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 spread 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 sandy beaches!

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 jelly.

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.

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

Greenbriar Liliaceae smilax rotundifolia2 
The GreenBriar, 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 tendril pairs 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 stems.

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.

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

The Briar and the Rose

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.

Barbara Allen

As recounted by the redoubtable Francis J. Child in his definitive The 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!)

The True Lover's Knot

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 destiny. 5 

To tie the True Lover's Knot*, proceed as follows:  

  1. Find a piece of rope about 61 centimeters (2ft.) long.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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 your fingers.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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 knot.
  6. 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
  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. 

CST Approved

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