Write 28 Days: Have Heaven ~ Day 4 :: China Roses

HaveHeavenWrite28DayFeb2019Welcome to day 4 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted

For the next 12 days or so, I’ll be playing with some of the lyrics and elements in the song “China Roses.” It’s packed with interesting plants and allusions, and since I don’t know what was in lyricist Roma Ryan’s head when she concocted this magic, I feel I can construe the lines as I wish (“who can say the way it should be?,” after all).

Taken as a whole, the lyrics span time from dawn through day to evening, night, and moon rise, evoking an exotic Eden, mythic and romantic, scented with heady fragrances, planted with unusual specimens made lush by rain and river, under a swirl of celestial motion. Explicit in the words and implicit in the connotations, histories, and mythologies are repetitions and reverberations of these conjurings, a journey through time in a day, time in an eon, eternity in the cosmos.

Here again are the lyrics:

China Roses

Who can tell me if we have heaven,
Who can say the way it should be;
Moonlight holly, the Sappho Comet,
Angel’s tears below a tree.

You talk of the break of morning
As you view the new aurora,
Cloud in crimson, the key of heaven,
One love carved in acajou.

One told me of China Roses,
One a thousand nights and one night,
Earth’s last picture, the end of evening:
Hue of indigo and blue.

A new moon leads me to
Woods of dreams and I follow.
A new world waits for me;
My dream, my way.

I know that if I have heaven
There is nothing to desire.
Rain and river, a world of wonder
May be paradise to me.

The first element I’ll look at is China roses, the most exotic roses. (China rose is also another name for the Chinese hibiscus — Hibiscus rosa-sinensis means “China rose” — and it’s a radish variety as well, but someone else can cover those.)


My, but China roses constitute a bigger topic than you might imagine if you know next to nothing about roses, which is my situation. For instance, “The History and Legacy of the China Rose” by Howard Higson at the Quarryhill Botanical Garden website, includes this among its tens of thousands of words on the topic:

“The ‘China rose’ is actually a complex of natural and cultivated hybrids that have evolved over more than a thousand years in Chinese gardens.  … 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 China roses that influenced rose breeding [in the West] 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.”

A perhaps more approachable backgrounder for those of us unfamiliar with rose breeding, species, and varieties notes that “[w]hen China roses were introduced into the West at the end of the 1700s, rose growing changed dramatically,” because of the new desirable traits of repeat blooming (“The ‘Autumn Damask’ rose of the West had repeat bloom but other old roses bloomed only once”), the new light scents, and the China roses’ tendency to darken as they age — “They can start out yellow and pass through several color changes including orange and pink, ending in dark red. This change is a remarkable sight and keeps the whole bush alive with color the entire time it is in bloom.” Their USDA hardiness zone range is 7-10 (some in zone 6), and most are known for being heat-loving.

Outstanding examples include ‘Old Blush’ (semi-double, lilac pink), ‘Mutablis’ (large bush with flowers that open yellow and darken to orange, pink, and dark red), ‘Archduke Charles’ (fragrant, pink flowers fading to dark red), and ‘Green Rose’ (green flowers), which is not as lovely looking as I thought it might be.

Rosa ‘Old Blush’
Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ … gorgeous!
Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ showing various coloured flowers on one shrub

Check out the Monticello website if you want to read more about The China (Rose) Revolution, which notes that “[i]n the late 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic, the Rose was still the ‘Queen of Flowers’ as the Greek poet Sappho had dubbed it in the sixth century BC.”

Rosa ‘Louis-Philippe’ (aka Florida Rose)
Park’s Yellow Tea-Scented China Rose
Rosa ‘White Pearl in Red Dragon’s Mouth’ (Syn. Miss Wilmott’s Crimson China)


Tomorrow: Moonlight holly, the Sappho comet, and Angel’s tears.


“In 1879 the Bengali scholar S.M. Tagore compiled a more extensive list of ruby colors from the Purana sacred texts: ‘like the China rose, like blood, like the seeds of the pomegranate, like red lead, like the red lotus, like saffron, like the resin of certain trees, like the eyes of the Greek partridge or the Indian crane…and like the interior of the half-blown water lily.’― Victoria Finlay, Jewels: A Secret History (2006)

Featured image is Rosa ‘Archduke Charles’

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