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Peter D. A. Boyd

Scots Roses, Scotch Roses, Burnet Roses

- by any other name would smell as sweet!

Peter D. A. Boyd

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BOYD, P.D.A. 2003. Scots Roses, Scotch Roses, Burnet Roses - by any other name would smell as sweet!. NCCPG Shropshire Branch Spring Newsletter 2003 National Council for Conservation of Plants and Gardens

Semi-double Scots Rose with some marbling on the petals. Photo: Peter Boyd


Scots Roses are cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia (sometimes known by the older name of Rosa spinosissima). Last Spring, I wrote a short article about Scots Roses also known as 'Scotch' Roses or Burnet Roses for the Shropshire NCCPG newsletter. Since then my own collection has grown, particularly through collecting in Scotland, bringing it to about 100 cultivars plus hundreds of seedlings that I have grown from collected heps.

Some of my seedlings will flower for the first time this year. My efforts at growing seedlings in hundreds compared with the thousands that commercial growers raise to produce new rose varieties may appear pitiful but I am raising seedlings from old varieties that are themselves rare. I consider that I am helping to reinvigorate a genetic pool that has not been dipped into for nearly 200 years. I hope to reproduce some of the old colour forms and get clues to parentage of the old cultivars. Anyway it is fun and I am quite excited to see what I get this year!

The current edition of the RHS Plant Finder lists about 20 cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia including several modern 20th century hybrids. I am most interested in those that are close to the original Rosa pimpinellifolia in character. Some large-flowered modern hybrids like the Fruhlings series may be beautiful roses but they do not have the character of Scots Roses.

However, if you are tempted to order some Scots Roses, 'be warned' that the naming of Rosa pimpinellifolia cultivars is a mess. Even though you order different names from different nurseries, you may get the same cultivar under different names. In other cases, if you order the same name from different nurseries, you may get different cultivars. If you are very unlucky, having ordered a particular cultivar from a nursery that you know stocked the real thing, you may receive the wrong thing because nurseries may buy plants in from another nursery if they run low on a cultivar and, as a result, unknowingly sell the wrong thing. I have suffered from all these possibilities!

Some Scots Roses are misnamed because someone has tried to give a name to a rose based on an inadequate old description. If someone is not aware how many cultivars did exist, they may be tempted to 'fit' a plant into one of the few names mentioned in modern rose books. Some names are perfectly accurate in their way but 'Double Pink' may cover dozens of different and quite distinct cultivars. The naming of other roses is even more 'strange'. For example, the name 'Mary Queen of Scots' is in commerce as a plant with very distinct double purple flowers with pale backs to the petals and as a plant with single pale pink flowers irregularly marked with darker pink - the two could not be more different. However, of course, there is also more than one cultivar with double purple flowers with pale backs to the petals, some of which are not as good as what I personally consider to be the true 'Mary Queen of Scots'. Nothing is simple!

So what of the origin of named cultivars? There is a story that 'Mary Queen of Scots' is associated with the woman of that name who lived in the 16th century. There is, in fact, little evidence that any double forms of Rosa pimpinellifolia were known in cultivation before the very end of the 18th century (although I suspect that there could have been a double white form). However, within a few years after 1800, hundreds of double forms were produced. Joseph Sabine provides the first account of the origin of double 'Scotch Roses', 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".

"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".

Sabine ascertained that the first eight double varieties were "the small white, the small yellow, the lady's blush, another lady's blush with smooth foot-stalks, the red, the light red, the dark marbled, and the large two-coloured". The adjective 'pink' was not used.

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 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".

In my quest for the names and descriptions of old varieties, I have traced two copies of Austin and McAslan's list from about 1825 (210 cultivars), an Edinburgh firm of 1827 (about 100 cultivars) and later lists published in various contemporary books but the rose lists of Lee and other London nurserymen of the 1820s and 1830s have apparently not survived.

However, the method of naming Scots Roses was inconstant 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:-

I. Double White Scotch Roses

II. Double Yellow Scotch Roses

III. Double Blush Scotch Roses

IV. Double Red Scotch Roses

V. Double Marbled Scotch Roses

VI. Double Two-coloured Scotch Roses.

VII. Double Dark-coloured Scotch Roses

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 (e.g. what I consider to be the true form of 'Mary Queen of Scots').

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

An analysis of the Austin and 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.

It is interesting to note that even Charles Darwin was interested in the Scotch Rose phenomenon, whereby hundreds of different forms could apparently be raised from one species and, in 1868, he recounted the essence of the story in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

However, while there is, undoubtedly, a great deal of variation available in wild populations of Rosa pimpinellifolia, a number of Scots Roses 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 have Rosa foetida as a parent. Several cultivars give themselves away as the children of interesting liaisons, through their heps or the stem colour and variation in the abundance of spines or bristles. The heps of Rosa pimpinellifolia are very dark purple, almost black and usually rounded. Several Scots Rose cultivars have heps that are red in colour and of a shape that is not typical of the species. 'Mrs Colville', in its true form, 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 Rosa pimpinellifolia x Rosa pendulina hybrids. I hope that my collection will act as a resource for some DNA work in future that might clarify relationships between such cultivars.

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.

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!

Currently, the best source of illustrations of Scots Roses is Mary McMurtrie's Scots Roses of hedgerows and wild gardens (1998) which contains 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.

Last year, I started making a photographic record of Scots Roses in my own collection and elsewhere, attempting to record the distinguishing features of the different cultivars. This has been helpful in forcing one to make comparisons. As well as trying to get to grips with the naming of cultivars through my own collection, I have produced a computerised database of several hundred old Rosa pimpinellifolia cultivar names with original descriptions wherever I have been able to find them. I hope to publish this list as part of a detailed history of the rise and decline of Scots Roses in a fully referenced publication in the next year or two.

National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens website


See Scots Roses and other Pimpinellifolias for other papers on Scots Roses by Peter Boyd



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Copyright 2006 Peter D. A. Boyd. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 28th 2006.