In praise of pimps

Thought the article below would be of interest.

‘Hispida’ (another Siberian form of R. pimpinellifolia) may be of particular interest to those pursuing hardy yellow tetraploids.

In praise of pimps!

By Einion Hughes

Roses are such popular garden plants that, whether we grow modem or old-fashioned roses, they can easily become a cliche. Nevertheless, it is possible to be original, both in our choice of roses and in the way we use them in our gardens.

One group of roses, sadly neglected by most gardeners, consists of the forms and hybrids of Rosa pimpinellifolia, often called Scots or Burnet roses. Two hundred years ago, they were the height of horticultural fashion. I was unaware of their existence until I read about them nearly 30 years ago, in the late Michael Gibson’s book, Shrub Roses for Every Garden. R. pimpinellifolia itself used to be named Rosa spinosissima, an appropriate name considering its very prickly nature. A widespread native with a vigorous suckering habit, it grows almost anywhere from seashores to mountainsides, occurring as dense thickets. It is a heart-gladdening sight when its branches are festooned with the single white, sweetly scented flowers; these are followed by small black hips.

It is a charming plant but hardly set to take gardens by storm. Crucially, this species is prone to produce highly variable progeny of its own accord. By the end of the eighteenth century, nurserymen were raising this rose from seed and hybridising the resultant seedlings, by the mid-nineteenth century there were some 200 different varieties available, although many must have been very similar. Their heyday was relatively brief and they largely faded away (as did many better known classes of old roses) as horticultural fashion acclaimed first the Hybrid Perpetuals and then the Hybrid Teas and Floribundas. Even so, such tough plants managed to survive in gardens not prey to the whims of fashion. In addition, a few rosarians have continued to use them in their breeding programmes, most notably Wilhelm Kordes in Germany, who used the Burnet rose as a parent of his Fruhling series.

White-flowered forms

‘Dunwichensis’, also known as the Dunwich rose, is similar to the species, and was first found growing some years ago in Dunwich, Suffolk. It differs in its prostrate habit, so that it gradually forms a mound, a very pretty sight when wreathed in creamy white blooms. ‘Altaica’ is rather bigger, and originated in Siberia. The largest naturally occurring form of the species, it grows to 1.75m and can spread vigorously! Flowers and fruits are typical but in proportion to the size of the plant. This was the form used by Kordes for his hybrids. ‘Hispida’ also originated in Siberia and, like ‘Altaica’, has been in our gardens for some two centuries. It differs in its rather smaller size, its earlier flowering, and in its pale lemon yellow flowers. ‘Double White’ is a name encountered in the trade that probably includes several different, if similar, plants. The rose I grow here under this name is a low-growing shrub whose globular flowers, some 5cm wide, are produced in one flush over a period of some two months.

Pink-flowered forms

‘Falkland’ is another old survivor, having been listed in 1830. Its double blooms are a delicate shade of blush pink, and are reminiscent of some of the better known old roses. I don’t know whether this rose originates from that Scottish town, or if it is merely named after it. ‘Lady Hamilton’ has similar flowers that are slightly deeper in their centres. There are a number of these double pink forms, mostly quite similar and many unnamed. ‘Lady Hamilton’ is of particular interest in that it was supposedly discovered as a wild plant on ‘the hills above Llangollen’. One of the best known is ‘Stanwell Perpetual’, the only repeat-flowering rose in this group. One of the bigger ones, it is probably a hybrid, possibly with the autumn damask, and has been in commerce for nearly two centuries.

Red-flowered forms

'William IIP is a suckering dwarf bush, to about 0.6m, that originated in the gardens at Crathes Castle. The semi-double flowers are dark crimson and are followed by small maroon hips. ‘Cherry’, sometimes listed as ‘Single Cherry’, is a good description of this variety’s single flowers. It grows to about lm. ‘Mrs Colville’ produces single, dark red flowers on a vigorously suckering shrub. The blooms are all the more startling_for having white centres, and the atypically long hips suggest that it is a hybrid, possibly with Rosa pendulina. ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ has double flowers of dark red; they look quite striking when half open, the colour of the petals contrasting with their silver-grey reverses. It was reputedly brought over to Scotland from France, by the eponymous queen; hmmm…

Yellow-flowered forms

‘Ormiston Roy’ is a hybrid that first appeared shortly before the Second World War. It has large, single yellow flowers, and is said to produce a second flush of blooms. ‘Lutea Maxima’, like all the hybrids with Rosa foetida, is now classed under the name Rosa x harisonii. It has similar single flowers to ‘Ormiston Roy’, but their scent differs in that it is derived from its ft foetida parent, and the plant itself is less prickly. ‘Harrison’s Yellow’ dates back to about 1830, when its bright yellow double flowers must have caused a sensation. It grows to about lm in height and it too inherits its scent from the Austrian Brier. ‘Williams’ Double Yellow’ has similar flowers but they differ in having green carpels in the centre. The shrub itself is shorter, to about 1.2m or so, and is more prone to suckering.

These varieties are only some of those that exist, but I have concentrated on those that are still in commerce. There are some forms that possess what are termed ‘marbled’ flowers; the pink flowers are speckled and streaked with deeper pink. They all have semi-double blooms. There are also double yellow forms that are forms of the species, rather than the result of hybridising with ft foetida, and there is at least one particularly beautiful double cream form. Hybrids with other rose species exist, such as Rosa x reversa, a R pimpinellifolia x R. pendulina hybrid that produces single, carmine flowers on a suckering shrub. Rosa x hibernica, known as the Irish rose, is a hybrid with Rosa canina, and dates from the late 18th century. A plant of wild origin in County Down, it is similar to its dog rose parent, but differs in the shape of its hips and its longer flowering season. Now extinct in the wild, it survives in some gardens, particularly, and predictably, in Ireland.

These roses possess such a good range of flower colour and form, and are generally of a size particularly suited to today’s small gardens, it seems a shame that they are not more widely grown. Some of them tend to sucker, it is true, but set against their other virtues, including a remarkable freedom from disease, that seems a price well worth paying.


Shrub Roses for Every Garden, by Michael Gibson. Published 1973. Although out of print secondhand copies can be tracked down without too much difficulty. This book covers many categories of roses, but he does include R. pimpinellifolia and a dozen of its forms and hybrids.

An Irish Flower Garden Replanted, by Charles Nelson. Published 1984, 1996. The