Variations On A Theme: Rose, Peony Or Camellia?

Camellia with many petals

When I first started working with roses and discovered I was going to need to distinguish between 30 or 40 pinks and know their names, I resorted to flash cards: the kind young children use to learn words. In no time at all I was well on the way to a lifetime of floral nitpicking. Is a the shape of a double flowered rose technically a shallow cup, recurved, a pompon or a chalice? That kind of thing.

So I often notice when people mistake a peony or a camellia for a rose, even if I’d have to concede that the colours and forms of their flowers can be essentially the same.

Roses with many petals

I wish I could get the colours even more similar to better illustrate my point, but that’s just me nitpicking again, isn’t it?

Pink peony with large double flowers

So there you have it. Variations on a theme. All glorious, to my eyes, each with their own particular character: with perkier or more demure petals; with equal, decreasing or ruffle-style petal lengths; with smooth petal edges or wriggly ones.

A double-flowered rose

If you’re not 100% sure which is which, you’re in good company. I’ve seen a cut rose mistaken for a peony in several of Britain’s leading magazines, which I’ll not name, to spare their blushes.

An easy way to tell peonies, camellias and roses apart is by their leaves. Peonies are the easiest to distinguish: they have elegant and deeply lobed, compound leaves, rather like spread fingers.

Peonies have compound leaves

Peony leaves have a compound shape with lobes like fingers

Camellias have the simplest leaf form of all: the classic, single, oval leaf shape, tapering to a point. They are thicker than a rose’s leaves and are arranged alternatively on the stem, rather than opposite each other, as roses’ leaves are. Camellia leaves often feel waxy or glossy and they are thick, almost leathery.

Camellias have a simple leaf shape

Camellia leaves are leathery, with a classic, simple leaf shape

Rose leaves are thinner and more delicate. Usually there are five leaflets in each group of rose leaves, but you can also find roses with three, seven, nine or eleven leaflets per group:

Pink roses

If you have a closed bud before you, peony buds are plump and round; rose buds taper into pointed, sometimes feathery tips; and camellia buds are oval. Hope this helps!

31 thoughts on “Variations On A Theme: Rose, Peony Or Camellia?

  1. anne leueen says:

    I agree with you these are glorious! Peony and rose are my two favourite flowers. I used to grow camellia when I lived in England but the climate in Ontario, Canada does not do well for them.

    • susurrus says:

      I’d be hard pressed to name my favourite flower, but they’d be in my top ten! I’m a bit on the greedy side when it comes to flowers, but they are such joyful things.

  2. Heyjude says:

    Here goes: camellia, rose, peony, rose. Of course it is a lot easier when you can see them in context with their leaves and stems 😉 Great theme for the challenge.

  3. oldhouseintheshires says:

    Oh I’m so excited that we are in the run up to spring! I love all roses but have a place in my heart for Peonies…..this is a glorious post. Thank you so much for the lovely photos. X

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    Beautiful blooms, Susan! I guess it takes years to become familiar with the nuances. I’ve noticed the same errors in hort. mags. (many editors are quite young, I’ve noted!).

    • susurrus says:

      It’s easy to mistake a camellia in full bloom for a rose from afar, except you soon realise that it’s the wrong time of the year for a rose to be looking quite that good!

      It is much easier if you can see the foliage as Jude mentions, but if you don’t know your dandelions from your daffodils, you won’t stand a chance!

  5. Oddment says:

    Distinguish among 30 or 40 pinks? And know their names? My brain would never recover. And all those terms for shape! Though it all boggles my mind, I know that in learning such detail, one marvels ever more at the mere being of such wonders. These photos testify! Glorious indeed!

    • susurrus says:

      The details do add a level of allure. I’m much the same with wallpaper. I can rarely resist looking up close and running my fingers over a patterned wall (unless it’s clearly out of bounds, of course).

  6. michelleendersby says:

    Wonderful post Susan! I would love to see your list of 30 or 40 names for pink please? When I paint roses from photographs I need to make sure that the painting is true to the rose when the colours in the photos can be a few steps removed given camera differences and then the printing process as well. If I could learn the 30 pink names I could note down the name when I photograph the rose and I could also work out how to colour mix each of those shades too, it would be great!

    • susurrus says:

      Sorry Michelle, I have misled you by falling back into a form of shorthand, ‘pinks’ being short for ‘pink roses’. Words for shades of pink probably have more of a connection with marketing than the science of colour. Ideas like palest pink, blush pink, shell pink, lipstick pink, rose pink or lilac pink are open to interpretation. Roses are sometimes called pure pink, but what that means in practice, I’d struggle to explain, even though I have a firm impression of what having a pure, fresh, natural colour means in relation to roses, compared to the artificial colours you sometimes see. One idea would be for you to name the colour yourself as you make it by referencing a comparison you see clearly. For example, there are thousands of shades of lipstick pink, but I always have an idea of a particular one when I use it to describe a flower. You might see a different shade in your mind. After a while you’ll have the references you need. Good luck!

  7. michelleendersby says:

    Thank you Susan, you have inspired me to think differently about classifying pink roses and I can see I have a big project ahead of me, but it will be fun!

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