Every Rose Has Its … Prickle?

Posted: February 2, 2023

Sorry 1980s power ballad fans, but Poison led you astray. While the song earned the glam metal band a number-one hit, the writer clearly didn’t consult a horticulturist before drafting the lyrics. Had they asked for some expert advice, they’d know every rose does not have its thorns.

Yes, that’s right. Not only does every rose not have thorns but no roses have thorns. Scientifically speaking, they have prickles!

Comparable to hair, prickles are spine-like extensions that grow out of the cortex and epidermis of a stem. They form hard, sharp points that help defend the plant from herbivores (like rabbits, deer and squirrels) and gardeners alike. In the genus Rosa, prickles come in a variety of forms and density.

Thorns, on the other hand, are modified branches that grow out of nodes on a stem. They have vascular bundles which extend from the stem into the thorn. Prickles don’t have vascular bundles, making them easier to remove than a thorn. Thorns eventually become woody, hard and pointed.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is an example of a Virginia native plant with thorns.

Roses come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Here in the Richmond area where the Science Museum is located, we have two species of pink, prickly native roses: the Carolina rose (Rosa carolina) and the swamp rose (Rosa palustris). The two are almost visually indistinguishable! They both can be found in open natural areas with full sun, but swamp rose, as its name suggests, prefers wetter soils.

Conversely, Muiltiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a highly invasive white rose commonly found all in Central Virginia. It looks nothing like the 40-to-60 petal commercial roses you’ll find in a flower shop or mixed into grocery store bouquets. This climbing shrub was originally introduced as an ornamental plant and then used as a living fence for livestock. Like many invasive plants, it restricts wildlife movement and displaces native vegetation.

To make matters worse for Bret Michaels, not every rose has prickles either! Most do, but there are a few varieties of roses lacking prickles. Over many years, plant breeders successfully developed prickle-less rose varieties. These roses are more desirable for the commercial market as prickles don’t make the often-gifted flower as appealing.

So, as we’re officially in the season of love with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, when you’re buying flowers for your sweetheart, take a close look at the stems. Go ahead and sing to yourself when you check to see if every rose has its prickles!