Rosa Hibernica, the Irish Rose

by frankbeswick

The Irish rose is a variety rare in the wild, and very beautiful.

Occasionally a plant specimen has a story that links it to the pioneers of botanical science, and this gives it a place in history. Rosa hibernica is one such specimen. It is linked to John Templeton, a pioneering plant scientist dwelling in Belfast in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He discovered it on his perambulations around Belfast Lough, his native area and quickly spotted that it was a variety yet to be classified .A descendant of this plant can still be seen in Belfast Botanical Gardens.

Picture courtesy of Veronica

Classifying Plants

There are countless different types of roses, so numerous that it takes an expert to know them all, if indeed anyone, even among  experts has the knowledge of all types. So I am beginning this article with an account of how plants are classified, for understanding the botanical nomenclature will assist in understanding the plant's name. For the sake of brevity I will focus on the smaller categories. 

While plants all have common names, all of them have scientific titles, and this rose is Rosa x hiberica. This locates it in the genus Rosa, a member of the enormous plant family known as the Rosaceae, which contains a huge proliferation of species and plenty of genera. The genus Rosa, like other genera [plural of genus] consists of a large range of closely related species. Species within a genus are closely related enough to interbreed, and often, though not always the hybrids are fertile. Note that Rosa hibernica capitalises the genus' name, but uses lower case for the species' name. This is normal botanical nomenclature. However, the insertion of an x between the two names indicates that it is a hybrid between two species within a genus; an x before the genus' name indicates an intergeneric hybrid, i.e. between species of different genera. These are usually infertile. If you see var followed by a name, e.g ....hibernica var. glabra, this indicates a distinction of a type within a species. A species name followed by a non-latin name in speech marks denotes a cultivar, which is a variety created and propagated by humans by vegetative propagation rather than by seed. I have not heard of any cultivars of the Irish Rose.

Hybridisation is common among wild plants, as plant seeds are no respecters of biological categories. Rosa hibernica is a cross between Rosa pimpinellifolia, the Burnet Rose, and Rosa canina, the dog rose. There may also be genes from native Irish wild roses that have over millennia contributed their share to hibernica's genetics. Sexual reproduction has the problem that desired varieties or species cannot breed true, as both parents contribute to the plant's genetics. This means that if you want to breed a true copy of the desired variety you must use asexual reproduction, known as vegetative propagation. There are several ways of doing this, but they vary from plant to plant.  Roses are propagated by cuttings, so a cutting of Rosa hibernica would have been taken [probably several of them] and grown on in favourable conditions.

Rosa hibernica belongs to the group known as shrub roses, which means that they are in effect small trees. It can reach nine feet tall. The claim that Rosa hibernica only grows in Ireland is false. The same hybridisation has occurred independently in other parts of the British Isles, though rarely. The variety glabra was once thought to belong to hibernica, but has now been shown by genetic analysis to be a different hybridisation. Modern genetics has provided a great tool for analysing lines of descent.

Templeton's Rose is pink in colour and its flowers are followed in winter time by bright red hips. specimens are available for purchase from a small selection of plant nurseries.



Let's imagine the day of the Rose's discovery. It is 1802 and thirty six year old John Templeton, a scion of one of Belfast's prosperous Presbyterian merchant families and beneficiary of a marriage into another such family, has decided to take a walk by the shores of Belfast Lough, the sea lough on  which Belfast stands. He is a typical scholarly intellectual of his period, a man of an age before the proliferation of scientific knowledge made specialisation a necessity. He has delved into the nascent sciences of chemistry and physics, though he has made no discoveries in those  areas, but his love is biology, though in the biological field he loves botany the best. Like other amateur scientists of his age he is open to new discoveries, and in the early years of a science they are there for the making.

The day is pleasant, and rural walks along the loughside road are a desirable way to spend one's time. Perhaps he wanders down a lane on whose route he has not previously walked. His eyes are ever alert for interesting flora, but as with  all such amblings most of the flora is already known and common. He did not set out with the intention or the expectation of a discovery, but his eye catches a large rose. Suddenly he realizes that this is something which he does not recognize. Yes, he can see that it is a rose, but not one with which he is familiar. So he takes a look, it is somewhat different from other roses of his acquaintance. The thought dawns on him along with a frisson of excitement. He has made a discovery. To be sure he takes a flower home with him and pores through reference books. Yes, it is a new variety! Next day he returns with a servant and takes some cuttings. The propagation process then begins and is ultimately successful.

As a successful amateur scientist he became a leading figure in Belfast's intellectual life and was a keen activist in progressive politics, supporting the cause of the non-sectarian United Irishmen. He corresponded with other great names in botany, such as Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain Cook and who was instrumental in the establishment of Kew Gardens. Templeton also worked on sea shells, an area of his work that is relatively unknown, but he was also involved in a magnum opus which was to collect illustrations for a pictorial work on Irish plants. This, along with working on the establishment of Belfast's botanic garden, took up much of his  time. Though the book was never published the illustrations remain in the possession of the botanic garden. He is acclaimed by many as Ireland's greatest naturalist.

Sadly Templeton was a man of less than robust constitution, and he suffered fragile health for the last ten years of his life. He died in 1825,aged fifty nine. 

Templeton's Rose



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Updated: 06/29/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/07/2022

As it is a heritage site I believe that it will have a blue plaque.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/07/2022

Does that mean that Cranmore is blue plaqued?

The Dictionary of Irish biography fits Cranmore into the Templeton legacy. It indicates it as a Royal Belfast Academical Institution possession on the latter's "playing fields, off Malone Road, south Belfast" and as a 21st-century conservation project of the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

frankbeswick on 07/03/2022

Blue plaques only go on the houses once inhabited by famous people. So there must have been special recognition to preserve the rose.l think that moving so well established a plant must have been a major project.Just think of what a hole must have been dug to get the roots out, and how much tending by expert gardeners followed the replanting.

frankbeswick on 07/02/2022

Wonderful research, Deddriù. We have in the UK legislation to protect heritage sites.I don't know if the blue plaque system was operating in1954,but the road crew would have been directed to preserve the site. We have in the UK a system of planning permission for major projects.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/02/2022

The page Rosa canina x pimpinellifolia (R. x hibernica) Templeton - rose - Rosaceae on the Flora of Northern Ireland component of the habitas site describes "One of the shrubs" discovered by John Templeton as lasting on a Holywood-area road in County Down into the 1950s! The shrub had to be removed because of road-widening around 1954. It nowadays is seen in Belfast Botanic Gardens!

Apart its being on a particularly historic stretch or its being so fetching as to attract besotted admiration and desperate attempts to preserve or take for one's own, it would seem unusual to me that the road crew would have done anything other than clear-cut vegetation present where they wanted their road!

Would there have been a sign -- perhaps Please remove me to the Belfast Botanic Gardens if you have to do anything here that affects my growth ;-D -- that would have alerted the project developers or the road crew to the Templeton shrub?

frankbeswick on 07/01/2022

There are other seed banks in the world as well as Kew. The more the merrier.

frankbeswick on 06/30/2022

Hopefully,but cuttings are the way to grow hybrids.

frankbeswick on 06/30/2022

There are a few nurseries that have them,and all derive from cuttings of the original.

Veronica on 06/30/2022

Kew Gardens in London started a project over 20 years ago to collect and catalogue seeds from every plant in the world so species will not die out. It is an almighty project . Hopefully our Beauty here is amongst them.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/30/2022

You've indicated that a descendant of the Templeton original discovery is in Belfast Botanical Gardens.

Would there be other direct descendants as back-up in case -- perish the thought -- the line should stop in the gardens?

And, in a related direction, where would the plant nurseries that have specimens get them from?

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