What’s in a name?

September 24th 2017

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.                                  

An apposite sentiment, in the context of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it’s not so straightforward in the natural history world.

To be fair, the genus Rosa is readily recognised in the wild, by its prickly stems, five pointed, often ‘bearded’, sepals, five white or pink petals, numerous stamens and a fleshy, usually red, fruit, the rose-hip. It is at the next level down that we run into trouble; naming individual roses is ‘notoriously difficult’, the taxonomy is described as ‘confused’ and hybridisation is rife.

Assynt’s roses are a good example. The Flora of Assynt lists fourteen taxa, comprising six species (one split into two sub-species) and seven hybrids. Fortunately, experts in the group (rhodologists) have visited the parish and Pat Evans trained under one of the authors of the definitive work on roses.

We have several forms of the dog rose, Rosa canina, which until recently was not thought to occur in the north of Scotland. In addition sweetbriar R. rubiginosa has been found in just three places, but I would not attempt to tell you how to recognise them.

There are, however, two really attractive species, illustrated here by David Haines, from examples growing between Drumbeg and Culkein Drumbeg, that are readily identifiable.

Burnet rose R. spinosissima (formerly R. pimpinellifolia) grows on rocky outcrops and banks, often not far from the sea, but found across the parish. Its stems have a fearsome armature of spines and prickles, while the leaflets are small and neat. The large creamy-white flowers are succeeded by globular hips that ripen to a unique purplish-black.

Sherard’s downy-rose R. sherardii is an upright, spiny bush with deep rose-pink flowers, often seen on roadsides, mainly around the coast, but with an outlier at Elphin. It has hairy leaflets, spreading sepals and glandular stalks to the flowers and red hips.

And, just for a sting in the tail, most of the scent from wild roses emanates, not from the flowers, but from stalked glands on the underside of the leaves. This scent is described as either ‘fruity’ or ‘resinous’, and I have never been able to distinguish between them.

Ian M. Evans

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