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Peter D. A. Boyd

Scots Roses for Scottish Gardens

Peter D. A. Boyd

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 2005. 'Scots Roses for Scottish Gardens'. The Scottish Garden. Spring 2005 (see http://www.thescottishgarden.co.uk ).

A single white R. pimpinellifolia seedling grown from seed collected from a wild population. Photo: Peter Boyd


Scotland is well known for producing famous plant collectors who introduced many beautiful plants to British gardens from Asia, North America and other parts of the world. However, a group of garden plants that originated in Scotland is less well known. Although there was a time when they were the height of fashion and hundreds of varieties were available, they fell out of fashion so many people do not even know they exist.

These are the plants now known as 'Scots Roses' or 'Scots Briars', although in the early 19th century, when they were most popular, they were known as 'Scotch Roses'. They are cultivars of one of our native wild roses, Rosa pimpinellifolia (also known as Rosa spinosissima).

Scots Roses are 'cheerful' little roses. They have a special character that is appealing and for those who make their acquaintance, they are a delight and may even 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 hardy, will thrive in poor sandy or stony soils, like full exposure and, once established, are resistant to drought.

The sweetly scented single white flowers are borne on prickly stems with small leaves and most forms have a spreading suckering habit. However, the flowers are not always white and 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 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. 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, which, 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.

Scots Roses flower profusely for a relatively short period and then they are finished until the next year (as with any species and many old rose cultivars). The main flowering for Scots Roses 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 bear a few flowers in the autumn. However, they provide an extended period of interest in the garden with their attractive foliage, which may colour well in the autumn, and their shiny black heps.

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

The only Scots Roses that appear in nursery catalogues before 1800 are a single white, a single red and one with single marbled or striped flowers. 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 first double-flowered Scots Roses were supposedly raised in the nursery of Messrs Dickson and Brown (later Dickson and Turnbull) of Perth. In 1793, Robert Brown and his brother transplanted some of the wild Scots Roses from Kinnoull Hill into the nursery. One of these bore flowers slightly tinged with red and a seedling raised from that plant bore flowers with more petals than normal. Through a repeated process of sowing seed and selection from the seedlings semi-double forms were obtained and by 1802 and 1803they had eight good double varieties to propagate and sell.

The nursery of Dickson and Turnbull in Perth 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. 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 last year –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 approximately 100 new varieties of double Scots Roses. By the mid 1820s, Robert Austin had raised and offered for sale over 200 varieties. More varieties were bred by other nurserymen in Scotland and England (most of the latter being ex-patriot Scots or of Scottish descent).

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". 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". This is just what I have been doing for the last few years!

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 catalogues 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.

Those few cultivars of Scots Roses that are sold by nurseries today are sometimes misnamed. 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 normally supplied consistently named but I have not been able to find its origin. Those inhabitants of Edzell, near Brechin, to whom I have spoken who grow it purchased it from one of the well-known rose nurseries because of its name!

The extraordinary bicoloured buds of one of the Scots Roses known by the name 'Mary Queen of Scots'. Photo: Peter Boyd

The true Scots Roses are cultivars of Rosa pimpinellifolia and some hybrids of the species that have a similar character. Some hybrids such as the old 'Stanwell Perpetual' (1838) and the 20th century hybrids are often listed as Scots Roses but they have a different character.

Although the old cultivars had gone out of fashion by 1900, the species was used extensively in rose breeding in the 20th century. In Canada Dr Frank Skinner (another ex-patriot Scot) and others raised a number of hybrids that could cope with the extreme cold of Canadian winters and, in Germany, Kordes raised the Frühlings series (e.g. Frühlingsmorgen). More recently, breeding experiments have been carried out in Finland, where Scots Roses are popular because of their hardiness. While these hybrids are beautiful roses, they and most other modern hybrids do not have the character of Scots Roses.

Currently, the best source of illustrations of Scots Roses is the late Mary McMurtrie's Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gardens (1998), which includes reproductions of Mary's beautiful watercolour illustrations and descriptions of 67cultivars.

Although I have developed a fairly large personal collection in the course of my research, there is no large public collection of Scots Roses in Scotland or elsewhere, although many National Trust for Scotland properties have a few cultivars. Drum Castle on Deeside near Aberdeen has developed an attractive walled rose garden over the last few years with a good selection of mainly those Scots Roses that are available from nurseries. However, the small village of Kinnaird near Dundee can probably still boast the most interesting collection, which was made by Dr Peter Waister, his wife and other enthusiasts some 30 years ago in a garden that has become a small public park managed by Perth and Kinross Council. Unfortunately, the collection is now mostly unlabelled but it is well worth a visit in June.

Relatively few Scots Roses are now available compared with the hundreds obtainable in the past, but gardens in Scotland or the gardens of Scottish gardeners outside Scotland should include one or two – at least. The pleasure that a plant can give is not only in its beauty and scent but also in its associations. If Scotland were to have a cultivated plant as its emblem, it should be a Scots Rose!

Cultivation Notes

Scots Roses are not particular about soil and will grow in anything from clay to almost pure sand (as they do in sand dunes, their natural habitat). They grow well in poor sandy, stony soils, where other roses might be unhappy. However, they will benefit from well-rotted manure under, but not touching the roots when planted and a top dressing of well-rotted manure in the spring. The flowers will be even more abundant and the flower colour richer for this.

They like full exposure to the sun and will grow more naturally and flower better if not shaded for more than a small part of the day. Most nurseries in Britain supply Scots Roses budded onto a rootstock but these roses grow more naturally and live longer (indefinitely) if growing on their own roots. Therefore, plant them deeper than you might do other roses, with the union of the cultivar with the rootstock well below soil level. In this way, any suckers (root-shoots) that grow should be from the Scots Rose and it will have the growth habit that is natural for the particular cultivar. Some cultivars form a low rounded mound of growth while others are taller, do not tend to sucker so much and have an arching form of growth.

Scots Roses do not normally need pruning and those whose natural form is to provide arching sprays of flowers will be spoilt if you do. Others that naturally have a fairly rounded shape will respond well to light pruning or clipping over with shears immediately after flowering and attractive hedges can be created from them. However, clipping after flowering removes the heps so you will lose that attractive feature of late summer and autumn. Moreover, if the pruning or clipping is delayed you will cut off the growth that will flower next spring and you will miss a year's flowering.

Suckers are a natural way of life for Scots Roses and provide an easy way of increasing your stock. If you plant your Scots Roses with space around them and plenty of light the suckers will stay closer to the parent plant and form a slowly spreading mound of growth. If you plant herbaceous or other plants close to them, the suckers will grow longer until they emerge where there is light – at the front of the border! If you cover the ground with a weed suppressant, the suckers will keep travelling until they find a join or the edge where there is light! If you just use bark chips or gravel without polythene or fabric, there will be less of a problem. Do not let this suckering habit put you off. It is easy to chop excess suckers off with a spade if you do not want them but if you want to propagate the plant, wait until autumn or spring to dig up the sucker carefully and transplant it or pot it up.

I have found that Scots Roses do well in large pots (20 litres or more) for two or three years. This allows you to move a plant closer to the house when it is in full flower. I started to grow Scots Roses on in pots before planting in the open ground when I found that a planned planting scheme could be ruined if a rose bought under a particular name was not what you expected. I also find that when I am given a sucker of a Scots Rose that is 'new' to me, it is easier to nurture it in a pot until well enough established to plant out.


Remember that more than one cultivar may be offered under the same name by different nurseries (e.g. 'Mary Queen of Scots', 'William III'). This is not the fault of the nursery and is a naming problem that I hope to sort out – in time!

If you want to find nurseries that sell them, look in the RHS Plant Finder, www.rhs.org.uk/rhsplantfinder/plantfinder.asp. Specialist rose nurseries offer more cultivars than most: Acton Beauchamp Roses, David Austin Roses and Peter Beales Roses all have a number of cultivars available.


The author

I am a Scottish gardener in the Shropshire Hills at 1000 feet up. Strangely enough, my father and generations of my family came from a part of Perthshire close to where double Scots Roses were first developed.

My own collection currently contains some 200 cultivars plus numerous seedlings that I have raised from collected seed. The collection has been submitted to the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens(NCCPG) for National Collection status.

It is my ultimate aim to be able to make properly named cultivars of Scots Roses available so that the old varieties are not lost and can be obtained by modern gardeners. While I have derived a list of some 700 names of Scots Rose cultivars from the 18th century onwards I would be grateful for information about old rose catalogues that include lists of Scots Roses (probably under the name 'Scotch Roses', Rosa pimpinellifolia or Rosa spinosissima). I am writing a book about Scots Roses and I would also be pleased to hear of any interesting varieties of which readers may be aware. I will attempt to provide a name if you can send me a photograph.

Peter Boyd is Collections Manager for Shrewsbury Museums Service.

Tel: 01743 361196

Email: peterboyd@btinternet.com




'Scots Roses: a new look at an exuberant group'. By P.D.A. Boyd. Historic Rose Journal No. 28, Autumn 2004, pp. 2-11. The Royal National Rose Society (web version available at http://www.peterboyd.com/rosapimp3.htm).

Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gardens by Mary McMurtrie. Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, 1998

A fine double pink Scots Rose found growing by a roadside in Aberdeenshire. Photo: Peter Boyd

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

E-mail: peterboyd@btinternet.com .

The Scottish Garden


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



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