Friday, August 27, 2010

Shakespeare's Rose

"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 1-2), doesn't even begin to cover the unusual wonder that is Rosa eglanteria, also known as R. rubiginosa, the Sweetbriar Rose of Shakespearean fame. For the unwashed rose devotees who have not yet run across this enormous, coarse, thorny monster, I feel I have to spend a blog entry to enlighten those who aren't aware that a rose doesn't need to flower to perfume the air. 

Native to Europe, Rosa eglanteria carries foliage perfumed with the scent of apples, more specifically with the scent of green apples.  The delicious odor can be elicited by crushing the leaves with clumsy fingers, and I almost never pass the bush without traumatizing a few leaves so that I can inhale those images of apple pie and home. Moisture-laden air also brings forth the wafts of scent without inflicting trauma on the bush, and during a warm steady rain, my Sweetbriar perfumes the garden for upwards of 10 yards. If you're thinking of building a gazebo, I'd recommend placing one within a few yards of a Rosa eglanteria, since it allows you to stand in the garden near the bush during a rain without inducing pitying stares from the neighbors. They'll still wonder, of course, if you've gone daft when you close your eyes and tilt your head back to keep your nose in the best breeze, but you won't care since you'll be comatose with olfactory overdose. It's said that serfs during the Middle Ages used to spread fragrant herbs over their hut floors to suppress the more unpleasant odors, but my bet is that they used dried leaves from the Sweetbriar instead of rosemary or thyme.

In Kansas, R. eglanteria grows eight to ten feet in height and becomes a tangle of brambles sufficient to serve as a livestock barrier or as an obstacle to the suitor of a teenage daughter (reading Romeo and Juliet is sometimes useful for gardening fathers). Otherwise it should be planted far away from garden paths and visitor areas lest it snag the unsuspecting and increase the garden's insurance premiums. It has undistinguished single light pink flowers, but the small blooms are quite numerous enough to make a display at the right moment in the spring.  Ovoid orange hips form to provide some fall and winter interest, but it’s the scent glands in the foliage that make this rose one to have and keep. While my annual attempts to trim and tame this rose leave me torn and bleeding, I still keep the Sweetbriar around for its moments of pleasure freely given by the tender caress of the summer rain.


  1. This reminds me of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

    I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
    Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
    Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
    With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
    There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
    Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
    And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
    Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

    I had forgotten about those verses -- thanks for the reminder!

  2. I am intrigued by this particular aspect of smell from the foliage and will probably try and find a way to get it to Hawaii ... thank you for your well-written blog, I enjoyed quickly browsing through it. I just received El Catala from Heirloom Roses, so I have my fingers crossed that it will do well in our humid, semi-rainy, pretty sunny weather.


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