Scots roses by Peter D A Boyd

Scots Roses are cheerful little roses. They have a special character that is very appealing and to those who make their acquaintance, they are a delight and may become a passion!

Although the individual flowers are only about 5cm (2 inches) across, they are usually produced in such profusion that a single shrub can provide significant visual impact and a halo of perfume. They are very hardy, will thrive in poor sandy or stony soils, like full exposure and, once established, are resistant to drought.

Moreover, they are roses with a fascinating history. This article attempts to provide an introduction to this understudied group of roses that contained hundreds of varieties in the first half of the 19th century.

The true Scots Roses are cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia (also known as Rosa spinosissima) and some hybrids of the species that have a similar character. The species was used extensively in rose breeding in the 20th century and gave rise to the Frühlings series (e.g. Frühlingsmorgen). While these hybrids are beautiful roses, they and most other modern hybrids do not have the character of Scots Roses.

I am writing a book on the history and nomenclature of Scots Roses that aims to be a fully referenced ‘definitive’ source of information for garden historians and rose lovers. In the course of my research, I have derived a list of some 700 names of Scots Rose cultivars from 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century nursery catalogues, rose books and other publications.

However, my research has also involved collecting and studying surviving cultivars. My own collection of some 200 cultivars has been submitted to the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) for National Collection status.

Only a few cultivars of Scots Roses are now commercially available in Britain, and some cultivars have been obtained from nurseries in mainland Europe. I have acquired others through the generosity of fellow enthusiasts and rediscovered quite a number myself by investigating deserted ruins and old gardens in Scotland and elsewhere.

Rosa pimpinellifolia is native to Britain, Europe and Asia but it has also become naturalised in North America, New Zealand and other parts of the world. It has a number of vernacular names but its long association with Scotland is reflected in many variations on the theme of ‘Scots Rose’.

Scottish nurserymen were responsible for raising the first double forms of Rosa pimpinellifolia available commercially in about 1800 and these were given the name ‘Scotch Roses’. However, books and nursery catalogues already listed the species under the common name of ‘Scotch Rose’ in the previous century, and the vernacular name of the species in several European countries may be translated as ‘Rose of Scotland’ or ‘Scots Rose’. Nowadays, the adjective ‘Scots’ is preferred to ‘Scotch’ so that ‘Scots Rose’ and ‘Scots Briar’ are the terms most often used in recent publications.

Other common names for the species include ‘Dune Rose’ or ‘Burrows Rose’ (because it is particularly common on sand dunes or ‘burrows’) and the ‘Burnet Rose’ or ‘Burnet-leaved Rose’ (because its leaves resemble those of the Burnets Sanguisorba spp. and the Burnet-saxifrages Pimpinella spp.). However, when examining old nursery catalogues or rose books, it should be noted that, in the past, other species of rose have also been given the name ‘Burnet-leaved Rose’ so that not all Burnet-leaved Roses were cultivars of R. pimpinellifolia.

In Scandinavia, it is associated with Midsummer and known as the Midsummer Rose or St. John’s Rose.

There have also been a number of different ‘scientific’ names applied to what we know as Rosa pimpinellifolia or particular forms of it over the last four hundred years or more. However, Rosa pimpinellifolia and R. spinosissima are the two that have been most used since the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century. Initially, he described them as two different species but changed his mind. Some past authors have continued to separate Rosa pimpinellifolia and R. spinosissima into separate species while others have made one a variety of the other.

The main distinguishing character thought to separate the two was the presence or absence of stiff hairs on the pedicels (the stalks of the flowers or heps). The pedicels of R. spinosissima were determined to have stiff hairs while the pedicels of R. pimpinellifolia or R. spinosissima var. pimpinellifolia were smooth.

Recent molecular studies on specimens from wild populations in Britain by Dr Volker Wissemann of the University of Jena have proved that specimens attributed to R. pimpinellifolia and R. spinosissima belong to one species. Rosa pimpinellifolia is the name that is usually used in Europe and the approved name on the Royal Horticultural Society database. However, this may change because it has been suggested that the name Rosa spinosissima has ‘priority’.

Influential authorities in the United States and several other countries use Rosa spinosissima (see Modern Roses XI, 2003 edition, and Combined Rose List 2004). Rosa pimpinellifolia is used in this article because it is the most familiar name for British gardeners.

In any case, the species ‘by any other name would smell as sweet’. It has sweetly scented single white flowers, small leaves, prickly stems and a spreading suckering habit. However, supposedly isolated wild populations include plants possessing flowers in cream, pink or more intense colours.

Whether all of these colours can arise naturally within the species or whether some arise from pollination with other species with coloured flowers is a matter of debate. The colour of stems, bristles, thorns and foliage can also be very variable in wild populations and give rise to attractive ‘selections’ but the heps of the species are normally rounded and such a dark purple that they appear to be black.

However, selection of seedlings from wild and cultivated forms has given rise to even greater variation than has been observed in the wild. These include cultivars with single, semi-double and fully double flowers in white, cream, yellow, pink, red, purple and mauve, including subtle combinations of colour and some with distinct mottled, marbled or striped petals.

Cultivated forms may also exhibit considerable variation in colour and shape of heps that, with other features, indicate a hybrid with another species or a garden rose that might itself be a complex hybrid. Some wild and cultivated forms also provide spectacular autumn colour in yellows, oranges, reds and purple.

The habit of the species also varies within wild populations and depends in part on location and in part on genetics. I have grown Rosa pimpinellifolia from seed collected from low-growing forms on coastal sand dunes that have produced plants with a low-growing habit, but other authors have observed that compact plants transferred to a different location may grow much taller.

It is sometimes used as a criticism of Scots Roses (as with any species and many old rose cultivars) that they flower profusely for a relatively short period and then they are finished until the next year. In the case of Scots Roses, the main flowering may be in May, June or July depending on the particular cultivar, whether it is an early or late spring and the latitude or altitude of the garden. They do not flower throughout the summer like many modern roses but those that flower earliest may also have a few flowers in the autumn.

The old hybrid ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ has its own charm but, like most modern hybrids, not the character of a true Scots Rose.

I understand that nurserymen who propagate their roses by budding suffer a high failure rate with some cultivars of Scots Rose. However, they are quite easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, and Scots Roses belong to that group of ‘cottage garden’ plants that have been passed on from one garden to another between friends. A particular cultivar may therefore be quite common in one area but unknown outside it. However, they are usually known only by the name of the person who gave it or the place from which it came.

Some two hundred years ago, ‘Scotch Roses’ were a new phenomenon, and the story of their development from a native wild rose into a fashionable garden plant with hundreds of varieties or cultivars and decline to a cottage garden plant is an interesting and remarkable one.

About fifty years after their rise, the raising of hundreds of different forms from one species was considered so remarkable that Charles Darwin commented on the ‘Scotch Rose’ phenomenon in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868).

The only Scots Roses that appear in nursery catalogues before 1800 are the single white, a single red and one with single marbled or striped flowers.

The major development of Scots Roses took place during a period that had the Napoleonic Wars as a background, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Some of the people involved with Scots Roses that I have investigated as part of the research for my book were characters that could have stepped straight out of a novel of the period. Indeed, this was the time during which Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice and her other books. Imagine the characters and situations in a Jane Austen novel and you can visualise the British social history background of which these roses were a part.

Joseph Sabine provides the first account of the origin of the double ‘Scotch Roses’ in a lecture presented in 1820 and published in the Horticultural Society of London Journal in 1822. He wrote:

‘Amongst the modern additions to the ornaments of our gardens, the varieties of Double Scotch Roses stand deservedly very high in estimation; their beauty is undisputed, and as they come into flower full three weeks before the general collection of garden Roses, they thus protract the period of our enjoyment of this delightful genus. On the British collector’s notice they have an additional claim, being almost exclusively the produce of our own country; for of the many kinds that I have observed there are only three which can by any possibility be supposed to have originated out of Great Britain.’

In fact, there were probably more than three varieties developed in France and other countries but the majority were developed in Britain:

‘The first appearance of the Double Scotch Roses was in the nursery of Messrs. Dickson and Brown (now Dickson and Turnbull) of Perth, between twenty and thirty years since. I am indebted to Mr Robert Brown, one of the partners of the firm at the above period, for the following account of their origin. In the year 1793, he and his brother transplanted some of the wild Scotch Roses from the Hill of Kinnoul, in the neighbourhood of Perth, into their nursery garden: one of these bore flowers slightly tinged with red, from which a plant was raised, whose flowers exhibited a monstrosity, appearing as if one or two flowers came from one bud, which was a little tinged with red: these produced seed, from whence some semi-double flowering plants were obtained; and by continuing a selection of seed, and thus raising new plants, they in 1802 and 1803 had eight good double varieties to dispose of; of these they subsequently increased the number, and from the stock in the Perth garden the nurseries both of Scotland and England were first supplied.’

Although I suspect that a ‘Double White’ may have arisen in the wild or a garden long before then, there is no evidence that it was available through nurseries.

The nursery of Dickson and Turnbull in Perth, where double Scots Roses were first developed, no longer exists, and most of the land occupied by the nursery on the western slopes of Kinnoull Hill down to the Tay was built upon many years ago. However, part of the nursery land adjacent to the River Tay, south of the ruins of Kinnoull Kirk, is now a public park but, as far as I could see when I visited it ‘on pilgrimage’, without any Scots Roses. Like many other modern parks and gardens in Scotland, the Japanese Rosa rugosa is seen where Scottish pride should dictate that at least some Rosa pimpinellifolia and its cultivars should be grown.

In about 1805, Robert Austin of Austin and McAslan, Glasgow nurserymen, obtained plants from the Perth nursery and, by about 1820, had raised about 100 new varieties of double Scots Roses. By the mid 1820s, Robert Austin had raised and offered for sale over 200 varieties. Similarly, London nurserymen (most of whom were Scots or of Scots parentage at that time) and others had obtained the Perth varieties, and by the end of the 1820s it was reported that ‘some hundreds of new varieties have flowered from seedling plants in the Hammersmith nursery [Lee], and will soon be found in the sale catalogues’.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace a copy of a Lee of Hammersmith catalogue from the 1820s or 1830s to see the number and names of ‘varieties’ that they actually offered for sale.

The method of naming Scots Roses was inconsistent even at the time of their greatest expansion in numbers of cultivars. Nurseries gave names to their new creations and many of these names lack descriptions. Sabine favoured the use of descriptive names. He grouped 26 cultivars into seven sections and considered that all the other forms known at the time of writing his paper (1822) were insufficiently different to merit separate attention.

Sabine’s sections were:-

Double White Scotch Roses I
Double Yellow Scotch Roses II
Double Blush Scotch Roses III
Double Red Scotch Roses IV
Double Marbled Scotch Roses V
Double Two-coloured Scotch Roses VI
Double Dark-coloured Scotch Roses VII

It should be noted that this classification related only to double forms of Rosa pimpinellifolia and does not take account of the cultivars with single flowers. ‘Two-coloured’ refers to flowers with one colour on the front of petals (e.g. purple) and a paler, almost white, reverse to the petals. One of these two-coloured roses was called ‘Bicolor’ (using the term ‘bicolor’ in a similar way to its use in Rosa foetida ‘Bicolor’).

Austin & McAslan and other nurserymen gave a wide variety of names to their new cultivars. They used the names of characters from Greek and Roman history and mythology, members of the Scottish aristocracy, military heroes and names of Scottish towns or other places.

An analysis of the Austin & McAslan list (which has abbreviated descriptions) provides an indication of the range of colours that was available. Different shades of ‘blush’ were the most common, along with purple, red, white, cream and yellow. These could be mixed in different combinations in roses with ‘marbled’, ‘striped’ and ‘tinged’ flowers.

Scots Roses began to lose popularity almost as quickly as the enthusiasm for them had grown. It is generally said that this was due to the introduction of new hybrid china roses that flowered for a much longer period, but I believe that the loss of some of their champions and main breeders such as Robert Austin (who died in 1830) contributed to the decline in interest. Robert Brown who started it all had emigrated to America and died near Philadelphia in 1845.

By 1898, Shirley Hibberd was saying in The Amateurs Rose Book that ‘the varieties are only to be met with in old gardens, as they are all quite out of fashion’, and Gertrude Jekyll, who was particularly fond of Scots Roses and frequently used them in her gardens wrote, in Roses for English Gardens (1902), that ‘those who are interested in this class of Rose should inquire in the good old Scotch gardens, where no doubt fine forms still exist that have not come into trade’. The latter is just what I have been doing for the last few years!

When Edward Bunyard wrote his Old Garden Roses (1936) he listed 33 double and 3 single varieties. However, he preceded these descriptions by saying:

‘Owing to inadequate descriptions it is now very difficult to identify with certainty the old varieties. Some which are generally available in nurseries, such as Lismore, Staffa, Bicolor nana, etc., are usually uniformly named, but there are very many in old gardens whose names it seems impossible now to trace’.

He stated that he had copied many of his descriptions on Scots Roses from Sabine (1822), ‘hoping that they may lead to a renewed search for these attractive old varieties’. Bunyard only listed about a dozen varieties in his nursery catalogue of 1937/38 but several of those are not obtainable now.

As 19th century and early 20th century nurseries sold both named Scots Rose cultivars and collections of mixed un-named seedlings there may be Scots Roses in old gardens that never had a unique name. Many of the names used today such as ‘Glory of Edzell’, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘William III’ are absent from nursery catalogue or other lists of rose varieties earlier than the 20th century and are probably new names applied to cultivars that had another name or no name when they were raised. In addition, those few cultivars of Scots Roses that are sold by nurseries today are sometimes mis-named.

In several cases, the same cultivar is sold under different names by different nurseries in Britain, different cultivars are sold under the same name and old cultivars that may have originated in Britain but have been ‘found’ in the gardens of other countries have been given new names in the language of the country concerned.

Also, descriptive names such as ‘Double White’ or ‘Double Pink’ are accurate in their way, but there are several double white cultivars and numerous double pink ones. Several different cultivars are sold under the well-known names of ‘Andrewsii’, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘William III’. ‘Glory of Edzell’ is now one of the few cultivars that is normally supplied consistently named but I have not been able to find its origin. Those inhabitants of Edzell in Scotland to whom I have spoken who grow it, purchased it from one of the well-known rose nurseries because of its name!

However, the naming problems get worse! Cultivar names that had a particular meaning in the early 19th century have more recently been applied to plants with quite different characters. For example, as noted above, ‘Bicolor’ was a two-coloured rose described and illustrated in the 1820s with a semi-double or double flower with petals purple on the inside and paler or white on the outside. One of the roses called ‘Bicolor’ in more recent publications has semi-double flowers more or less ‘marbled’ with pink and white. Although the back of the petals is also paler than the front, as it is in quite a number of cultivars if you look carefully, it is not the very obvious characteristic that it is in the ‘two-coloured’ Scots Rose ‘Single Cherry’ or one of the roses now grown as ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

The name ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is applied, in commerce, to at least two very different cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia. One of these is a plant with very distinct double purple flowers with pale backs to the petals (‘Bicolor’ in the 1820s sense) and rounded black heps; another as a plant with single pale pink flowers irregularly marked with darker pink which develop into elongated dark red pendulous heps (possibly one of a number of hybrids between R. pimpinellifolia and R. pendulina). It is very unlikely that either rose has any association whatsoever with the 16th century woman of that name. There is no evidence that any coloured double forms of Rosa pimpinellifolia were known in cultivation until about 1800 and the name does not occur until the 20th century.

Although authors have acknowledged that there are hybrid Scots Roses such as ‘Mrs Colville’, there has been a tendency to accept that the majority have arisen from variation within the species. Although it is a romantic notion, I am more sceptical! While there is, undoubtedly, a great deal of variation available in wild populations of Rosa pimpinellifolia, a number of Scots Rose cultivars obviously have a bit of something else in them.

There are several identified hybrids with other British rose species and most of the truly yellow cultivars undoubtedly have Rosa foetida as a parent. Several cultivars give themselves away as the children of interesting liaisons, through their heps, the stem colour, variation in the type or abundance of spines or bristles, their scent or other characters.

The heps of Rosa pimpinellifolia are very dark purple, almost black and usually rounded. However, several Scots Rose cultivars have heps that are red in colour and of a shape that is not typical of the species. For example, one of the cultivars grown as ‘Andrewsii’ has small red heps resembling red currants and that which I believe to be the true ‘Mrs Colville’ has purple stems and elongated reddish heps that suggest it is a hybrid with the European Rosa pendulina.

‘Mrs Colville’ is, I believe, only one of a spectrum of R. pimpinellifolia x R. pendulina hybrids that are similar in colouring but vary in size and degree of doubling of the flowers. They also include Rosa x reversa (the original natural hybrid between the species), forms such as ‘Poppius’ and the single marbled pink form sold as ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. It is not always appreciated that a natural hybrid such as Rosa x reversa occurs in the wild or in gardens more than once, that the progeny from one cross will vary and that there is not one rose with a uniform description called R. x reversa . One might say that any hybrid between single or double forms of the two species, R. pimpinellifolia and R. pendulina, are members of a R. x reversa Group.

In a similar way, hybrids of Rosa pimpinellifolia and R. foetida that include ‘Harisonii’, ‘William’s Double Yellow’, ‘Old Yellow Scotch’ and others can be said to belong to a R. x harisonii Group.

I hope that my collection of Scots Rose cultivars will act as a resource for some DNA work in future that might clarify the parentage of Scots Rose cultivars and identify some of the ‘mixtures’.

Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly aware of the value of scent in discriminating between different cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia, having found some old Scots Rose cultivars with a scent that belonged to another group of Old Roses. This can be exhibited in the scent of the flower or the scent of glands on buds and flower stalks.

In May 2004, I was invited to the Europa-Rosarium at Sangerhausen in Germany to help in the determination of the Rosa pimpinellifolia forms in the collection. Although the Rosarium is said to have the largest collection of rose cultivars in the world, its collection of double Scots Roses is not large; however, the wonderful collection of “wild roses” contains not only distinct coloured forms but also many cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia with single white or cream flowers that look superficially very similar.

I found the Sangerhausen experience very valuable in forcing me to look for distinguishing characters that one might otherwise ignore. As well as trying to use physical botanical characters that a gardener could recognise, I found that the scent or smell could provide a clue to parentage. The hint of or distinct scent of Rosa foetida was unmistakable not only in double and single yellow or cream cultivars but also in some single white cultivars, otherwise indistinguishable at first sight from Rosa pimpinellifolia.

In other cultivars, the presence of glands with a spicy or fruity odour on buds and stalks provided a distinctive character absent in other cultivars. I examined some of my own plants with a new insight when I returned home to my own collection.

I find that the degree of smoothness, glandular, ‘bristly’ or even thorny character of the pedicel is very variable within the species and its cultivars and may be a useful character to help distinguish between cultivars. Draw the tips of your fingers along the pedicel behind the flower or hep and you can feel the difference. Then smell the tips of your fingers and you may be able to smell the spicy or fruity secretions of any glands that may be present.

Currently, the best source of illustrations of Scots Roses is the late Mary McMurtrie’s Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gardens (1998) that includes reproductions of Mary’s beautiful watercolour illustrations and descriptions of 67 cultivars. Some of the roses illustrated are, like many in my own collection, only known by the name of where they were found or by the name of the person who gave her a plant, but the book provides the best source of illustrations of named forms and an excellent idea of the range of forms to be found.

The Finnish Rose Society has published a useful booklet called Juhannusruusu ja muut pimpinellat (Midsommarrosen och andra pimpinellrosor) by the late Aila Korhonen, providing colour photographs and descriptions of over 40 Rosa pimpinellifolia cultivars and hybrids (with the text in Finnish and Swedish). These include British, Scandinavian and North American cultivars. I understand that some have Finnish names given to old cultivars found in Finnish gardens. Some of these cultivars probably originated in Britain.

My own book will, hopefully, complement these and other books on roses by providing a detailed examination of the botanical and horticultural characteristics exhibited by Scots Roses and their use in distinguishing between cultivars; records provided by numerous old British and European nursery catalogues, early rose books and other primary sources; details of the history of the nurseries and people involved with the development of Scots Roses; the provision of a fully referenced list of some 700 old cultivar names with their first appearance, and recommendations for the nomenclature of existing and future cultivars. I hope that it will be possible for it to be illustrated with colour photographs, illustrations from original sources, drawings, maps and diagrams.


The author can be contacted
c/o Shrewsbury Museums Service, Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery,
Barker Street,
SY1 1QH.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue.