Tender But Tough: The Old Tea Roses

Tea roses may, not withstanding our magnificent Hybrid Teas, be taken as a supreme expression of what is most delicately beautiful. Refined in color, powerfully sweet, generous in bloom, neither what we say nor the pictures we see do them justice.

Ethelyn Emery Keays, Old Roses

In the 1930s and early 1940s, whenever Francis and Marjorie Lester left their nursery, which they had moved from Monterey to Watsonville in 1937, they were on a rescue mission. Sometimes for two-week stretches, they took to the backroads of California looking for the old roses so rapidly being dropped from catalogs and cultivation in favor of the hybrid tea roses. They were not alone in their desire to protect and preserve what was rapidly being lost. In the east, Mrs Ethelyn Emery Keays was collecting and identifying all the old roses she could find in Calvert County, Maryland, and writing a classic text about them: Old Roses (1935). Here in the West, the Lesters searched through old gardens, cemeteries, and the rewarding richness of the Mother Lode country.

That two hundred mile strip of land on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, where the gold rush had taken place after 1849, was a virtual preservation area for the neglected and the forgotten. “I think there is not one of the fifty or more of the old mining towns and settlements which doesn’t have its old roses, although some of them may be hard to find,” Mr Lester wrote in 1941. Gallicas, Bourbons, hybrid perpetuals were still surviving there. And “everywhere” Lester went, he found “the old Tea roses, still flourishing and in bloom even in the late autumn. . . . whenever we found in old gardens any of the Tea roses, which start readily from cuttings, we found them in other gardens close by, and then not again for a long distance.”

One “old forgotten favorite we have rescued from old California gardens,” the red and pink striped ‘Rainbow’ (1889), came into the Lester Rose Garden catalog in the late 1930s. There have been other striped teas—‘Flag of the Union’ (1877), ‘American Banner’ (1879)—but only ‘Rainbow’, found sporting from ‘Papa Gontier’ (1882) by John Seivers of San Francisco, seems to have survived. In 1941, their catalog offered “the rare climbing sport of ‘Papa Gontier’ (1904) and not many of those.” Still a rarity, this climber can now only be obtained from a single French nursery.

Coming from a colder climate to garden in Southern California, one of my happiest surprises was the revelation of the tea roses, too tender to flourish in places I had previously gardened. Brought from China via Europe, they had acclimatized themselves to the friendly warmth of the American South and Southwest. Those old roses were tenacious, putting down strong roots and surviving conditions that would shrink a hybrid tea rose back to its rootstock (teas do best on their own roots). They do tend to have weak necks, since the pedicel below the bloom has insufficient strength to bear the weight of the double flowers; though not true of all of them, it does seem to be a family characteristic. “Under average conditions they require no spraying,” Francis Lester wrote. “They rather resent pruning and, indeed, are at their best when left unpruned.” Sound advice, that. One of my first plantings, ‘Rosette Delizy,’ left unpruned except for deadheading, grew to a majestic size (in Bermuda, paradise island for tea roses, it can grow to twelve feet), but, when a long spell of surgery and convalescence kept me out of the garden, someone “tidied it up,” from which it never recovered. (Tidy gardeners can be dangerous.) Although the teas are generally remarkably free of the common rose ailments, I did find the exception. Distributed erroneously as ‘Old Gold’ (1913), (which it wasn’t, since the rose of that name was a McGredy hybrid tea), this one had every disfiguring disease available to the rose. It could have been merely a geographic problem, since it had a place in the catalogs over many years and has only recently dropped out; but, for me, it was a garden eyesore.

Roy Hennessey, the famously cantankerous nurseryman from Scapoose, Oregon, who fought a running feud with the rose “eggsperts” (that is, everyone but Mr Hennessey, himself) considered the tea roses not a class but a type. Certainly the first of them to reach Europe had resulted from cross breeding and cultivation in Chinese gardens. There are no roses quite like them in their responsiveness to growing conditions, to sun and soil, and to the changeability of the seasons, which can cause, often quite markedly, a transfiguration of the coloring.

Rosa ‘Safrano’. Photographs by William Grant

Rosa ‘Safrano’. Photographs by William Grant

From the beginning, nurserymen were aware of this volatility. Robert Buist, in 1844, noted the changeling nature of the bloom on ‘Safrano’ (1838), supposedly the first hand-pollinated rose—happily, still with us. “When it opens in the morning it is a fine saffron or a dark orange color and is beautiful, in the forenoon it is blush, and in the afternoon is a very poor white and not worth notice, and unless you see it pass through these changes you can scarcely believe it to be the same rose.” The finger is on the fast-forward button here, but the observation is accurate.

Rosa ‘Niles Cochet’

Rosa ‘Niles Cochet’

The tea roses were largely a French specialty, but America contributed some good ones. Surprisingly few have come from California, though, considering the congeniality of the climate. The best-known West Coast contribution, rarely properly credited, is ‘Niles Cochet’ (1906), which was found sporting from one of the great tea roses, ‘Maman Cochet’ (1892), at the California Nursery in Niles (now part of Fremont). With markedly more red in the bloom than ‘Maman Cochet’, sufficient for it to have once been known as ‘Crimson Maman Cochet’, the family resemblance between the two is unmistakable and confusing. Over many years, the principal American old-rose nursery sent out ‘Niles’ as ‘Maman’ (which is how I came by it).

Rosa ‘Maman Cochet’

Rosa ‘Maman Cochet’

Rich cream stirred with carmine, ‘Maman Cochet’, named for the mother and grandmother of its raiser, Mr Scipion-Cochet, became the founder of a formidable family. The large, eighty-petaled bloom set a standard by which many later roses were judged. Thus we have had (not all of them teas and not all of them still around) ‘Yellow Maman’ (syn. ‘Alexander Hill Grey’, 1911), another ‘Crimson Maman Cochet’ (syn. ‘Etoile de France’, 1904), ‘Red Maman Cochet’ (syn. ‘Helen Gould’, 1901, the American rename of ‘Balduin’, 1896), ‘Blush Maman Cochet’ (syn. ‘William R Smith’, 1908), and the three direct offspring, ‘Niles Cochet’, ‘Climbing Maman Cochet’ (1915), and ‘White Maman Cochet’ (1896). The latter, once prized as just about the best white available, has the fullness of the parent but, in Southern California at least, is not a pristine white. Here a stain of crimson rims the outer edges of the petals as if lightly stroked by a calligrapher’s brush. A ‘Climbing White Maman Cochet’ (1911) also exists.

Out of China

The bringing of the tea roses to the Western world has been well documented. The first arrival, Rosa x odorata in 1810, was obtained from the famous Fa Tee Nursery in Canton by an agent of The East India Company. Sent back to the Romford garden of Sir Abraham Hume, it was named ‘Hume’s Blush’ to honor his wife, Lady Amelia. In the Anglicizing, no one seems to have thought the original Chinese name that it must have had to be worth remembering.

Rosa ‘Park’s Yellow’

Rosa ‘Park’s Yellow’

Fourteen years later and from that same nursery, John Dampier Parks, then collecting for the (not yet Royal) Horticultural Society of London, shipped Rosa odorata ochroleuca (remembered as ‘Park’s Yellow’), together with the yellow form of R. banksiae back to London. Thus, the beginnings of the tea-scented China roses, named for the floral fragrance of newly crushed leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), a fragrance more accessible to nineteenth century noses than it has ever been to mine. I find it light and elusive, not strong and lingering.

Rosa ‘Adam’

Rosa ‘Adam’

Older authorities often list the blushing pink ‘Adam’ as the first of the European-raised tea roses, and it was so described when it came back into commerce in 1980. Named for its raiser, M Adam of Rheims, its premier place has since been challenged, and its introductory date moved from 1833 up to 1838. The first yellow tea, a coloring new to European remontant (reblooming) roses was ‘Smith’s Yellow’ (1833), a yellow that was pastel rather than vibrant. To confuse the issue, the English writer EE Robinson listed twenty-seven tea roses predating 1833 (The Rose, September 1969), noting that all might be of questionable parentage or value. None have survived, if indeed they ever got much distribution.

The English nurseryman Thomas Rivers, writing in 1846, refers to ‘Adam’ as a fine new tea rose but singles out ‘Princess Marie’, which he saw blooming in Paris in June, 1837, as “having greater perfection than any other Tea rose.” In 1846, the Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist gave a fairly lengthy listing of the teas without a mention of ‘Adam’.

Nineteenth-century rose literature is extensive, excellent, and easy to access, since the best of it was reprinted in facsimile in 1978 and 1979, with authoritative introductions by eminent rosarians. Practical nurserymen, the authors recorded exactly what it was they saw, with no time for that romantic mythification that attaches so readily to writings on the rose. For my taste, Mr Buist is the most readable. His Rose Manual takes a lively look at both roses and nurserymen. Retaining the sharp probity of his Scottish ancestry, he takes a dim view of the more questionable practices of his profession.

The English come off the worst in Buist’s opinion. They would, he wrote, go over to France at the end of the season, buy up surplus stocks of a desirable rose, rename it, advertise it as a new variety, and sell it off at a premium price. French rose exporters were not too trustworthy either. “They have plants to suit any name and color.” Nor do his American colleagues escape unscathed. They were apt to substitute a lesser variety for a popular rose that was sold out, without informing the customer of the switch. Buist had “at least four” different roses offered as ‘Comte de Paris’, a rose so esteemed in France it had kept its high introductory price over several years.

In Search of Yellow

One of Buist’s own offerings was ‘Flavescens’ or ‘Yellow Tea’. This was another name for ‘Park’s Yellow’ and, Buist wrote, had been introduced into the US by his late partner Mr Hibberd in 1828; “the first plants that were sold of them was in 1830 and they are now found in their thousands in every part of the United States.”

Rosa ‘Hume’s Blush’

Rosa ‘Hume’s Blush’

Two years after Buist’s Rose Manual came out, the Flushing, New York, nurseryman, Robert William Prince, produced another in that classic cluster of rose texts, Prince’s Manual of Roses. Actively engaged in the importation of European roses, he never mentions ‘Adam’ but does tell us that both ‘Hume’s Blush’ and ‘Park’s Yellow’ had been brought here by his father, and that the first considerable import of the subsequent tea roses “was made from Loddiges and Sons of London by the author himself.”

If the claims of Buist and Prince seem to clash on who first handled ‘Park’s Yellow’ here, it reflects the fierce competition to bring foreign novelties to American gardeners. The impression that America gave and Britain received is not entirely correct. And the first repeat blooming yellow rose was certainly a decorative novelty, that being the most coveted color in nineteenth century roses: a bright yellow, fixed and unfading.

Even the most popular of the yellow tea roses were unstable in their coloring. The hints and tints of that color in the opening bloom bleached so that the fading flowers were transformed into ghosts of their former selves. Even the most stable yellows can change through the flowering stage. The large cupped bloom of the vigorous, prolific, and almost thornless ‘Mrs Dudley Cross’ (1906) goes from a blend of pastel yellows in the spring to a rich ivory, flushed and veined in crimson in the fall. Seen from opposite ends of the year, they could be two different cultivars with only the fullness of their sixty-five petals in common. The changes in ‘Etoile de Lyon’ (1881) are less visually striking but still noticeable: the haze of old gold covering the ebullient growth for much of the year fades beautifully to an antique parchment—and to an unsightly shrivel if moisture touches the opening petals, liking its water only to the roots.

The desired buttercup brilliancy appears strongly in the Persian double yellow rose (Rosa foetida ‘Persiana’), brought from Iran into the London gardens of the Horticultural Society in 1838. Thereafter, the challenge was to bring that coloring into the mainstream. Some have suggested that a Lyon nurseryman, Antoine Level, crossed it into his tea, ‘Ma Capuchine’ (1871), but there is no proof of that. Opening to a nasturtium yellow, it quickly faded to white, and the plant itself grew weakly. Henry Ellwanger, another Philadelphia nurseryman and the author of a classic rose monograph, The Rose (1882), wasted no time on it. “A very distinct rose which for its delicate habit is useless for ordinary cultivators to attempt growing,” he wrote. Despite its faults and its bad press, Gertrude Jekyll still thought it worth recommending to British gardeners in 1902 as “the best of the buttonhole roses, quite distinct in color.”

With obsessive dedication, another Lyon nurseryman, Joseph Pernet-Ducher, spent seventeen years trying to enlarge the gene pool. Not until 1900 was he able to introduce ‘Soleil d’Or’ and bring the Persian yellow into the ancestry of modern roses. It still lacked the brightness he was looking for (that came later), but it opened up the genus to the day-glow coloring of vibrating oranges, yellows, and reds that splashed across gardens through the twentieth century. The tea roses, though, after peaking in popularity between 1880 and 1910, went into decline as the hybrid teas, with their greater climatic flexibility and wider color range, took over.

The Decline of the Tea Rose

Fittingly, perhaps, the last of the tea roses to secure a permanent garden place came from the French firm of Nabonnand, which had always specialized in them. Gilbert and Paul, father and son, raised some two hundred teas between 1872 and 1922 (EB Robinson puts the exact count at 188 by 1914). They have been accused of putting quantity before quality, but the firm’s last introduction was a beauty. That ‘Rosette Delizy’ (1922) survives (except in my garden after it got “tidied up”) is most likely due to its shapely bloom, its high-pointed center being the equal of any hybrid tea. Usually classed as a “yellow blend,” this lovely rose opens a rich, creamy yellow with apricot reflexes held in a cup of carmine, but, as it ages, the darker colors flush across the bloom until what has opened yellow matures and dies as red.

Paul Nobannand’s penultimate tea rose was ‘Princess Ghika’ (1921), named for an eccentric, reclusive Serbian princess. In 1895, she acquired the fifteenth-century Villa Gamberaia in Tuscany, extending it into one of the great Italian gardens (destroyed during World War II, house and garden were privately restored after 1954), but the rose named for her has been as reclusive as the princess. “A dark wine-red, an unusual color in the class, darker than any other Tea we know,” J Horace McFarland wrote of it in the 1923 American Rose Annual, recommending it to southern gardeners. It was in the old-rose catalogs of Bobbink and Atkins of Rutherford, New Jersey, until the early thirties: “Large full flowers of elegant form . . . brilliant wine-red reflexes, possibly the reddest Tea we have ever seen.” Deepest reds are not a common coloring in the tea roses, but that distinction seems not to have saved it. Hopefully, it may still be growing reclusively in some southern garden, but I have never been able to find any photographs of it (even the princess, herself, shunned the camera as she grew older).

For all practical purposes, ‘Rosette Delizy’ was the end of the tea roses. Quite a number have appeared briefly since. One of these lag-lasts, ‘Darling’ (1955), was in my garden for a dozen years, a brilliant pink but looking more hybrid than tea. When it declined, it was not replaced, since, by then, many older, better, more distinctive teas had become available—far more than could ever be given space in my small suburban garden.

The tea roses were never mass-marketed like the hybrid teas. French estimates have put their total number at around eighteen hundred. This may well be a Francophile accounting, and it is certainly a Eurocentric one. How many grew in Chinese gardens before Sir Abraham claimed ‘Hume’s Blush’ as his own, we can never know. Do even the Chinese have any idea of what has survived the trials and tribulations of their history?

Rosa ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’

Rosa ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’

Within immediate memory, only one Chinese tea rose has been brought west. The British rosarian, Hazel le Rougerel, saw ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’ in gardens there in 1982, and Peter Beales brought it into his extensive British old-rose catalog in 1989. Thought to be of ancient vintage it did not start a rush to import from the Chinese heritage. Tea and China roses are closely related and, more recently, a hybrid China with globular red flowers opening on to a white eye has been offered under the delightfully appropriate name of ‘White Pearl in Red Dragon’s Mouth’. Although thought to be of ancient Chinese origin, it seems now to have been collected in the United States.

Rosa 'Sombreuil'

Rosa ‘Sombreuil’

More to Come?

Since the revival of interest in old roses and the networking of “old rosers” into the Heritage Rose Group, far more have been found than could reasonably have been expected, although not all we grow may be true to name. Is that beautifully quartered, spicily scented, and vigorous white climber, ‘Sombreuil’, the 1850 original from M Robert or, possibly, a later hybrid? This one has caused quite a disagreement, although it does not seem to have affected the rose’s popularity or availability.

Over the years, a lot of nametags have been lost, and a lot of lovely old selections have parted from their pedigrees. Until recently, a found rose with a conferred name was treated with a Puritan disdain for the illegitimate. The Lesters tried to bring one or two of these found roses into their catalogs, but they only lasted a season. That prejudice has disappeared. Generally, these new, conferred names refer to the geographic location at which they were found; ‘Georgetown Pink Tea’ from Texas, ‘McClinton’s Tea’ from McClinton, Louisiana, and ‘Martha Gonzales’ a lovely China rose from Navasoto, Texas, named for the lady in whose garden it had been preserved.

North America’s largest collection of teas and hybrid perpetuals is but a part of the great assemblage of antique and extraordinary roses gathered by Gregg Lowery and Philip Robinson at Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol, California (www.vintagegardens.com). Their catalog is almost encyclopedic in the breadth of its coverage and the amount of information it contains—like an archaeological dig into the history of the rose. Here they all are, the familiar and the found, the ‘Safrano’s and the ‘Maman Cochet’s along with ‘Angel’s Camp White Tea’, ‘Westside Road Pink Tea’, and the striking ‘8475 Center Street Orange Tea’ found in the old California mining town of Mokelumne Hill.