Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rose Round-Up: The Butterfly Rose (Rosa chinesis 'Mutabilis')

The roses in my garden are having a banner year, despite our hard freezes last winter. This post is the first in a series I'm starting, to sing the praises of each rose growing in my garden. Hey, it's my blog's two-year anniversary, so I had to come up with something new to celebrate!

Additionally, I'm entering the very last photo in this post in this month's Picture This photo contest at Gardening Gone Wild. The judge this month is Rob Cardillo (who has what looks to be an amazing new book on Chanticleer coming out soon, in collaboration with Adrian Higgins), and the contest theme is Let’s talk about Light.

Botanical name: Rosa chinesis 'Mutabilis', Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'
Common names: Butterfly Rose, Tipo Ideale
Class: China
Habit: Large shrub
Bloom: Single-petaled
Color: Multicolored
Repeat bloomer? Yes
Forms hips? No
Scent: Faint
Size: 4-10 feet
Sun: Full
Cold-hardiness? Zone 6-9
Antique rose? Yes, prior to 1894
Earth-Kind® rose? Yes
Pests: Spider mites and aphids (rare; blast them off with a strong water spray)
Diseases: Occasional mild black spot (prune off affected leaves, or spray the shrub with milk - yes, moo-cow milk! - after spring pruning and each subsequent season)

'Mutabilis' is distinguished by its size -- it can get as large as 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide -- its tolerance to drought, disease and pests, and its large, single-petaled blooms that darken as they age, resulting in flowers of various colors on a single shrub. From a distance, this gives the appearance of a bush covered in brightly colored butterflies.
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

'Mutabilis' is a rose that thrives on pruning, which is a good thing, because it's not a big fan of cold winters. During our 48 hours of below-freezing temps in early February, my specimen suffered significant freeze damage to the existing leaves, which were then hit by black spot. The rose looked to be on death's door. To rejuvenate this hardy rose, I pruned it back by a third two weeks after the freeze. (I do my rose pruning each year on the weekend just before or after Valentine's Day.)

In this photo, shot roughly a month later on March 19, it had fully leafed out, with virtually no frost damage to be found, and was covered in rose buds, with a few starting to open.
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

The color of new growth on 'Mutabilis' is a deep reddish bronze. As the leaves age, they turn a dark green, edged in red.
Spring growth on Mutabilis rose

This year, 'Mutabilis' started to bloom in earnest on March 27,
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

with its spring flush peaking on April 1. As a repeat bloomer, 'Mutabilis' will bloom lightly throughout the summer, and flush again in the fall. Since it flowers on new growth, deadheading spent blossoms may stimulate greater flowering. Because of the vast numbers of deadheads, a light tip pruning of the entire shrub with a hedge trimmer simplifies this task.
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

The buds start out as a deep apricot color.
Mutabilis rose and osmia bee

As they open, the blossoms change to a light yellowy-peach,
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

then to a soft, baby pink,
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

and finally, a vibrant crimson.
Mutabilis rose

This year, I noticed a few blooms with different colors on the same blossom. This occurred after a period of several warm days in the upper 80s and low 90s, followed by a cold front with temperatures dipping into the 40s overnight.
Mutabilis rose

In full bloom, 'Mutabilis' looks almost tropical. Can you imagine a lei made out of these flowers?
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

The blossoms look spectacular when the sunlight hits them.
Mutabilis rose

Backlit, the blossoms can look magical.
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

'Mutabilis' is not a good rose for flower arranging, as each blossom only lasts a day or so on the shrub. But because 'Mutabilis' can get quite large and responds well to pruning, it makes an excellent hedge rose. It grows in nearly any type of soil and requires no fertilizer other than compost. My specimen is five or six years old, pruned annually into a rough, squarish-shaped hedge on the corner of a flower bed around a gazebo, and measures approximately 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.


  1. I love my 'Mutabilis', and the recurrent thought of a hedge of these roses keep entering my mind - what a a beautiful hedge it would be! A great rose to spotlight. Your last photo is magical - good luck on the contest.

  2. I love this rose and your photos are stunning.

  3. Mutabilis is my all time favorite rose. It's great to see it here. Your photos are beautiful!

  4. Caroline, I hadn't noticed how tropical that rose looks until you pointed it out, but now I must agree with you. I also didn't know that there were actually 4 possible colors at once. What an entertaining rose for people like me that want some of every color and can't ever decide which one to plant!

  5. She is indeed a beautiful rose bush!

  6. I love this rose in my garden but I love your pictures best of all. And what a wonderful story to take us through its cycles, including the ones with colors on every blossom. Your photo for GGW is a winner, for sure!

  7. Bummer that it isn't very fragrant. Such a cool rose, and such beautiful photos.


  8. I work in the Botanical Gardens here at UNC-Charlotte, NC. I installed a rose garden here several yrs ago and maintain it as well. We have two "Matabilis" roses, obtained from the WingHaven Gardens here in Charlotte. Because of the high humidity of Charlotte summers, black spot on these two roses has been explosive. I actually had to replace the Dbl-Pink KnockOut roses on either side of them because the black spot from the Matabilis infected them so severely, with the canes having large purple/black spots from tip to base. The Matabilis seemed unfazed through it all. Me? I was so tired of picking up leaves I could have screamed! Then I read that spraying the foliage and ground with liquid sulphur before the black spot appears, keeping leaves picked up and so forth. It worked pretty well with minimal black spot showing up on both the Matabilis and the other roses in the double-tiered beds. However, I also found that the liquid sulphur has a tendency to burn the foliage on the surrounding groundcover, in this case veronica. I hosed it all down after the recommended 15-30 minutes, but wound up removing some of the veronica anyway. Reading your note to use MILK...moo-cow milk, has spurred me to give that a try instead of using the liquid sulphur this Tuesday, in fact. I'll let you know how it turns out.
    in the meantime, it's supposed to be 16 degrees tomorrow morning with 30 mph winds. I'm glad I worked today and got the roses pruned right on schedule.

  9. going to give the milk spray a try on the two Matablis roses in the rose garden I installed & maintain here at UNC-Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Used liquid sulphur last year and, while it was effective, it tended to burn the foliage on the veronica I planted as groundcover. I pulled quite a bit of the veroncia out this past Fall and we'll try something different this spring. Also just finished pruning the knock-out roses this morning, leaving the Matabilis alone except for where the deer had nibbled on the tips, eating rose hips. any ideas for keeping those pesky 4-legged munching machines from snacking on our roses?

    1. I don't know of any way to deter hungry deer from eating roses, sorry! Interested to hear if the milk spray works for you - John Dromgoole swears by it, and it works well for me (when I remember to get out there and spray it!).

  10. pruned all of the roses that needed it in the Gardens this last week, leaving the Matablis roses alone for the most part. I'm not pruning the drifts nor the Oh-So-Easy Apricots either...other than to keep them open so the wind can blow through them. I did, however, limb them all up from the very bottom so I can more easily reach in and hand-rake (as in with my hands) leaves. I'm definitely going to spray with milk as soon as the temps even out and leaves start to appear. Thanks for your info...and your photo journaling, truly inspiring