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Miss Willmott's Roses

Updated: Apr 4, 2023


Rosa 'Ellen Willmott'. Photograph by Eric Timewell. This rose has been delightfully described as “an Audrey Hepburn of a rose, nothing superfluous, everything style"*


In the Preface to her magnum opus on roses, The Genus Rosa, my horticultural heroine, Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934) wrote of her “…many years’ study of the genus Rosa”. She loved roses, and grew them in all three of her gardens: Warley Place in Essex, Tresserve in France and Boccanegra in Italy. She also wrote about them (most famously in The Genus Rosa of course - more on which in a future blog), photographed them, painted them, judged them at rose shows, and had several named for her.


With the recent publication (May 2022) of a long-overdue new book on Ellen Willmott - Sandra Lawrence's excellent Miss Willmott's Ghosts, I hope there will be renewed interest in Miss Willmott. So I've dusted off my reams of Willmott-related research (my Garden History Masters dissertation discussed her published photography), for a series of short blogs on her various interests and activities. And as I'm currently waiting for my own Rosa 'Ellen Willmott' to burst into flower, I decided to start with those roses named for her or her garden at Warley Place.


Cover of 'Miss Willmott's Ghosts' by Sandra Lawrence, published May 2022

R. 'Ellen Willmott' is “a creamy white touched by a hint of lemon yellow with a pale frosting of pink around the edges of the petals especially in cooler weather. It’s stamens consist of red filaments topped with gold anthers, and are a prominent and attractive feature… if roses had eyelashes, this one could certainly bat her eyes.”


I found this lovely quote in the 2010 autumn Newsletter of an American rose society about the English rose hybridiser, William Edward Basil Archer, who was responsible for some of the most popular and commercially successful single hybrid tea roses. Archer and his family moved to Kent in the early 1920s, where he and his daughter, Muriel (under the delightful company name of W.E.B. Archer & Daughter), introduced a number of roses from the 20s through to the 1940s. In 1935/36, just two years after Miss Willmott's death, they launched Rosa 'Ellen Willmott', it being a cross between R. 'Dainty Bess' and R. 'Lady Hillingdon'.


My own R. 'Ellen Willmott' has had a lot to contend with. I bought it in July 2016 and left it in a pot for probably a year before it went out into the border where it seemed quite happy against a trellis and thrived in my Essex clay. When we moved to Shropshire in December 2020, I dug it up and popped it into a large pot, where it sat in our rented garden until we moved on to our Herefordshire home in April 2021 (I was very fond of it - and had determined not to leave it behind). The poor thing then stayed in its pot until this year when borders were finally dug in our new garden, and it was planted out in March this year (2022). However, it seems to be settling into the lovely Herefordshire loam we now have. The lovely flowers fade from a peachy-pink to a pinky-white as can be seen in my photos below taken only three days apart in my Essex garden.


Interestingly, in a lecture I attended on roses at Sissinghurst a few years ago, given by its then Head Gardener, Troy Scott Smith, he mentioned that R. 'Ellen Willmott' had been one of Vita Sackville West's favourite roses - and it's still grown there. (He returned to Sissinghurst in August last year after a stint at Iford Manor.) But this delicious rose is not the only one named for Ellen Willmott.


Rosa 'Ellen Willmott'. My photographs, 2018, showing how the colour gradually fades


Roses


However, before I launch into Miss Willmott's Roses, firstly a quick introduction to these wonderful plants that we all probably take for granted, although there are plenty of splendid books on the subject if you want in-depth information (including Michael Marriott's excellent Roses published this year). Botanically, “a rose is a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae, or the flower it bears.


The first roses, pre-dating mankind, were wild or species roses, and fossils prove that Rosa species have existed on earth for at least 40 million years. There are around 200 known species of wild roses mainly in the temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, although roses were first noted in cultivation in China 5,000 years ago, and in the middle east at least 2,000 years ago. However, these roses bear little resemblance to the sophisticated cultivars we have today, the originals tending to have rather unruly, scrambling forms whilst producing simple, five petaled, often fragrant, open-faced flowers in early summer. Some species roses naturally hybridised, and it was probably the Chinese who first created roses that combined desired attributes such as repeat flowering, smaller and neater forms, with new fragrances, and deeper shades of colour.


'My Sweet Rose' by John William Waterhouse, 1908. My favourite rose painting

The majority of ornamental, garden, roses are hybrids that have been bred for their flowers. Some, mostly species roses, are also grown for attractive or scented foliage, ornamental thorns, or for their showy fruit (hips). Roses have been known since ancient times for their beautiful flowers and pleasant scent, and the earliest known cultivation of ornamental roses is thought to date from at least 500 BC around the Mediterranean, Persia and China. It's estimated that 30-35,000 rose hybrids and cultivars have been bred for use in gardens as flowering plants.


As Michael Marriott points out in his book, the Greeks and the Romans must have grown roses on a large scale as they were used in cooking and cosmetics, as well as for festivals, celebrations, and banquets.

Today, roses are not only famous for their ornamental and aesthetic value in the garden, but also for their essential oils used in the perfume, chemical, and cosmetic industries. There are thousands of cultivated Rosa species, with China being the mainstay of rose production, having some 90 varieties known for their unique characteristics and which play an important role in modern rose cultivation. Ten of the 15 most important parents of modern roses come from China, which has the prefect conditions for cultivating garden roses, with repeat flowering, high central flower shape, and 'tea' aroma characteristics.


Miss Willmott's Roses


Miss Willmott was well known for having purchased plants from all over Europe (famously spending prodigious amounts of money in the process), and had established connections with UK and European nurseries and nurserymen, as well as further afield. As she was also famous for her horticultural prowess (and reputedly helped finance/co-finance some plant-hunting expeditions), it’s perhaps not surprising that some nurserymen chose to name plants for Willmott or Warley Place. And, as is so often the case with plant names, the same name is sometimes, confusingly, used for two different plants at different times. R. 'Ellen Willmott' is no exception.


One French rose breeder, Pierre Bernaix (1873-1935), is credited with introducing a hybrid tea named ‘Ellen Willmott’ in 1898. This rose, described as pure white on the outer petals, with a fresh flesh-pink centre-full double, and thick foliage, no longer exists in commercial production and was presumably not around in 1935 when Archer introduced his R. ‘Ellen Willmott’ – the one that I grow in my garden.


Letterhead of Maison P. Bernaix c.1920s


Hybrid teas only became popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was growers such as Pierre Bernaix’s father, Alexandre, and other nurserymen in the French city of Lyons, that established it as a famed centre for the cultivation of hybrid teas. For example, Rosa ‘Peace’ - considered to be the most popular rose cultivar of the 20th century, was introduced by a Lyon grower at the end of the second world war.


On looking back for mentions of R. 'Ellen Willmott' in the horticultural press, I came across a small article in The Garden magazine of December 21, 1918 by an unnamed author: "On November 12, I cut blooms of this new Hybrid Tea Rose, possessing form and, what is more important to me, fragrance. In summer this Rose is a soft sulphur cream with a faint blush towards the edges; now, it is almost white, but really good in form."


Rosa 'Ellen Willmott' from 'The Practical Book of Outdoor Rose Growing for the Home Garden' (2nd Edition) by George C. Thomas, Jr., 1915


Just to add to the confusion, there were also two roses named R. ‘Miss Willmott’. The first, known as Rosa indica 'Miss Willmott', was introduced in 1899 by nurseryman George Paul and classified as a tea. It was a coppery-red five-petalled rose, the only known illustration of it being in Willmott’s The Genus Rosa.


R. indica 'Miss Willmott' from Ellen Willmott's 'The Genus Rosa'. Watercolour by Alfred Parsons



Paul & Sons' Rosa 'Miss Willmott' can be found listed for sale at a cost of 3 shillings and 6 pence in Caldwell & Sons of Knutsford, Cheshire's catalogue of 1898 - shown above.


The other R. 'Miss Willmott' was a light yellow hybrid tea with a moderate sweet fragrance bred by Samuel McGredy II in Ireland in 1916 (presumably the earlier 'Miss Willmott' had not survived commercially). A large double (17-25 petals), cupped bloom form with glossy dark green foliage. In October 1916, Herbert E. Molyneux, a member of the Executive Committee of the National Rose Society, published an article in The Garden entitled ‘Four Beautiful New Roses’ – one of which was McGredy's R. ‘Miss Willmott’.


R. 'Miss Willmott'. Photograph in 'The Garden', October 21, 1916


Molyneux’s article reported on a meeting of the National Rose Society to give awards to seedling Roses and, as he wrote, this new rose was considered “by more than one of the experts present to be the most beautiful Rose in the show. That is very high praise, and with certain reservations, nevertheless, one that I am in agreement with. It is a most refined flower, of beautiful shape, delightful colour and, I believe, fragrant. Judging from the plants exhibited it is an excellent grower of nice habit. The colour is pale lemon, and the outside petals in the bud stage are tinged with pale pink. Without having grown the Rose one is not justified in expressing any opinion. I will therefore confine myself to the hope that Rose Miss Willmott will justify the raiser in giving it the name it bears.


This rose also gets a mention in The Garden magazine of July 29th, 1916 in an article entitled New and Rare Plants – Gold Medal Roses: “Miss Willmott (H.T.) – A shapely well-proportioned Rose of rich cream colour, the rose-tipped petals endowing it with great charm. A variety of refinement and beauty.


Rosa Willmottiae


The most famous rose named for Miss Willmott however is probably Rosa Willmottiae.


'Rosa Willmottiae', Tab 8186 in 'Curtis's Botanical Magazine', March 1908


During his second collecting trip to China in 1903, E.H. Wilson (known as Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson due to the amount of Chinese plants he brought back to the UK) collected seeds from a species ‘wild’ rose found in China. This rose's entry in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information of 1907 tells us that Wilson named it Rosa Willmottiae “in compliment to Miss Willmott, F.L.S., V.M.H., of Great Warley, whose interest and work on roses is well known." Wilson described the rose himself in his 1917 book, Aristocrats of the Garden, “as an erect-growing shrub with arching branches, small gray-green leaves and flowers in pairs or singly” with rose-pink flowers.


In 1907, a resulting seedling bloomed for the first time and it was described in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in March 1908:


This very pretty rose was raised by Messrs James Veitch and Sons from seed collected by Mr. E.H. Wilson in the Sangpan mountains, near the Tibetan frontier of Western China…”. The accompanying plate (above), by Walter Hood Fitch [see my blog For the "use of Ladies, Gentlemen and Gardeners": Curtis's Botanical Magazine] was prepared from specimens grown on at Veitch’s Coombe Wood nursery in May 1907.


Fortunately, a set of dried plant specimens collected by Wilson on the trips for Veitch and Sons was later presented to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the herbarium sheet for Rosa Willmottiae is available on-line. Interestingly, the sheet also contains a letter written by Veitch and Sons to William Botting Hemsley at Kew in January 1908. (Transcript below.)


Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew herbarium sheet for Rosa Willmottiae, together with letter from James Veitch and Sons Ltd.


Hemsley (1843-1924) was at the time the Keeper of the Herbarium and Library at Kew (from 1899 until he retired in 1924). The letter’s contents perfectly illustrate the problems of the time of collecting and naming of plants – and are a fascinating insight into the difficulties (and time delays) that nurseries such as Veitch had in communicating with their collectors in the field (as plant-hunters such as Wilson would often be away for years at a time).


Letter addressed to Mr Botting Hemsley Esq. FRS

The Herbarium

Kew


from

Royal Exotic Nursery, Chelsea, London

January 1, 1908


Dear Mr Hemsley

In reply to your letter of the 27th inst. respecting Rosa Willmottiae, we think the Sangpan Mountains where Wilson collected the plant are near the Tibetan Frontier of Western China, but Wilson’s writing is difficult to read and also he gave very little information about the plant. We had but the one bloom of W1457** which we sent to you but we are inclined to think that it is confused with W1563 as both plants are similar in habit of growth and are thickly covered with prominent thorns.

We hope we may be able to send you flowers & fruits of both during the coming season & so enable you to determine whether or not they are identical. Would it be well meanwhile to delay the publication in the Bot.Mag [Curtis’s Botanical Magazine] until you receive further specimens?

We are

Yours faithfully

James Veitch & Sons Ltd


No further information is given, but Hemsley at Kew and Veitch and Sons must have eventually agreed on the rose, as it was duly described in Curtis’s Botanic Magazine later that year.


In 1916, Rosa Willmottiae pops up in the horticultural press in two articles in The Garden. The first, 'Rosa Willmottiae in the South of Scotland' published on June 3 written by horticulturist Samuel Arnott, described it as “very charming in the garden… Miss Willmott’s Rose seems to flower freely here, and the beautiful foliage and attractive habit of growth make a picture one is unwilling to pass by without a prolonged study of the Rose and its points of beauty.” The second, published on October 16 describes Rosa Willmottiae as “a graceful shrubby species 5 feet to 6 feet or more in height, with elegant foliage and rosy carmine flowers 1 inch to 1 ½ inches in diameter, freely produced during May and June. The fruits are ovoid, orange red in colour…and named in compliment to Miss Willmott of Warley Place, who has done so much to popularise the species and varieties of wild Roses.


Neither article has an image of the rose, but it does appear in the 'American Rose Annual' for 1923 which reports on rose-breeding trials held in 1920 at the ‘Bell Experiment Plot’ in Maryland in the US. Rosa Willmottiae, it says, “…opens its cheerful rosy purple flowers at Bell before the middle of May. This very distinct species…has a most attractive drooping habit, the strong canes rising about 5 feet high before they curve, and it has attractive foliage throughout the growing season."


Rosa Willmottiae from the 'American Rose Annual' for 1923


Fortunately, Rosa Willmottiae is still around, and the image below is from the David Austin website which describes this wild rose as having small mauve pink blooms with a light fragrance which appear in early summer followed by “tiny, pear-shaped, orange red hips... Of all the Species, this is perhaps the most beautiful in growth and foliage. A prickly, arching, graceful shrub with dainty, greyish-green, fern-like foliage.”


Two further roses, Rosa blanda var. Willmottiana and Rosa x warleyensis appear to have been grown by Miss Willmott at Warley Place and described by her in The Genus Rosa. Both were raised from seed sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in earlier years; however, neither seem to have been grown elsewhere, or developed commercially. And I have been unable to find anything further about either of them.


And, lastly, there is one more rose named for Ellen Willmott – Rosa ‘Miss Willmott’s Crimson China’, although it’s not listed in the Appendix of plants named for Willmott in Audrey Le Lievre’s 1980 biography, Miss Willmott of Warley Place. I only came across mention of this rose recently in a 2017 US Newsletter for the Friends of Vintage Roses, Issue 16. It's actually an ancient Chinese rose which was first introduced/discovered in 1792 and it has three names: “Called by the English ‘Miss Willmott’s Crimson China’, known in China as ‘Chi long Han Zhu’ and, in the US, ‘White Pearl in a Red Dragon’s Mouth’”.


Rosa 'Miss Willmott's Crimson China' in Ellen Willmott's 'The Genus Rosa' (then named as Rosa Chinensis). Watercolour by Alfred Parsons

According to Graham Stuart Thomas in his 1987 book A Garden of Roses, it was British botanist Gordon Rowley, writing in The Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1959, who proposed the English name for this rose as “a delightful compliment to Miss Willmott”. Thomas also thought that Alfred Parsons’ painting of it in The Genus Rosa was the first representation of this rose in Europe, despite it seemingly having been in cultivation at a nursery in Hertfordshire since China roses were first introduced at the end of the 18th century.


It's rather beautiful and described as having cherry-red semi-double blooms with white streaks, fragrant, and blooms throughout the season. Interestingly, Thomas also noted that these early China roses were “the first truly red roses Europe and America had seen” as, up until the early 19th century, ‘red’ (in the world of roses at least) had merely been rosy purple or even pink.


Rosa 'Miss Willmott's Crimson China'. Photograph courtesy Rose Petals Nursery in the US, the only place I've found this particular rose for sale


According to Bean’s Trees and Shrubs (on-line), this rose is a hybrid of R. chinensis, but here’s what Miss Willmott herself had to say about it in The Genus Rosa:


As its name implies, this Rose is rarely without flowers, and it is for its beauty and hardiness one of the most valuable acquisitions to our gardens. It was introduced into England in 1789 by Gilbert Slate of Knots Green. He was an enthusiastic and successful gardener, and was the means of introducing into this country many rare plants, which he readily distributed amongst those of his friends who could cultivate them. It was through his generosity that this Rose was in a very short time to be found in most of the gardens in the neighbourhood of London.


As an aside, this is the first rose I’ve read about that’s actually given its original Chinese ‘name’. Like much else in the world, Westerners generally disregarded the original names of these plants – and all roses imported were ‘rechristened’ with Western names.


I'll admit to being a late-comer to the charms of roses but have become a convert. I've recently added two R. 'Gertrude Jekyll' (one shrub and one climber) and a R. 'Munstead Wood' to the garden, together with two R. 'Kew Gardens' in pots, and two R. 'The Mayflower'. Miss Willmott and Miss Jekyll were friends (of a sort) so that seems fitting and, as I'm sure you know, Munstead Wood was the name of Miss Jekyll's garden. It's a shame there's no Rosa 'Warley Place'.


And I'm happy to say that as I was finishing this blog, my R. 'Ellen Willmott' started to flower.


My next 'Willmott' blog will be about Miss Willmott's published photographs - and how many of her rose photographs appear in Gertrude Jekyll's book Roses for English Gardens.



Notes:


* Quote from Darrell G.H. Schramm writing in the Newsletter for the Friends of Vintage Roses,

Issue 16, 2017


** I believe these numbers signify Wilson's numbering of plants collected.






















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sandra
Jun 30, 2022

Wow - I had no idea there were so many Willmott named roses. The only other one I'd heard of was Miss Willmott's China. Funnily enough I was given a single Rosa Miss Willmott today - what a lovely smell. Thank you Paula...

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