Out of his heart, there grew a rose,
And out of hers, a briar.
Everyone needs a patch of quiet ground to pace now and again. Some of us are blessed with the
presence of deep mountain woods, for others it's the
winding paths of an urban parkscape, or hill country or,
the high desert. My beat is the sandy shoreline
of New England, and nothing helps me regain the peaceful feeling
as a few
miles of chuffing through the littoral splendor. The stark beauty of the sandy
dunes here on Cape Cod, gives way to an appreciation
of a modest but robust ecosystem as one becomes more familiar with the
area. The plants that survive in the acidic salt spray and nutrient poor dunes
here are humble in manner but tough by design. They don't have a lot to work with and
consequently, they seem almost to revel in their minimalist and spartan existence.
As I wandered the beach this afternoon, the sun had drifted past its apex
and was casting long shadows behind me. The tall specter of a wind-sculpted Cedar towered above
and at its base, amid the Spartina grass, my eyes rested on a living metaphor
for an immortal love story.
In Scarlet Town where I did dwell, there was a fair maid a-dwellin'
And many a lad cried well a day, for love of Barbara Allen
'Twas in the merry month of May when spring buds they were swellin'
Sweet William on his death bed lay, for the love of Barbara Allen
Salt Spray Rose (Rosaceae rosa rugosa)1
The Beach Rose, or Salt Spray Rose as the locals here would have it, is a hearty bush
with stout prickly stems that manages an exuberant lifestyle in its sandy
windswept home. It makes a mockery of its pampered rose relatives by producing an abundance of fragrant flowers
throughout the Summer in colors ranging from white, to yellow, pink or even
purple . At Summer's end, the branches are covered with large fleshy rose hips loaded with seeds anxious to
the good news.
Belying its beauty, the Salt Spray Rose is not to be trifled with.
The stems of this rose are covered with thorns and anyone stumbling into its
arms faces a sharp rebuff. Rosa Rugosa grows in a shaggy unkempt
bush that can reach six feet in height and is about as big around as it is tall.
The deep green wrinkled (rugose) leaves are a few inches long and last
throughout the year. The stems are brownish to silver in color and almost furry
with needle-like prickles. The rose hip fruit turns bright red as it
ripens in late summer and is typically an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Rugosa grows just fine in salty conditions, shade, full sun, and
poor soil, as long as it's well-drained, it's happy. On Cape Cod it grows right in the
It is said that three rose hips contain as much vitamin C as sixty lemons and
have more calcium, phosphorous and iron by weight than oranges. The bad
news is that they aren't particularly pleasant or easy to eat, having little
flesh and consisting mostly of seeds. The taste is slightly tart and pleasant
enough, but rose-hip eaters are encouraged to throw the remains back into the rugosa
bush so as not to start new plants where they aren't wanted. Rose hips can
also be boiled to create a nice tea, or combined with other fruit in a jam or
The petals of the Salt Spray Rose can be eaten raw, boiled for a delicately
flavored tea or used in candies and jellies. The Wampanoag tribe reportedly used
decoctions of the inner bark and root as a treatment
for minor ailments.
Greenbriar Liliaceae smilax rotundifolia2
He sent his servant unto her and down where she was a-dwelling
Said, you must come to my master dear, if your name be Barbara Allen
Well slowly, slowly drew she up and slowly came she nigh him
And the only words to him she said, were young man, I think you're dying.
Well he turned his face unto the wall, and death was with him a-dealin'
He said farewell my comrades all, be kind to Barbara Allen
, or Bull Briar
as most Cape Codder
's refer to it, is about as
unlike the Salt Spray Rose
as possible. The very first thing you notice
about the briar is that it's literally painful to be around. You can't get
a good look at the plant without getting "stung" by its thorns, no
matter how careful you try to be. If you look really closely at the thorns
you'll see an almost perfect pricking machine. The vine's stems are thin
and whippy so if you grab one and pull, it will bend and give
rather than breaking. On a more close up and personal scale, such as the
point where the numerous thorns come in contact with your skin for example, the
thorns are very stiff and unforgiving. The triangular shape of the thorns
tends to focus the point of contact on the business end at the tip. Most
insidiously, the extreme tip of each thorn develops a barely visible tiny needle
of dry and dead briar wood that breaks off easily and stays embedded in whatever it
touches. These little stingers are almost impossible to even see, much
less remove, and as an added bonus they often seem to engender a mild infection
in the skin surrounding them. An efficient organic "Ouch" system.
After the thorns, the next thing most people notice about the Greenbriar is the
sickly Kermit-green color of its stems. Greenbriar is the only woody
vines in New England that has both thorns and tendrils. The long delicate
wave gently in the wind and allow the plant numerous opportunities to secure a
new grip on its host. These tough green barked vines snake their way through the
branches and leaves of any other foliage nearby, climbing high enough to choke
the life out of mature trees. Individual vines on a mature Greenbriar may
be over 50 feet (24meters) in length. A Greenbriar thicket can form such a dense mass of tangled vines as to be almost
impassible. Nature's answer to concertina wire.
Greenbriar produces small, greenish unisexual flowers in May and June,
resulting in clusters of blue-black berries in September. These berries
are a favorite food of many woodland animals who are happy to help the
Greenbriar propagate by eating and excreting its seed. The leaves are two
to five inches in length and are colored the same unlikely shade of green as the
Paradoxically, the very same characteristics that render Greenbriar so
unfriendly to humans, make it a veritable fortress for the local critters.
The spiny forbidding mass of a Greenbriar thicket is typically riddled with
little trails that weave through the undergrowth, a welcome refuge for the weak and powerless. In the branches above the bird population happily
feeds on the fat black berries, safe from all its normal predators. Deer are
fond of nibbling the new vines at the edges, which serves as a welcome pruning,
allowing the thicket to grow even denser.
The young shoots and tendrils of the Greenbriar are said to be edible when
steamed like asparagus. The roots produce an edible gelatin when they are
crushed and strained. The gelatin may also be combined with tannic acid for use
as an ointment for burns and abrasions. Greenbriar berries can also be
used in the creation of inks and dyes.
The Briar and the Rose
O you remember in yonder town, when we were at the tavern?
You gave a health to the ladies round, but you slighted Barbara Allen!
Well I remember that fated town, and I remember our tavern
I hoist a glass to the ladies round, but gave my heart to Barbara Allen.
And as she made her long way home, she heard the church bells a-tolling
And every stroke did seem to say, hard-hearted Barbara Allen
With my shadow stretching across
the sand to the Atlantic White Cedar, my eyes are drawn to the
cheerful sight of the Salt Spray Rose in full bloom. The last of the flowers
on this bush are a delicate pink and many of its branches are studded with rose hips
that look for all the world like cherry tomatoes. The cool sea breeze is as
sharp as a thorn and the white sand, turquoise water and emerald
green foliage are stunning. Looking closer I can't help but notice a
certain pallor in the color of the rose leaves. Upon venturing closer I
realize that a Greenbriar has sprouted within the base of the rose is winding
its tendrils in a gentle but ultimately suffocating embrace around and around
the rose's stems. The tough alien flesh of the briar provides a natural
armor against the spikes proffered by the rose rendering them useless as a
defense. What appeared at first as a pleasing natural scene is, ultimately,
a slow motion tragedy. The Greenbriar will destroy the Salt Spray Rose as surely
and as inevitably as his love for Barbara Allen destroys Sweet William.
Oh mother, mother, make my bed, make it soft and narrow
Sweet William died for me today, and I'll die for him, tomorrow.
Sweet William was buried in the old churchyard, Barbara Allen in the choir.
And from his breast there grew a rose, and out of hers, a Briar.
As recounted by the redoubtable Francis J. Child in his definitive
English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the woeful tale of Barbara Allen is an
old and much loved folksong:3,4
"There are countless versions of Barbara
Allen. AKA Barb'ry Ellen and
Barbara Ellen. It is over three centuries old. Its origins
are somewhere in the British Isles, Scotland and England both claim it. Versions
are found as far afield as Italy and Scandanavia. And, of course, the U.S.
According to one source, there are over 98 versions of the tune in Virginia
alone.... Samuel Pepys refers to the "little Scottish tune" in his
Diaries in 1666."
The version of the lyrics used above is the one I learned from my
Grandfather. I must have heard or sung this song to myself a thousand
times over the years, but it comes to me, as I stand looking at this vegetal
murder, that I have never once visualized the wrenching image of the sweet and
innocent rose being choked and ruined by the thorny briar. This modest
folksong perfectly expresses a classic and ageless theme: a tragedy based on a
misunderstanding. The lovely Barbara Allen is pissed off at the handsome
young William because she mistakenly thought he was ignoring her. He was
actually just struck dumb with desire, a fairly common occurrence among human
males I'm afraid!
Well they grew and they grew, to the old church top, till they could grow no higher
And there they twined in a true lovers knot, for all true lovers to admire.
Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a briar
- Edmund Spenser
Extra Credit (for advanced students only!)
According to Clifford W. Ashley, in The Ashley Book of Knots;
there are several knots laying claim to this name. All of them however share the
characteristic of a deep and fundamental interlocking that links their mutual
To tie the True Lover's Knot*, proceed as follows:
- Find a piece of rope about 61 centimeters (2ft.) long.
- Tie an overhand knot six inches from one end of the rope, leave the knot
loose, so that there is a large loop on one side and a crossing on the
other. An overhand knot is that simple one that everyone knows, just
loop over and through.
- Hold the overhand knot in your left hand near the middle so that the line
passes vertically across your palm with the long end heading up and short
end pointing down. The loop-part of the overhand knot should be facing
- Using your right hand, take the long end of the rope and pass it through
the loop in the overhand knot from the bottom (near your pinkie) out.
- Continuing with the long end of the rope, pass it clockwise completely
around the part of the rope that exits the original overhand knot, then pull
it straight out, taking out the slack in the long end and completing the
- Once you straighten it out, you should have two rope ends facing down, an
empty loop at the top and the two star-crossed lovers in the middle.
* For the topographically challenged, help is available at www.TheMeyerGroup.org/BriarAndRose.htm
1 Rosa Rugosa Pictures: http://www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/rrugosa.htm
2 Greenbriar Pictures: http://www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/srotundifolia.htm
3 Barbara Allen: http://www.contemplator.com/folk2/brballen.html
4 Francis J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (pub. 1882-1898)
5 The Ashley Book of Knots, Clifford W. Ashley, copyright 1944
Tie the knot, get your name here: Lometa
Barbara Allen as quoted above is solidly in the Public
Domain, the other quotes rely on fair use.