A rose thorn by any other name

Maybe a rose is a rose is a rose, but a rose thorn isn't a thorn at all. It's a prickle.

Courtesy of Lynn Hunt
The English rose Tess of the D'Urbervilles sports particularly thorny -- or prickly -- canes.

Thumbing through a compilation of favorite sayings, you might find 300 or more quotes referring to roses. Many of these adages also mention the plant's dreaded thorns.

For instance, Anne Bronte wrote: “He that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.”

Of course, we all know that “every rose has its thorns.” And here's a poem just about rose thorns.

But the truth is, those nasty spikes we call thorns are not thorns at all. Botanists actually call them prickles.

According to the American Rose Society, a thorn is a branch of a plant that becomes woody, hard, and pointed. Cactus plants, locust trees, and many varieties of citrus have thorns. These thorns are deeply embedded in the plant itself and are difficult to break off.

Rose prickles, on the other hand, can be snapped off quite easily since they are only part of the outer layers of the stem. Just give a prickle a little push sideways and see what happens.

Prickles are smaller than thorns and are useful in helping roses climb across other plants. They can also give potential predators a painful rebuke.

Although prickles aren’t supposed to be as intimidating as thorns, my arms, legs, and face can’t tell much difference.

When I’m out doing a little impromptu pruning and neglect to dress properly, I come in covered with scratches. I always tell people it’s because my roses love me and want to give me hugs.

The best advice for avoiding scratches and rose thorn disease is to wear long sleeves and sturdy gloves while working around your roses. I truly love my Bionic rose gardening gloves – they are triple layered goatskin gauntlet gloves designed by a hand surgeon that protect my arms up to the elbows.

After a recent weekend of serious pruning, I ended up with nary a scratch, avoiding a potentially thorny situation.

"The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose,” wrote Kahlil Gibran.

I admire the rose but remain mindful of the thorns for safety’s sake. And I say thorns because even though I know better, I can’t bring myself to call them prickles.

“Every rose has its prickles” simply doesn’t sound right.

PSSSST: I like the sentiment of this German proverb: “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.”

Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. She grows roses and other plants in her garden on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter.


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