PLANT OF THE WEEK #11: Rosa 'Mutabilis'

At least part of the appeal, for me, of Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is its name.  I don’t understand why some words resonate more than others – who does? – but there’s something about that word ‘mutable’, and even moreso in its negative form, ‘immutable’, that appeals to me.  

It’s also nice when a plant is assigned a name that is genuinely visually descriptive – in this case of the curious and endlessly fascinating aspect of this rose – that its single flowers are in a constant state of colour change, from pale apricot in bud and early bloom to a clear coral-pink, and eventually to a deep, really sumptuous, red-pink. Most roses, if they change at all, fade.  Those of R. ‘Mutabilis’ head in the other direction and develop, or apparently ‘ripen’. Better still, you’ll have all three colours represented at once, and they’re neither smugly harmonising or brashly contrasting, but make for really lively company.  Add that buoyant, butterfly quality that most single roses carry, and what’s not to love?

To be frank, maybe it’s the plant itself that’s not to love.  But the same could be said of all but a very few roses.  If it wasn’t for their flowers, you really wouldn’t bother.  Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ is a tall, rangy and pretty bare-legged thing.  You really don’t want to see the bottom two thirds of it.  Long canes shoot up from the base up to about 1.8m tall (depending on conditions – it can get up to about 3m), and then branch out to produce a huge number of terminal blooms.  You can pick over it at pruning time if that’s the kind of gardener you are, or you can leave it to do its own thing (which is the kind of gardener I am), and it will love you for it.

I don’t have any water to give it, which doesn’t threaten its life, as such.  Roses are incredibly drought tolerant, in general, but drought certainly reduces their performance.  In summer-dry settings, you’re likely to get the big late spring/early summer flowering on R. ‘Mutabilis’ on the strength of the winter/spring moisture, and then a small smattering of recurrent blooms until there’s some autumn rains.  In a good rainfall summer/autumn like many of us have had this year, or where you can irrigate, you get flush after flush of flowers, in distinct waves.

Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ is also the perfect rose for mixed planting, and very integrate-able into naturalistic styles of planting with grasses and perennials.  This is partly because it looks best in the company of other plants that can cover its bare legs, but also because the simple, unimproved quality of the blooms don’t out-glam their company, as other roses might.  

It’s the only rose I’ve planted in my garden, and I have three of them.  They’re well spaced, and at different depths in a planting, but are all evident in the same field of vision.  It’s definitely a rose to echo around the garden (but again, that’s the kind of gardener I am).


  1. You’ve convinced me to put mine in the ground. I had it in a pot this first year but I think in the garden will be best. I just love it. I’m going to put it towards the back where I don’t have to try to get past it very often!

    1. I have two Mutabilis roses. One is beside and above Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ and a large Italian pot and is only trimmed when it gets too large. The other is near back fence between a cherry tree and a couple of other shrub roses. Both over 20 years old and they look goid all year.

    2. It’s gotta be in the ground. it will lift its performance by about 97%

  2. I once had a hedge of this rose in my Perth city garden. It was great for a couple of years – but then the legs got too bare and it just didn’t look good. Cutting this rose back hard does not make it get any less leggy so I pulled it out and replaced it with Viburnum tinus – which is a bit boring but drought tolerant and dense (there is a view below I want to screen). I love this rose too much though to be without it and use it in my cottage border where it romps beautifully and the ugly legs are covered by salvia.

    1. I can so see that, Deryn – for DEEP beds only, so that you can have at least two other layers of things in front of it, and it can just stick it’s lovely head above the crowd

  3. I am, on the whole, more than a bit indifferent to roses, but mutabilis is my exception. That such terrible habit (it really is woeful) can be forgiven because the flowers are so captivating is a rare quality in the plants we would choose to grow. And like you, I’m a bit in love with the name. The derivation mutable sounds like it should be demure and quiet but it’s the opposite, true to its name in the most captivating ‘here I am!’ way possible.

  4. I am a rose tragic but there is a beautiful single pale yellow David Austin rose called Windsong which has delicious perfumed blooms and the added benefit of big luscious orange hips in autumn- superb.

    1. Thank you Catherine. I had forgotten Windsong’s name but so wanted it. Now I can order it. 🙂

  5. I love this rose. I had some in my old garden, and made sure I left room for some in my current garden. It just never stops flowering, and I don’t find it gets too leggy in my garden.

  6. Firstly, a compliment to Michael. I first ‘met’ you on your return visit to Great Dixter, an experience I could associate with myself, where your tentative passion immediately attracted me. I’ve liked what I’ve seen since. But here, in talking about what is also one of my favourite roses, you have reached the dizzying heights of Vita Sackville-West at her best: erudite, informative, passionate and wry. Reading The Gardenist is like coming home. Add to that what is clearly a shared referencing of the great English gardeners, but from the realities of Southern gardening…

    I planted an Old Rose garden on Sequoia, a story in itself. Mutabilis was one of very few roses that were an unqualified success, and I also managed to propagate from it. One of these offspring grew (grows?) in a garden at the school where I taught, on the top of a bank above a curve in an approach road, and everyone commented on its beauty, ease and abundance.

    I was gifted one later by a friend, 3rd generation from a rose that was grown by one of South Africa’s greatest gardeners, and it moved 1700km here with me in a pot. It was not happy, and died soon after being planted into the soil. I bought the only specimen at a rather unimpressive nursery late last year. Its only flower seemed to be fading, not reddening, and it went into my tightly packed storage bed for later planting. I’ve not seen it flower since, and become ever more certain that it was misnamed. Now that I understand gardening in this climate better, I am determined to grow Mutabilis. Watch this space!

    1. That’s high praise indeed, Jack. I loved VSW’s writing, back in the 80’s when I was first into gardening. I must revisit it.

      As far as I understand where you are, I’d imagine R ‘Mutabilis’ should do really well. It must be very strange indeed, making such a climatic shift like that, and working on a familiar art form, but a totally unfamiliar medium or palette, so to speak.

  7. One of my favourite roses. Lovely foliage that doesn’t care about too much sun or too much rain, and flowers that keep coming throughout the year and whose colour seems to be able to blend with just about everything. I used to live in Hong Kong before moving to Australia, and mutabilis was the only rose (along with a few other sinensis cultivars) that I could get growing reliably outside in Hong Kong’s steamy subtropical summers, which highlights how tough it is. When I moved to Australia it is one of the two roses I looked for when I started working on my garden and I now have 3, 2 at the back and 1 at the front 🙂

  8. G’day Michael! what is that stunning grass you’ve paired with it? and the shrub with those maroon flowers. Absolutely stunning. 🙂

    1. It’s Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ Corina. There’s a Plant of the Week written about it – search for it in the search field on the top right of this page

    2. Thanks so much Michael – love it. What is the plant you have paired with it in the main pic with maroon/burgundy tall flowers? I’d love to recreate this photo!

    3. It’s Cotinus ‘Grace’, Corina

    4. Thanks heaps Michael – I love your blogs so much!!!

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