It is known for its large, elegant, pale pink flowers that continually bloom. It is said to have survived arduous conditions upon importation, with only 1 in 1,000 plants surviving first the voyage from China , exposed on the ship’s open deck, and then an English blockade of French ports during the Napoleonic Wars.

Park’s Yellow Tea-Scented China was brought to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1824, having probably arrived from China in 1823. John Reeves (1774-1856), chief inspector for the East India Company at Canton from 1812 to 1831, was most likely responsible for this import and played a vital role in the introduction of many Chinese plants into Europe at that time. It was given the name R. indica sulphurea in France , where it was quickly introduced. Like Hume’s China rose, it was more heavily influenced by the Tea rose parent, featuring large yellow flowers with thick tea-scented petals and bright green leaves. It was an important ancestor to many yellow Tea roses of the 1800s.

The French, as mentioned above, were considered the most proficient rose breeders of the time, having established their preeminence in the early 1700s. The famed botanist, Claude-Antoine Thory (1759-1827) and the renowned artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) combined to develop and promote many of the most popular China rose hybrids. The Empress Josephine, a passionate lover of roses, was the overriding impetus and beneficiary of their efforts to develop new varieties, which appeared in great numbers at her estate, Malmaison. Many of these were to become progenitors of countless hybrids developed over the next two centuries.

A complex schema has been suggested to represent the legacy of the China stud roses. Interbreeding, backcrossing, the use of widely dissimilar parents, and the combining of more than two groups in the creation of new varieties have rendered the traditional family tree impractical. Otherwise traceable lineages have been blurred or corrupted due to these factors as well as to inbreeding within the various rose groupings, resulting in the loss of previously recognizable group distinctions. One solution to the problem of establishing rose lineages and sensible classification schemes may be to forsake ancestry completely in favor of a simple, albeit artificial, system based solely on overt or detectable plant features. Rowley suggests a “sponge” structure in place of a tree, by virtue of its 3-dimensional and reuniting network of branches, some dead-ending and others representing new beginnings or genetic source material. The following is a brief review of some major rose groupings that have evolved from the China rose hybrids, again as described by Hurst and presented with only minor editing by Thomas.

Groups That Arose from Hybridization with China Roses

The Noisette and Bourbon roses were among the first marketable products from hybridization work with the China roses, appearing in the early 1800s. Parsons’ Pink China and R. moschata (Miller’s White Musk) produced the very popular American climber Champney’s Pink Cluster (or Champney’s Rose) in 1802. John Champney was an affluent rice farmer and skilled gardener from Charleston , South Carolina . His hybrid won great acclaim for its musk aroma and large semi-double pink flowers. This hybrid was then self-pollinated by Charleston nurseryman Philippe Noisette to create the first Noisette roses, soon developed further by his brother Louis in Paris and distributed throughout Europe . As is characteristic of a second generation that has been bred by self-fertilization of a hybrid, recessive traits became evident through genetic recombination. In this case, the recessive gene for perpetual flowering was expressed, a trait that would revolutionize the breeding of all modern roses. This pattern of hybridizing the China rose (or one of its perpetually flowering descendents) with one of the myriad “old roses,” and then self-fertilizing to produce a dependable number of perpetual-flowering offspring, was to be repeated numerous times over the following years. This was especially important in the development of the Hybrid Perpetuals from the summer-flowering Hybrid China roses.

The Bourbon rose, likewise, appeared in the second generation of breeding, this time from a cross between Parsons’ Pink China and the Pink Autumn Damask. This was perhaps an incidental result from the use of both parents as hedge plantings on the Isle de Bourbon in France . It was developed in the years1815 to 1820 and produced a compact, perpetual flowering hybrid with very fragrant, rose-colored and semi-double flowers, and nearly evergreen foliage. This rose was to give rise to the pink Tea roses and subsequently to various Hybrid China and Hybrid Perpetual lines in the years to come. Both Noisette and Bourbon roses were destined to be “improved…out of existence” by repeated crossings with the new Tea roses between 1820 and 1870.

The Tea rose of the 1800s was originally described as the species R. gigantea, yet was always known to be a hybrid product of the Noisette/Bourbon lines combined with one of the two Tea-scented stud roses. They have since been reclassified by some as R. × odorata. The yellow Noisette-Teas and pink Bourbon-Teas flourished between 1840 and 1890, only to lose their distinguishing characteristics, as well, this time due to repeated crossings with the Hybrid Teas. They have all but disappeared from cultivation.

Hybrid China roses started to appear around 1815 as a product of the China/Noisette/Bourbon roses crossed with various summer-flowering varieties, in particular the R. gallica and Damask varieties. Though all Hybrid Chinas were strictly summer-flowering, many popular varieties were developed, and by 1830 several superior cultivars appeared which, through crosses to Portland/Noisette/Bourbon lines, become the parents of the Hybrid Perpetuals. These latter were distinguishable from their parents in that they were bred for continuous flowering. The first of these was the famous Rose du Roi, appearing in 1816 in the garden of the king of Sèvres at St. Cloud in Paris . A descendent of the Portland Rose, it reigned supreme for two decades with its crimson, fully double flowers and intense fragrance, flowering freely throughout summer and fall regardless of pruning or other special culture.

Hybrid Tea roses followed next from crosses between Hybrid Perpetuals and the Tea roses, appearing first in 1867. Hardiness and vigorous growth were gained from the HPs, with delicate coloring and shapely habit from the Tea roses. By 1884 they had become a distinct group from the Hybrid Perpetuals, and soon produced exceptional red varieties when back-crossed with the latter.

The Pernet Rose was the product of a specific cross between a Hybrid Perpetual and a variety of R. foetida Herrm. (also called R. lutea Mill.), the Austrian Briar Rose. The latter was cultivated in ancient times by the Saracens of the Middle East and in northern Africa , but probably originated from Asia Minor east to Tibet . Specifically, the Persian Yellow Rose, a double-flowered form introduced from Persia by Sir Henry Willock in 1838, was the parent source. Due to centuries of cultivation, its resulting sterility was overcome by the tireless and persistent efforts of Pernet Ducher in Lyon , France . In addition, numerous “off” traits, such as black spot susceptibility, early leaf loss, poor or lost fragrance, and complete sterility were overcome by years of careful breeding. Most valuable of all, an unpredicted array of deep, rich, and brilliant colors and color patterns, in addition to the deep yellow of its R. foetida origins, was developed.

The Poly-Pompon or Polyantha roses came about from a cross between R. multiflora of Japan, a strong climber with single white flowers, and a China rose descended from Parsons’ Pink China, known in England as the Dwarf Pink China, Fairy Rose, or R. lawranceana, and in France as the Bengale Pompon. A highly diverse group of second generation offspring resulted from this cross, from perpetual-flowering dwarfs a few inches high to tall summer-flowering climbers; here, once again, the linkage between flowering and growth habit are apparent. Modern day varieties tend more to the dwarf, perpetual-flowering variety.

Lastly, the Poulsen Roses accord special mention as some of the premier Floribundas, developed in 1924 in Denmark from a cross between a Polyantha named Orléans Rose and a Hybrid Tea named Red Star. From this descended a series of vigorous varieties in colors ranging from pink to scarlet, red, and crimson. Karen Poulsen, for instance, was an especially popular offering with its “dazzling scarlet single flowers.” Varieties developed after 1935 tended away from the more typical Poulsen habit, becoming more closely aligned with the Hybrid Teas, fragrant but less vigorous, and with larger, fuller blooms in smaller clusters.

Recent Discoveries of R. chinensis var. spontanea

An abbreviated list of descendents such as this only hints at the rich and complex contributions of the China roses. When Henry came upon the wild source of R. chinensis in 1885, he was reaching back through the centuries to the elusive beginnings to much of our modern rose culture. Other explorers, including E.H. Wilson and Joseph Rock, were to follow in his footsteps in the coming years, locating populations of the wild species in China . In the mid-20th century, foreign research was excluded from China due to the Cultural Revolution, yet after its demise in 1976 contact with the outside world gradually resumed.

In 1983, a Japanese botanist working in China named Mikinori Ogisu also found R. chinensis var. spontanea. His discovery occurred on a dry, west-facing slope in the Ichang Gorge of the Yangtze Kiang River , within the secondary forests of Leibo County , Hubei Province. He described a wide range of flower colors on various plants of this particular population, depending upon their elevation, which ranged between 1,560 and 1,850 meters. He noted that flower color changes from pale pink to crimson due to exposure to the elements and to pollination. At lower altitudes, flower color was seen to develop quickly to a deep crimson, while at higher elevations there appeared a slower and less noticeable color change, with both pale pink and crimson flowers occurring on the same plant. He considers a cultivated variety named R. chinensis ‘Sanguinea’ (also called the Bengal Crimson 1 and depicted by Redouté) to demonstrate similar characteristics. Over a 10-year period of exploration in Sichuan , Ogisu found 10 locations where native stands of the species occurred, including a pure white-flowered population. As seen in previously discovered populations, these flowered only once, in early to in mid-summer.

Ogisu described the species to beof small to medium growth habit, with smooth, reddish wood when young, and with sparse, small, dark red prickles when mature. Leaves are sparse with three to five pointed leaflets that are reddish-brown when young. Flowers are single and five-petaled with a limp, silky texture and a loose shape after opening. He believes that, in the past, only double-flowered rose selections were cultivated in China (as was true for chrysanthemums, Rubus, Lotus, and peonies), and that only these made their way to Europe . Subsequent single-flowered varieties came about, therefore, by reverting to their natural condition, as seen in the wild.

Martyn Rix, also having observed the wild species, has noted a strong correlation between Ogisu’s description and both the Slater’s Crimson and Parsons’ Pink ( Old Blush) stud roses, even surmising that Slater’s Crimson may not be a hybrid at all, with its crimson flowers and dwarf form seen as distinctly similar to some of its wild-origin relatives. He noted the amazing color range, as well, yet adds that growth habit of the wild specimens ranged widely, including dwarf forms, arching shrubs, and climbers extending high into the trees.

Future questions regarding characteristics and classification of the two wild ancestors of the China rose, and of the multitude of descendents spawned from them, will best be answered through further genetic study, including DNA and other molecular analysis.

NOTE: Several roses have acquired the epithet “Bengal”, having reached Europe by way of Bengal; the reference is consequently unreliable in representing a distinct variety.