Rosaceae: A Family Portrait


Rosaceae: A Family Portrait
  • Posted December 3, 2014

Roses are arguably the most widely known and universally adored plants in the world, at least in temperate climates. Likewise, the larger family they belong to, Rosaceae, is equally popular among gardeners, yet few recognize the tremendous number of commonly known species that comprise it, including a large number of edibles.

apple branch

Apples, with their velvety soft white petals tinged with pink, hint at a relationship to roses, but less obvious are the many berry plants in the Rosaceae family, including strawberries, blackberries and raspberries (though the latter at least share the trait of thorniness). Apples and pears along with the more obscure quince, medlar, rowan, mayhaw and the subtropical loquat are some of the edible fruits that round out the pomes, one of the many subtribes of the rose family. Pome fruits are characterized by the four distinct seed chambers familiar to anyone who has ever sliced an apple in half.

strawberry blackberry pear quince
Strawberry Raspberry/Blackberry Pear Quince
Medlar Rowan Mayhaw Loquat
Medlar Rowan Mayhaw Loquat

Stone fruits – peaches, plums, cherries, apricots and their kin – are the other major grouping of edible fruits in the family. These are all in the Prunus genus and are linked by the traits of their seed, which we call a pit. Have you every opened a peach pit and seen something that looks like a shriveled almond inside? If so, you won’t find it surprising that almonds are essentially a peach tree that has been bred for the edible qualities of the seed, rather than the fruit.

Peach Plum Cherry Apricot
Peach Plum Cherry Apricot

Of course there are much more than edibles in the Rose Family including many common ornamentals bearing the rose-like traits of showy flowers, fleshy fruit, serrated leaf margins, thorns and woody stems, including a great number of shrubs and trees such as photinia, dogwoods and hawthorns.

Photinia Dogwood Hawthorn
Photinia Dogwood Hawthorn

There are also a number of small herbaceous plants in the family, like meadowsweet, lady’s mantle and potentilla. In total, there are over 9,000 species in the rose family. Within this immense diversity of form, there is one way to differentiate them from any other plant: if it has oval leaves and flowers with five petals, it is most likely a cousin of the noble rose.

Meadowsweet Meadowsweet Potentilla
Meadowsweet Lady's Mantle Potentilla
Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Rosaceae: A Family Portrait