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!


If you love one or more of these classic flowers, and want to read more about them, choose from the following:

Posts on roses
Posts on peonies
Posts on camellias

31 Replies to “Variations On A Theme: Rose, Peony Or Camellia?”

  1. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

      1. Love this post Sue. Phew, I was afraid I was going to be wrong. For me, the leaves helped 😉 Having followed you for a while, I thought you might have set us with four roses LOL

  3. 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. 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!).

    1. 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!

    1. It isn’t difficult when you know your plants and look closely, but it perhaps ought to be. You can see why non-experts might get confused.

  5. 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!

    1. 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).

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