Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wild Roses

Roses are some of our most beautiful wild flowers and June is the month in which they bloom. The sight of them always lifts my spirits and when I come across them in some neglected corner of the Mersey Valley I reflect on how something of beauty managed to survive the brutal destruction of our local landscapes, mostly in the second half of the 20th century, and the largely insensitive, and often crass, interventions which followed.

These flowers may be beautiful but in terms of their classification (taxonomy) they are very complex. There are 20 or 21 species (depending on which authority you consult) of Rose growing wild in Britain – some of which are introductions (about 8 species). They exhibit variations within species and the species often hybridise with one another (there are more than 80 different hybrids).

Species and hybrids are distinguished from each other by examining details of their growth habit, leaves, prickles, fruits (‘hips’) and flowers.

How many species are native in present day South Manchester and the Mersey Valley is difficult to tell, and the picture has been complicated by the fact that many Roses (often of uncertain origin) were introduced in the 1970s and 80s. In his ‘Manchester Flora’ (1), published in 1859, Leo Grindon listed four species: Common Dog-rose (Rosa canina), White Dog-rose (R. arvensis), Hairy-fruited Dog-rose (R. villosa) and Downy-leaved Dog-rose (R. tomentosa). Modern authorities (2, 3) now call these respectively: Dog-rose (R. canina), Field-rose (R. arvensis), Soft Downy-rose (R. mollis – the name R.villosa now being obsolete) and Harsh Downy-rose (R. tomentosa). I’m not sure that I’ve sorted these four species out yet and I still need to do more work in order to state, with any confidence, that they are all still present.

In what follows I will describe the Dog-rose – which is still reasonably common around here – and two other British species which can be found in the present day Mersey Valley but which are probably not native in this area and were probably introduced in the 1970s and 80s.

Dog Rose (Rosa canina) – see top photo

This is a plant of hedgerows and scrub and is often an early coloniser of derelict sites around towns and cities.
Apart from its vicious, hooked prickles this is a common shrub of great beauty, elegance and (seeming) simplicity. In fact it is anything but simple! Experts have noted that this species is very variable and can be divided into four groups with a continuous range of variation between them (2,3). There are also a number of hybrids between Dog Rose and other species (ref. 2. lists ten and a more recent book, ref.3. lists eight).

Sweet-briar or Eglantine (R. rubiginosa) – see middle photo

This plant usually occurs on calcareous soils and although it can grow in hedgerows it is particularly characteristic of open scrub of chalk or limestone. Hence, it doesn’t really belong in the Mersey Valley at all! Nevertheless, it is now quite common at the western (i.e. Trafford) end of the Valley where it was probably planted around 30 – 35 years ago.

An important characteristic of Sweet-briar is the little, stalked glands on its flower stalks and leaves. When these glands are gently rubbed or pressed between fingers they release a very pleasant, sweet apple-like scent (hence the common name).

There’s something romantic and quintessentially English about this plant (although it’s probably not confined to England). Whenever I smell that sweet scent I imagine a pretty maiden emerging from a Helen Allingham, ‘chocolate-box’ thatched cottage on a dewy June morning, pausing to sniff the Eglantine growing around the door-frame before hurrying off to milk her cows – all accompanied by Vaughan Williams's, ‘The Lark Ascending’ of course!

Many-flowered Rose (R. multiflora) – see bottom photo

This is one of the introduced species now naturalised in Britain. It is a Chinese species, originally introduced as a root-stock for ornamental rambling roses. Gardeners sometimes throw these out, when they are past their best, and they end up on rubbish tips. A good place to see this spectacular species is on Hardy Farm near Jackson’s Boat Bridge. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Hardy Farm was once a Council tip.

Although the flowers of wild Roses may be beautiful, the hips are more diagnostic. These fruits are present from July to, at least, mid September – so I’ve got a bit more time this year to do a bit more sorting out.


1. The Manchester Flora, by Leo H. Grindon, William White, 1859.

2. Roses of Great Britain and Ireland - BSBI Handbook No. 7, by G.G. Graham and A.L. Primavesi, Botanical Society of the British Isles, 1993.

3. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd Edition, by Clive A. Stace, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Dave Bishop, June 2011

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