Old Version

Roots of Iconic Blooms

Award-winning rose expert Wang Guoliang on the beloved flower’s Chinese roots and its enduring power as a cultural symbol

By Xiao Yudi Updated Aug.1

China roses in full bloom in the median strip of a road, Beijing, May 11, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Roses are seen as a symbol of love in Western culture, but the fragrant flower has roots in ancient China. China News Service interviewed Wang Guoliang, a researcher with the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and a laureate of the Great Rosarians of the World Award, an annual award given in California that has recognized great contributors to the world of roses since 2001, to learn more about how this flower was cultivated in China, and, after breeding and propagation, blossomed in Europe and around the world.  

CNS: Please share your experience of winning the Great Rosarian of the World Award and your research into the origin of roses?  

Wang: In 2016, I was invited to visit the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The selection committee bestowed me with the award in recognition of my many years of academic research and influence in the fields of the rose and the China rose (Rosa chinensis).  

Early on I proposed the notion of “the China rose, the rose of the world,” which has been recognized both at home and abroad after years of promoting it at international academic events.  

Before that, the West regarded 1867 as the debut of the first modern rose, which is called La France, which features long and broad petals, thick leaves, is everblooming (blooms throughout the growing season) and has a tea-scented fragrance. In fact, modern roses are by no means different from roses cultivated in ancient China, which were widely popular during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), with numerous renowned varieties.  

The China rose is not a wild plant, but a new cultivar fostered by ancient Chinese gardeners through improving the wild rose bush (the wild, uncultivated flower from which the rose and the China rose were cultivated). Due to its everblooming characteristic, ancient Chinese people named the new cultivar yueji, which literally means “blooming every month.” Europeans crossbred Chinese roses with local rose varieties, creating the popular flowers we know today. 

CNS: How did the old China rose take root in European gardens?  

Wang: To better understand the rose’s long-term evolution, we must understand the history of rose cultivation in the East and the West. 

At a 2005 international symposium, I proposed a six-period theory of the evolution of the China rose: fossils, introduction by ancient Chinese, cultivation in palace gardens, the debut, nationwide popularity, and worldwide popularity. The first three periods involve rose bushes, and during the fourth period, Chinese gardeners of the Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) dynasties fostered the everblooming China rose, based on several species of roses endemic to the deep forests in what are today’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Unfortunately, there is no way for us to know how the ancients cultivated the China rose.  

It was also thousands of years ago that Europe began to plant rose bushes in gardens, and artificially cultivated single-petal ones into multi-petal varieties, thus creating different varieties including the famous Damask Rose (Rosa damascena). Later, porcelain decorated with China rose patterns made its way to Europe via the Maritime Silk Road. At a time when Britain, the most horticulturally advanced country in Europe, had over a thousand varieties of ornamental plants, exotic flowers from China, such as the peony and the China rose, it inspired Europeans’ dreams of the Orient.  

Around the 18th century, China roses were brought to Europe by missionaries and plant hunters in huge quantities. Less suited to local climates, some of them had difficulties overwintering in the open. Therefore, Europeans crossbred the China rose with the local multi-petal rose bushes. Based on the China rose, Europe cultivated the hugely popular rose of today, marking the diversification and commercialization of the China rose.  

CNS: From a cultural point of view, what is the difference between the Chinese and Western understanding of roses? How did it evolve?  

Wang: Western rose culture boasts a long history. I think the rose first became associated with love in ancient Rome. Romans called their beloved “rose of my heart.” In Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s 1487 masterpiece Birth of Venus, the red and light pink flowers are roses. This is why the rose is also known as “the flower of the birth of Venus,” regarded as a symbol and embodiment of love and beauty.  

Apart from love, the rose also has multiple meanings. In ancient Europe, there was a tradition for victorious soldiers to wear a wreath of roses on their head. Roses and lilies serve as ornaments in a series of paintings by different artists themed on the Madonna and Child, completed during the 15th and 16th centuries, where the rose became the embodiment of sanctity. At the end of WWII, the French yellow rose was named Peace, which reflects the wishes of people all across the world.  

In China, rose culture is also rich and diverse. There have been ritual vessels with a five-petal floral motif excavated from multiple locations, produced between 7,000 and 6,000 years ago. This suggests the rose bush was once a widely worshipped totem. Therefore, some scholars have called the rose bush “the flower of China” in recent years.  

The China rose soon won widespread favor among nobility and common people alike. The everblooming flower reached its peak in popularity during the Song Dynasty (1127–1279).  
But the China rose was not associated with love or romance in ancient China. Instead, it was bestowed with symbolic meanings of eternal happiness, eternal spring and longevity.  

CNS: As more varieties are being bred, many traditional varieties of the China rose are diminishing. How should we protect them, and how should we promote China rose culture?  

Wang: Most people have never even seen old China roses. There is also a misconception, as many take for granted that the old China rose is inferior to its modern counterpart.  

But old China roses are quite beautiful, more resistant to disease, easier to maintain, and more prolific than new varieties produced through repeated crossbreeding. The China rose that dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) at Shuimu Temple in Dali, Yunnan Province is more than 30 centimeters in diameter, and blooms like a large tree. Its branches are 20 meters long, with flowers up to or more than 10 centimeters in diameter, which are like twinkling lights in a heavenly street. The view of these China roses is amazing, and they can be called the very best China roses.  

Despite its different cultural significance in China and the West, the China rose is widely seen as a symbol of beauty. Whether regarded as the flower of love or the flower of longevity, the China rose is an expression of human emotion and the wish for the continuation of this beauty. That is exactly what is known as harmonious coexistence.  

May life be as everblooming as the China rose, love be as sweet as the rose, and affection linger as long as the rose bush stands. This is my hope.

Wang Guoliang