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In Search of Wild Roses in Asia

In Search of Wild Roses in Asia

William A. McNamara

In the September, 1988, while on an expedition to Sichuan, China, in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Howick Arboretum, we discovered a wild stand of Rosa chinensis var. spontanea south of the town of Pingwu at 740 meters (2,427 feet) elevation.  The roses were scrambling to 3 meters near the Fu Jiang (River) on a south-facing hillside.  At the time of the collection, we did not know which species it was.  When it flowered three years later, it was confirmed by botanists at Kew Gardens that it was in fact Rosa chinensis var. spontanea.  This was quite exciting for us as this species had only been rediscovered by Japanese plantsman and explorer extraordinaire Mikinori Ogisu in 1983 in southern Sichuan near Leibo.  Until Ogisu’s discovery, it had been thought by many that Rosa chinensis var. spontanea was possibly extinct in the wild.  It was seen by Ernest Henry Wilson in 1910 in north central and northwestern Sichuan and before that by Augustine Henry in western Hupeh near Yichang.  Roses grown from our collected seeds have thrived at Quarryhill and have been widely distributed.  They are quite easy to propagate vegetatively.  We have four distinct forms, one almost pure white with a hint of pink, one pink, one white to light pink with scarlet striping in the petals, and one scarlet.  They begin flowering here in northern California in early March and continue for several weeks.

Once we had Rosa chinensis var. spontanea well represented at Quarryhill, we turned our attention to finding Rosa odorata var. gigantea, the other likely wild rose that was a key influence on modern roses.  Fortunately in 2002 we received seeds of Rosa odorata var. gigantea from Viru and Girija Viraraghavan from a cultivated plant in their garden.  Their plant was grown from seed that they collected in 1990 at 2130 meters (6,988 feet) on Mt. Sirohi in Manipur state in northeastern India.  It was growing in an open scrub jungle with scattered tall deciduous trees and was climbing 10 meters (32 feet) into trees in full sun.  Plants from these seeds are now flourishing at Quarryhill and are producing vigorous sprawling mounds.  The flower buds are yellow and open to a very large light yellow or white flower. 

With assistance from my good friend Dr. Wang Guoliang, we collected seeds of Rosa odorata var. gigantea in the Stone Forest near Kunming, Yunnan, in October, 2012.  We saw only one plant with fruit littering the ground.  It was a vigorous climber to more than 10 meters (32 feet) arching up the limestone formations.  The seeds germinated readily, and we have planted them out at Quarryhill, but the plants have not yet flowered.

Now that we had the Indian and the Chinese forms of this important rose growing well at Quarryhill, we decided to look for the Burmese form, rumored to have the largest flowers of them all.  We knew that it had been collected in the Shan Hills of eastern Myanmar in 1888 by Sir Henry Collett, but suspected that it had not been collected since.  From Collett’s notes, we also knew that it had been found between the 19th and the 22nd parallels (of the northern hemisphere) at 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,219 to 1,524 meters) elevation.   He noted that it was “apparently spread over the whole Shan Hills” but was “locally abundant, chiefly in dark shady valleys.” Evidently, Collett spotted the roses from quite a distance due to the very large white flowers and the fact that the roses were climbing up large trees.  He also wrote that plants grown from the seed he collected were growing at Kew Gardens.  I checked with my old friend Tony Kirkham, head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens, to see if any roses remained of Collett’s introduction.  With the passing of more than 125 years I doubted that anything would be found, and that turned out to be the case. 

With funding from the Franklinia Foundation, I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in April, 2014, to search for Rosa odorata var. gigantea.  Before looking for the rose we had spent several days in the mountains of northern Myanmar near the Indian and Chinese boarder searching for hardy temperate plants for a future collecting expedition.  Satisfied that we should return in the near future for seed collecting, we headed south to begin our search for the rose.  We met up with our driver Yan Gyi Aung at Mt. Popa in central Myanmar and began the long drive to the base of the Shan Hills.  My wife Joanna and I were tired and covered in horribly itching welts from nasty sandfly bites in the northern mountains.  The next day the three of us began wandering the Shan Hills staying as near as possible between the 19th and the 22nd parallels and above 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) elevation.  It was very hot, and we had allowed only three days for the search.  For two long full days we did not see a single rose, only fire-scarred denuded arid landscapes, mountainsides stripped of most of their trees presumably for firewood, and large areas cleared for agricultural expansion.  After two disappointing days, while we were commiserating with our driver at our hotel before dinner, we asked the hotel manager about the rose.  I showed him a photo of the Indian form in flower at Quarryhill, describing how it climbed large trees, and he enthusiastically told us that when he was a young boy people saw a rose like that everywhere in the mountains.  He went on to say that no one sees it anymore, but that it might be near a village called Kakku.  Kakku was within our search parameters, so we went to sleep hopeful that the next day we would be successful.  It was a long drive to Kakku and the landscape remained the same as the two previous days. 

Around mid-day and on the verge of giving up all hope of finding Rosa odorata var. gigantea in Myanmar, I suggested that we try one last search on a small mountain that we had seen on our first day, but had not yet explored.  We could see a few temples on the mountain, and I knew that sometimes that could mean that some of the natural flora might remain.  As we wound our way up the mountain getting fairly near the summit I spotted large upright stems, some 10 cm. (4 inches) in diameter, and covered in prickles.  I yelled, “stop, we’ve found it!”  Jumping out of the car, we quickly spotted some flowers.  I was initially concerned that even if we found the rose, we were going to be too late to see flowers.  We found only five flowers, each just over 8 cm. (3.15 inches) across with a slight fragrance.  We assumed that they were small being the last of the season.  We saw several fruits developing along with vigorous amber red new growth.  The leaves averaged 15 cm. (6 inches) in length and had seven to nine serrated leaflets with the terminal leaflet being the largest.  It was a healthy plant arching to 4.5 meters (15 feet) and just over 9 meters (30 feet) wide growing at 1,645 meters (5,396 feet) above sea level.  It was difficult to contain our excitement, and we quickly began searching for other specimens. 

We were told that the mountain’s name was Shwe Phone Pwint meaning, Gold Mystique Blooming (or Flowering) Mountain, presumably due to the early spring profusion of large flowers with their bright golden-yellow stamens.  This was also the name of the pagoda on the summit.  As we climbed higher, we found several more roses, though only one with a single flower.  In total we found 13 specimens in a short afternoon, but surely there were more.  Some were climbing over 10 meters (over 30 feet) in tall trees.  The dominate plants that they were growing with were Melastoma, Quercus, Hedychium, Ficus, Pinus, Schima, Albizzia, and bamboo.  We GPS-tagged all that we found knowing that we would return in the fall to collect ripe seeds.  Exhausted, but happy that on our final day in the Shan Hills of Myanmar we had finally found the Burmese wild form of Rosa odorata var. gigantea, we boarded a plane for Yangon to prepare for our return home. 

A few weeks after our return home to California, I traveled to London.  While there I visited the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with Dr. Peter Raven and searched for Collett’s specimen from 1888.  It was nearly as difficult to find as the living plant in Myanmar.  We were led to different floors in vain and finally found the correct cabinet in the basement.  As we opened the folders, before us lay Collett’s specimen, the type specimen of Rosa odorata var. gigantea, called Rosa gigantea by Collett.  And the flower was indeed 14 cm. (5.5 inches across).  Almost speechless, I felt a calm sense of partial completion and imagined Collett all those years ago wandering the Shan Hills of Burma.  He too must have been speechless when he first saw the rose.  The only thing to do now was to prepare for a seed collecting expedition in the fall.

We returned to Myanmar in the fall of 2014 and again spent time in the foothills of the Himalayas in the far north.  It was a very difficult road-less area to hike in as we climbed more than 10,000 feet with an abundance of leeches, sandflies, and nasty snakes.  We then made our way to the Shan Hills to collect ripe fruits of Rosa odorata var. gigantea.  We knew exactly where they occurred, so it was easy to find once again on Gold Mystique Blooming (or Flowering) Mountain.  We were able to collect dozens of ripe fruits and after cleaning the seed, we prepared for our return home.  Our Quarryhill Nursery Manager was able to germinate most of the seed and we now have many plants from Myanmar thriving at our Botanical Garden.  We expect that all three forms of Rosa odorata var. gigantea, the Indian form, the Yunnan form, and the Myanmar form, will flower in the early spring of 2017.  At that time we will carefully photograph, measure, and write descriptions comparing the three forms.  We are very excited and proud that Quarryhill is possibly the only place in the world where all three forms of Rosa odorata var. gigantea are thriving.

We have several other wild rose species at Quarryhill that have not yet been identified and we are continuing to add to the collection with our annual expeditions to various regions of Asia.