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Scots Roses and Related Cultivars of Rosa spinosissima - a Review

Peter D. A. Boyd

Web version of

Boyd, P. D. A. 2015. Scots Roses and Related Cultivars of Rosa spinosissima - a Review. Proceedings of the VIth International Symposium on Rose Research and Cultivation Hannover, Germany, August 25-30, 2013. Ed(s).: Debener and Linde Acta Hort. 1064, ISHS January 2015. The original publication is available at www.actahort.org .

Fig. 1. Flowers of wild Rosa spinosissima.

[Further images from original paper to be added shortly]


[Heritage Rose Committee of the World Federation of Rose Societies; Patron, Heritage Roses in Australia (2013-2014); Holder of Plant Heritage 'National Collection of Rosa spinosissima (syn. R. pimpinellifolia) Scots Roses and hybrids']

Keywords: Bibemellrose, Bodicasti Sipek, Burnet Rose, Dünen Rose, Duinroos, Juhannusruusu, Klit Rose, Piikkiruusu, Pimpinellros, Rosa pimpinellifolia, Rosier Pimprenelle, Þyrnirós, Schottische Rose, Scotch Rose



'Scots Roses' and other cultivars of Rosa spinosissima (R. pimpinellifolia) are less well-known today than other rose groups and an under-exploited genetic resource. However, in 1840, there were probably more cultivars of 'Scots Rose' than cultivars of all the other distinct groups of garden roses of the time combined. Hundreds of single, semi-double and double Scots Roses were raised in a wide range of colours in Britain, Europe and North America before 1830. They were less 'fashionable' but more widespread by 1840. Immigrants to North America, New Zealand and elsewhere carried suckers or seeds of Scots Roses to their new homes. Most of the old cultivars originated as variants or hybrids of the low-growing form of the species that grows wild in north-western Europe. In the 20th century, Doorenbos in the Netherlands and others raised cultivars with a similar character to the old Scots Roses. However, Kordes in Germany and others used tall-growing Asian forms with larger flowers (e.g., 'Altaica') to breed large shrubs (e.g., Frühlings hybrids). Such hybrids have a different habit and character to the old Scots Roses. Depending on latitude and altitude, true Scots Roses bloom between April and July in the Northern Hemisphere or between October and December in the Southern Hemisphere. Some are repeat-blooming. They are very floriferous and generally sweetly scented. Most produce black or dark purple heps. Many exhibit good autumn colour in shades of yellow, orange, pink, red or purple. Few old cultivars remain in commerce but many old garden-worthy cultivars have been rediscovered and new seedlings raised. There is renewed interest in the group but their nomenclature is confused. R. spinosissima cultivars are extremely cold-hardy and resistant to drought and diseases. These charming but tough roses have potential as a source of new garden roses in a time of climatic uncertainty.



'Scots Roses' are natural variants, hybrids and other cultivars of Rosa spinosissima (a.k.a. R. pimpinellifolia) with a similar habit and character to R. spinosissima as it occurs wild in Scotland and other parts of northwest Europe. Most "true" Scots Roses were bred before 1840. Many of the more modern 20th century R. spinosissima hybrids utilized taller, larger-flowered Asian variants of the species.



Rosa spinosissima is one of about 20 species in the Section Pimpinellifoliae but the only one to occur naturally in Europe. It normally has sweetly scented white or cream coloured flowers 2-5 cm across (Fig. 1) but some Asian forms have flowers up to about 8 cm across. It is the only species commonly in cultivation with black or dark purple heps (Fig. 2). Colour variations do occur in wild populations, with pale pink or darker coloured flowers. The leaves are small (4-8 cm long), normally with 5-11 leaflets. Several natural hybrids with other Rosa species have been recorded. The stems are characteristically armoured with narrow prickles and bristle-like acicles but acicles are virtually absent in some variants.

R. spinosissima is a very variable species regarding habit, armature, size of flower, size of leaves and height. It may only grow a few centimetres tall in windy sand-dune habitats, spreading by underground stems (root-shoots) so that a single clone may cover several square metres. In more sheltered parts of a dune system, R. spinosissima may grow taller, up to about one metre tall, forming a thicket. In inland sheltered habitats, even taller-growing 'Grandiflora' variants may occur with larger leaves and flowers.

Two distinct varieties of R. spinosissima are recognised in The Flora of China (Cuizhi and Robertson, 2003):


A thorough examination of the taxonomic and genetic variation of R. spinosissima throughout its range has not been carried out by anyone and the situation may be more complicated. However, these two varieties do have features that suggest two convenient groupings ('Spinosissima' variants and 'Altaica' variants) into which natural variants of R. spinosissima itself (as opposed to its hybrids) may be placed.

'Spinosissima' variants seem to equate to a broad range of R. spinosissima var. spinosissima morphotypes found across the whole range of the species in Europe and Asia. The stems bear a mixture of narrow straight prickles, interspersed with bristle-like acicles (Fig. 3). These cultivars generally have a bushy, suckering habit and normally grow up to about 1 m tall with small flowers (about 2-5 cm across) and small leaves. Some R. spinosissima 'Grandiflora' variants in cultivation grow over 2 m high with much larger leaves and flowers although they still have the 'Spinosissima' stems.

'Altaica' variants in cultivation seem to equate to a range of R. spinosissima var. altaica morphotypes, apparently limited in the wild to Asia and spreading south west from the Altay Mountain region as far as eastern Turkey but possibly further into Europe. The stems of 'Altaica' variants have only narrow prickles and few if any acicles (Fig. 4). They include taller, more open arching shrubs with less suckering stems growing to over 2 m. They generally have larger flowers (sometimes over 8 cm across) and leaves than most 'Spinosissima' variants. In the author's opinion, flowers of 'Altaica' variants seem to have a different and less sweet scent than 'Spinosissima' variants that might reflect a different ecology with different pollinators.

R. spinosissima has the widest natural geographical distribution of any rose species in temperate regions, extending from the coastal fringes of Western Europe to north-west China and adjacent areas and it even occurs in part of the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Its distribution overlaps with that of the circumpolar Arctic Rose Rosa acicularis in parts of its range. R. spinosissima has also become naturalised in North America and its cultivars are widely planted in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The wild species occurs in mountain habitats to well over 2000 m, down to sea-level, including calcareous grasslands and coastal sand-dunes.

R. spinosissima has disappeared from many of its former habitats through agricultural, recreational and urban developments. The species is most abundant on stabilised sand-dunes in spite of the loss of sand-dune systems though golf course creation and other coastal developments. The species is endangered in some European coastal habitats by spread of the non-native R. rugosa.

The biology and ecology of R. spinosissima in Europe is described by Mayland- Quellhorst et al. (2012) and, in the eastern part of its range, in China, by Cuizhi and Robertson (2003). The association of the species with history, symbolism, art and other human activities has been described by Boyd (2012a) and in folklore by Boyd (2012a, 2013b).

R. spinosissima has many different vernacular names in English including:


Although some vernacular names used in English or other languages include some with a very local use, most of them are based on one of the four concepts above (i.e., association with Scotland, resemblance of the leaves to Burnet, prickliness or sand-dune habitat).



True 'Scots Roses' are a very diverse group with single, semi-double or double flowers (often sweetly scented) in white, cream, yellow, pink, red, purple or mauve and some cultivars have marbled or striped blooms. They include natural 'Spinosissima' variants and hybrids with a similar general character.

Scots Roses are sometimes known as 'Pimpinellifolias' or, more informally, 'Pimpi'. However, that term is often used to include hybrids of R. spinosissima var. altaica that are not "typical" Scots Roses. The term 'Pimpinellifolias' is also used to embrace other species within the Section Pimpinellifoliae (e.g., R. foetida, R. primula, R. sericea and R. xanthina). The term 'Hybrid Spinosissimas', as used in the USA, is also misleading because not all of them are hybrids - and many so-called 'Hybrid Spinosissimas' have very few genes of R. spinosissima in them!

'Scots Roses' and other cultivars of R. spinosissima (R. pimpinellifolia) are less well-known today than other rose groups. Many gardeners and rose lovers are unfamiliar with Scots Roses because:


However, Scots Roses and related cultivars are very popular in Scandinavia and Finland where their hardiness is much appreciated and nurseries (which mainly propagate from cuttings to produce 'own-root' plants) stock far more cultivars than most other countries. Scots Roses are also very popular in New Zealand where they are very widely grown and cultivars or their descendants have survived from the time of Scots immigration in the 19th century. Scots Roses are an under-exploited genetic resource in many countries although some breeding, using them, is being carried out.

However, in 1840, there were probably more cultivars of 'Scots Rose' available than cultivars of all the other distinct groups of garden roses of the time combined. Buist (1839) estimated that there were >500 Scots Roses, 200 Gallicas, 150 Centifolias, >100 Damasks, 50 Albas, 20 Sweet Briars plus >1,100 other undefined roses. It is uncertain how accurate these statistics were but they do indicate an order of numerical significance of Scots Rose cultivars by 1840.

The number of named Scots Rose cultivars may be an underestimate. Hundreds of single, semi-double and double Scots Roses had already been raised in Britain, Europe and North America by 1830 (in a wide range of colours). One breeder alone, Robert Austin of Austin and McAslan, Glasgow, Scotland had raised over 200 Double Scots Rose cultivars by 1825 and the nursery's Catalogue of Double Scotch Roses (1825) was possibly the first nursery catalogue to include abbreviated descriptions of the cultivars offered (Boyd, 2007, 2008a). Many cultivars were raised elsewhere in Britain; also France (Boyd, 2012b), other parts of Europe and North America (Boyd, 2008a).

The "once-flowering" Scots Roses and other Old Roses began to go out of fashion during the 1830s as "repeat-flowering" or "perpetual" roses became more diverse.

However, although Scots Roses had already become less "fashionable" by 1840, there was a greater variety and they had become more widely distributed. A few cultivars, including the 'Double White Scots Rose', had already been available for more than 60 years. Moreover, the ease of propagation of Scots Roses from suckers meant that what had been expensive new cultivars, available only to wealthy landowners when they were first raised in the 1820s, were now finding their way into the gardens of "ordinary" people. Everyone loved the charm of these roses with their exuberance of sweetly scented flowers before most other roses were in bloom. In Scotland, there seems to have been pride in their Scots origins and they became a symbol of "Scottishness". However, 'Scots Roses' also became popular in Scandinavia and Finland and a double white 'Scots Rose' became particularly associated with celebrations of Midsummer.

Crofters, cottagers, tenant farmers and wealthy landowners were among the emigrants to North America, New Zealand and elsewhere who carried suckers or seeds of Scots Roses to their new homes during the 19th century. Indeed, R. spinosissima was one of the first roses to reach Australia. It was introduced to the Sydney Botanic Garden by Lady Brisbane, a Scot, in 1821 (Boyd, 2013a). Other prominent Scots carried Scots Roses with them on the long voyage but there were many more 'ordinary' Scots immigrants who took these "living memories of home" with them to Australia or New Zealand. Scots Roses flourish in New Zealand (particularly the South Island) and cooler parts of Australia (particularly Victoria and Tasmania). Many immigrants and their roses flourished in their new homes and even descendants of ex-patriot Scots had Scots Roses planted on their graves. This custom is even recorded in popular 19th century and early 20th century fiction (Boyd 2008b, 2012a). Similarly, Swedish emigrants to North America carried their double white 'Scots Roses' with them and communities where such immigrants settled are marked by gardens containing these roses.

Old Scots Rose cultivars have survived in old gardens, cemeteries, and near deserted homesteads around the world for over 150 years but these survivors are constantly under threat from the redevelopment of gardens, municipal or ecclesiastical 'tidiness syndrome' or the careless use of systemic herbicides.

European roses had arrived in North America in the 17th century. R. spinosissima was probably one of the first. Several cultivars were available in American nurseries including Prince's Nursery in New York by 1800. In about 1825, a double flowered yellow hybrid of R. spinosissima x R. foetida was raised in the garden of Mr George Harison, a New York lawyer. It was effectively a yellow Scots Rose. Similar yellow 'Scots Roses' were raised in Britain (e.g., 'Williams Double Yellow') and America at about the same time but this New York one became known as 'Harisonii' or 'Harison's Yellow' and Mr Harison's name (often mis-spelt Harrison) is the one that is now perpetuated in the name of the hybrid R. x harisonii [R. spinosissima x R. foetida]. The nurseryman William Prince acquired a plant of this rose in 1830 and propagated it for sale. However, other nurserymen including Thomas Hogg of New York had made the same cross and raised similar seedlings from it. James McNab introduced 'Hogg's Yellow' to Scotland in 1834 (Boyd, 2008b). There is uncertainty about which of the double yellow Scots Roses found growing in North America and other parts of the world is the original 'Harison's Yellow' as not only were many seedlings raised from the same cross but seedlings were also grown from 'Harison's Yellow' itself. 'Harison's Yellow' has become famous because pioneer families carried plants (or seeds?) across America on the Oregon Trail where it still grows by deserted settlements.

Scots Roses were not only sold as named cultivars but also as un-named seedlings and gardeners grew their own seedlings - so that not all old Scots Roses "found" in old gardens, cemeteries, etc. necessarily had a name.

Most of the old cultivars originated as variants or hybrids of the low-growing form of the species that grows wild in N.W. Europe. In the 20tK century, S.G.A. Doorenbos in the Netherlands and others in Canada raised cultivars with a similar character to the old Scots Roses. Most of the Doorenbos cultivars have the character of Scots Roses because they were based on wild R. spinosissima from Dutch sand-dunes. A collection of R. spinosissima cultivars selected or raised by Doorenbos is preserved at the University of Wageningen, in The Netherlands.

However, Wilhelm Kordes II in Germany and others used tall-growing Asian forms of R. spinosissima to breed large shrubs (e.g., Frühlings hybrids). Such large- flowered complex hybrids using the Asian R. spinosissima 'Altaica' or 'Hispida' should not be grouped with 'Scots Roses'. Another example is 'Aïcha', a very complex hybrid bred by Valdemar Petersen in Denmark in 1966. It is a beautiful semi double yellow rose containing some R. spinosissima genes but it is not a Scots Rose.

Some R. spinosissima cultivars are repeat-blooming (e.g., the old 'Stanwell Perpetual', 'Paula Vapelle', 'Lochinvar') and some breeders (e.g., Knud Pedersen in Denmark) are breeding new recurrent cultivars.



Few old cultivars remain in commerce but many old garden-worthy cultivars have been rediscovered and also new seedlings have been raised in Europe, North America and New Zealand. There is renewed interest in the group but their nomenclature is confused.

This confusion is partly because people have tried to apply a name from a very small list of published names - not realising how many hundreds of named cultivars there used to be as well as unnamed seedlings!

Several of the old illustrated rose books included depictions of Scots Roses (e.g., Lawrance, 1799; Redouté, 1817-1824; Willmott, 1910-1914) and some were illustrated in horticultural journals. However, no books devoted to Scots Roses and other hybrids of R. spinosissima were published until the end of the 20th century (McMurtrie, 1998; Korhonen, 2002; Joy et al., 2004). Several other rose books published in the last ten years have included more information about these roses but some authors have continued to exclude them.

Modern books include some misnamed Scots Roses but misnaming of Scots Roses by nurseries is widespread. This is mainly due to earlier writers who included only a small number of Scots Roses in their books (e.g., Thomas, 1962). Mistakenly, readers interpreted this to mean that only that small number of cultivars existed! This was not the fault of the authors. In particular, Thomas resurrected an interest in rose species and the older cultivars. In his Shrub Roses of Today, Graham Thomas described several Scots Rose cultivars and other hybrids of R. spinosissima. Since then, people have mistakenly tried to "fit" a rose in their possession to one of those few names. Therefore, several different roses in commerce are given the same name. Some names, such as 'Double White', are purely descriptive and several different distinct Scots Roses with semi-double and fully double white flowers of globular or more open form exist. One cannot claim that there was ever one cultivar with the name 'Double White'. However, one would hope that a cultivar name such as 'Andrewsii' is only applied to a one particular cultivar! This is not the case and 'Andrewsii' is applied to several different pale pink or dark pink cultivars with different degrees of doubling and different flower form.

One particular rose provides a good example of the confusion that exists in the naming of Scots Roses and related cultivars. Thomas described one very distinctive rose, 'Mary Queen of Scots', in his 1962 book. That rose has typical Scots Rose character as regards form, foliage and black heps. The flowers are semi-double with the partially opened buds (the back of the petals) appearing white but opening to expose deep carmine on the front of the petals. The combination of grey-white buds and carmine creates a very striking effect. However, Peter Beales applied the name 'Mary Queen of Scots' to a completely different rose (Beales, 1997). His rose is not a typical Scots Rose in character. It is clearly a form of R. x reversa (R. spinosissima x R. pendulina). It has single pink flowers with darker pink markings and elongated dark red heps. The example is even more complicated by the fact that the name 'Mary Queen of Scots' is not one of the hundreds of cultivar names that the present author has found used before 1962 and the rose described by Thomas is probably 'Bicolor', as illustrated by Andrews (1822) - the name being used in the same sense as R. foetida 'Bicolor'. The cultivar name 'Bicolor' has also been used in the 20th century for a semi-double Scots Rose cultivar in which the petals are 'splashed' or 'streaked' with more than one colour!

The nomenclature of Scots Roses and other cultivars of R. spinosissima is confused but attempts have been made to gain some semblance of order by clarifying names and separating cultivars into groups of cultivars with similar character or presumed same parentage (Boyd, 2004, 2007, 2008a, 2015). Some groups are quite well-defined, such as the Reversa Group (cultivars that have characteristics of R. spinosissima and R. pendulina) and a Harisonii Group (cultivars that have characteristics of R. spinosissima and R. foetida). Some are less well-defined groups such as 'Complex Hybrids' encompassing a wide range of forms that show little of their R. spinosissima heritage but are often described as 'Spinosissima Hybrids'.

The present author has compiled an "encyclopaedia of cultivars" including about 2,000 names (with descriptions where available) applied to Scots Roses and related R. spinosissima cultivars in books, nursery catalogues and other sources since the 17th century. This "encyclopaedia" forms part of a forthcoming book by the present author 'Scots Roses, Rosa spinosissima and other Pimpinellifolias'.



Although most cultivars are once-blooming, they are very floriferous and the true Scots Roses are generally sweetly scented. Some of those that bloom earliest in the Spring may have some flowers in the autumn. Their early flowering, floriferousness, scent and charm 'win the hearts' of those who discover them. The single and semi-double forms also produce abundant black heps and many have attractive foliage that can produce striking autumn colours in yellow, orange, pink, red and scarlet in different cultivars. Their prickly stems are attractive in the winter, particularly with the frost on them. Therefore, although they normally have one main period of flowering, they have interest for much of the year. R. spinosissima cultivars will grow in a wide range of soils. They are also extremely cold-hardy and resistant to drought and diseases. Some of the cultivars already in commerce, old cultivars not yet returned to commerce and new hybrids offer great potential as garden plants.



Like many roses, true Scots Roses are best grown on their own roots and budded or grafted plants should be planted with the union several centimetres below the soil surface so that they can produce root-shoots (suckers) and grow in their natural form. Extraneous root-shoots can be removed easily with a spade in autumn, from which new plants may be propagated. They require little or no pruning. If desired they can be clipped immediately after flowering but no later as flowers are produced on the previous year's wood.



These charming but tough roses have potential as a source of new garden roses in a time of climatic uncertainty. More of the existing cultivars should be brought into commerce. The low-growing Scots Roses offer possibilities as parents for the breeding of smaller hardy shrubs for modern gardens.


Literature Cited

Andrews, H.C. 1805-28. Roses, or a Monograph of the Genus Rosa.

Beales, P. 1997. Classic Roses. Harvill Press, London.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2004. Scots Roses: a new look at an exuberant group of old roses. Historic Rose Journal 28:2-11. www.peterboyd.com/ rosapimp3.htm.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2007. Scots Roses then and now. The Plantsman. The Royal Horticultural Society. June 2007, p.104-111. Online at http://www.peterboyd.com/ rosapimpl l.htm.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2008a. Scots Roses - past and present. OGR & Shrub Journal. American Rose Society 4(4):2-10. http://www.peterboyd.com/rosapimpl2.htm.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2008b. Romantic Survivors: Rosa spinosissima, Scots Roses and the North American connection. Rosa Mundi. Heritage Rose Foundation 22(3):4-31. http://www.peterboyd.com/rosapimpl4.htm.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2012a. Rosa spinosissima - aspects of its natural history and associations with people from prehistory to the present day. 12th International Heritage Rose Conference. Sakura, Japan June 2012. World Federation of Rose Societies. Published on CD. http://independent.academia.edu/PeterDABoyd.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2012b. 'Scots Roses' and the French Connection. Roses Anciennes en France. Bulletin 18:41-46. Online at http://independent.academia.edu/PeterDABoyd.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2013a. The First Scots Roses in Australia. Journal of Heritage Roses in Australia. 35(3):5-15. http://independent.academia.edu/ PeterDABoyd.

Boyd, P.D.A. 2013b. The Prince and the Pimpinell Rose. Historic Rose Journal 46:19-23. http://independent.academia.edu/PeterDABoyd.

Boyd, P.D.A. Forthcoming. Scots Roses, Rosa spinosissima and other Pimpinellifolias. The Royal Horticultural Society in association with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh [publication expected in 2017 or early 2018].

Buist, R. 1839. The American Flower Garden Directory. 2nd Edition.

Cuizhi, G. and Robertson, K.R. 2003. Rosa. In: Wu Zhengyi, P.H. Raven and Hong Deyuan (eds.), Flora of China 9 Pittosporaceae through Connaraceae. Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Joy, P., Kauppila-Laine, M. and Urhonen, E. 2004. Pimpinella: Kylämaiseman Ruusu [Finland finds her Scotch Roses] (in Finnish and Swedish). The Santtio Foundation, Uusikaupunki, Finland.

Korhonen, A. 2002. Juhannusruusu ja Muut Pimpinellat [Midsommarrosen och andra Pimpinellrosor] (in Finnish and Swedish). Suomen Ruususeura RY / Finska Rosensällskapet ELF, Finland.

Lawrence, M. 1799. A Collection of Roses from Nature.

McMurtrie, M. 1998. Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gardens. Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, Woodbridge.

Mayland-Quellhorst, E., Föller, J. and Wissemann, V. 2012. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Rosa spinosissima L. J. Ecology 100:561-576.

Redouté, P.J. 1817-1824. Les Roses. Firmin Didot, Paris.

Thomas, G.S. 1962. Shrub Roses of Today. Phoenix House Ltd, London.

Willmott, E. 1910-14. The Genus Rosa. J. Murray, London.



Fig. 2. Black heps - characteristic of Rosa spinosissima and many Scots Roses.

Fig. 3. Stem of 'Spinosissima' variant, showing a mixture of narrow prickles and acicles.

Fig. 4. Stem of 'Altaica' variant, showing only prickles.

Fig. 5. A semi-double white Scots Rose cultivar.

Fig. 6. Single crimson flowers of 'Mrs Colville', a Scots Rose of the Reversa Group.

Fig. 7. Double yellow flowers of 'Harison's Yellow', a Scots Rose of the Harisonii Group.

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


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May 3rd 2016