Mystery Plant! #724

John Nelson

Posted 5/25/23

By John Nelson

Foul words and frowns must not repel a lover;
What though the rose have prickles, yet ’tis pluck’d.
                                William Shakespeare, “Venus and Adonis”; 592.
(Photo by John Nelson.)

When I was a senior in college, my very final semester, I took an English class named “Shakespeare’s Comedies”. I loved the class, and I made a B in it. Maybe a B+. If I had known then what I know now about Shakespeare and botany, I’m sure I could have blown that class away with some plant-related essays. Maybe they’ll let me sign up again as an old retired professor.

Shakespeare refers to roses many times in his plays, and not just the comedies. He likes to compare them to purity, beautiful faces, and fragrant things. His concept of rose flowers seems to have been that they were either pure white, or deep red…and of course that’s good for poetic license, too. Then there are the stickery things, and he liked to point out that falling in love with these wonderful flowers means putting up with a lot of sharp stickers, sort of like being forced to take the “fleas with the dog” in life. Now, about these sharp, stickery things.

Shakespeare refers to them as thorns…most of the time. Which is wrong. Of course, he got it right in “Venus and Adonis”, calling them “prickles”, although he was probably not thinking of this word in the way that modern botanists do. We botanists nowadays have decided that a “thorn” is a sharp, modified stem, and a good example would be what you find on a citrus plant. If you looked inside a thorn, you would find vascular tissue, that stuff that allows for the movement of water and dissolved material. Roses don’t have thorns. Instead, they have “prickles”…which can be very sharp, but they contain none of that vascular tissue. Rather, a prickle is actually a specialized structure derived from the epidermis, or the skin, of the stem on which it develops. If you try hard enough (and with great care!) you can pop a rose’s prickle clean off the stem with your thumb. Can’t do that with a thorn.

These are deciduous shrubs, usually no more than about 10 feet tall, usually less. The flowers are exquisite, with five petals, almost invariably an intense shade of pink There are hundreds of golden stamens forming a ring around the pistils. Following the blooms, the fruits develop, and of course they are called “hips”…spherical affairs, bright red, containing the seeds. These are the same rose hips that some people use to make jelly and stuff.

By now you have figured out that this week’s Mystery Plant is a rose, which seems rather obvious from the picture. It is a native American species, found from central Florida all the way to Nova Scotia, Quebec, and southern Ontario, and into the midwestern states. It likes to grow in damp or wet woods: the one in the picture was photographed very recently growing at the edge of an old rice-field marsh in Berkeley County, South Carolina. It was VERY prickly…the sort of shrub that would be good for a bird’s nest. Or two.

[Answer: “Swamp rose,” Rosa palustris]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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