The Butterfly Rose at Elizabeth Farm

The colourful plant in the centre of the image is the rosa chinensis mutablis or the butterfly rose as it is commonly names. Is covered in multi coloured roses

The rosa chinensis mutabilis in full bloom at Elizabeth Farm. Here you can see the vast range of colouring in the blooms. Photo © Scott Hill Sydney Living Museums

This is rosa mutabilis, also known as the Butterfly Rose, a shrub-rose found in the house’s eastern garden. One of the China roses, it’s also known as rosa chinensis mutabilis

The ‘mutabilis’ in the name refers to the changing colour: the 5-petalled, single-form flowers start orange, then open to a soft pink. Unlike many flowers that fade as they age, they then darken to a magenta. The colours bounce of the new stems and foliage which are a red-bronze colour.  Growing in an open habit and up to 6 feet in ideal conditions, it flowers throughout the year except in cold winters.

In China they are known as Yuejihua - ‘month season flower’[1] - a reference to their year-round flowering. At Elizabeth Farm it’s rare to see rosa mutabilis without at least a few blooms, except when it receives its annual winter trim, and they are used in vases inside the house. China roses began to appear in European gardens as far back as the 1500s, and in the late 1700s new varieties together with tea roses arrived in Britain. In 1843 a China rose was listed in the catalogue of William Macarthur’s nursery at Camden Park.

In 1825 Edward Macarthur in England sent 2 large boxes of plants to his brother William in Sydney, including 20 roses. A China rose – likely the pale pink variety also growing at Elizabeth Farm today – became a popular garden plant around Parramatta. In 1848 Elizabeth Macarthur wrote to Edward that:

…The China rose introduced into the Colony by your dear father, is now blooming into [a blaze?] of beauty around the Garden fences and in various places now almost in every Cottage – yet though become common it is still a lovely plant – and Evergreen – the foliage soft and flexible and yielding flowers, more or less, throughout the year – We have a variety of other Roses – sweet scented – and beautiful in their season – but not so enduring…[2]

The butterfly rose is a hybrid of the China rose; the World Federation of Rose Societies (R. chinensis mutabilis was entered in its hall of fame in 2012[3]) records that it was identified ca.1894 by the Henri Correvon, a Swiss botanist, in the famous gardens of Isola Bella, an island in Lake Maggiore, Italy.

Grow this scented rose in full sun and dead-head to encourage new flowers - though if left the spent heads will form an orange-coloured hip.

Notes from the Horticulture Team:

This is a great rose for Sydney, year round flowering, isn’t as affected by pest and disease as some of our other varieties and has been a great performer at Elizabeth Farm and Vaucluse House. This rose responds very well to a winter prune by throwing out deep red-bronze shoots and is shortly followed by a mass of flower buds.  We occasionally treat it with organic oil or neem if the aphids get too severe otherwise it does a pretty good job of taking care of its self.  


Elizabeth Farm and Vaucluse House are now reopen. See our opening hours and pre-book your tickets

[1] See Peter Valder, The Garden Plants of China. Sydney, Florilegium, 1999. Pp218-220

[2] 29 October 1848, Parramatta, Elizabeth Macarthur to her son Edward; Mrs John Macarthur – Letters 1841-1849, SLNSW ML A2907


About the author

Man in blue and white checked shirt holding pineapple.

Dr Scott Hill


As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.