The Name of the Rose

By Maeve Maddox

Spring is in the air so I feel like writing about flowers. One of my all-time favorites is the rose.

Most people can quote Juliet’s comment about the name of the rose:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

And there’s Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Sometimes, however, a “rose” is not a rose.

The rose family (Rosaceae) includes about 2,930 species in 95 genera. Among the 95 genera is the genus Rosa Linnaeus, which is divided into four subgenera, one of which is Rosa, the subgenus that Juliet and Gertrude had in mind.

Roses have been shedding their fragrance on the air since before there were human beings to inhale it. The ancestors of the roses in modern gardens originated in the Tertiary Period, about 70 million years ago. Ancient Chinese and the Egyptian gardeners are believed to be the first to begin selective breeding of roses for color.

Here’s a simplified example of the taxonomy of a rose, based on the USDA.gov site:

Kingdom: Plantae (Plants)
Division: Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants)
Family: Rosaceae (Rose family)
Genus: Rosa L. (the L. is for Linnaeus.)
Subgenus: Rosa
Common name: Rose

Rosa contains from 100 to 150 species and thousands of cultivars, with more being introduced all the time. A cultivar is a plant variety that has arisen from cultivation. English rosarian David Austin, for example, has developed more than 190 rose cultivars since 1961.

When shopping for roses, it’s enough to know the name of the cultivar. Some popular cultivars are ‘Knockout,’ ‘Peace,’ ‘Abraham Darby,’ ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ ‘Don Juan,’ ‘William Shakespeare 2000,’ and ‘Mr. Lincoln.’

When plants are identified by genus, species, and cultivar, the genus name is capitalized, the species name written in lowercase, and the cultivar name is enclosed in single quotation marks.

To illustrate how the three terms are used, here are five plants whose common names contain the word rose, but which are unrelated to the rose of poetry. I’ve included the Family name to show that they do not belong to Rosaceae. In each three-word description, the first word is the genus, the second is the species, and the third is the cultivar.

moss rose
Family: Portulacaceae (aka Purslane)
Example: Portulaca grandiflora ‘Happy Hour’

rose of Sharon
Family: Malvaceae
Example: Hibiscus syriacus ‘White Chiffon’

Lenten rose
Family: Ranunculaceae
Example: Helleborus orientalis ‘Kingston Cardinal’

Christmas rose
Family Ranunculaceae
Example: Helleborus niger ‘Eva’

primrose
Family: Primulaceae
Example: Primula vulgaris ‘Arctic Mix’

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