ISSN 1188-603X

No. 275 October 24, 2001 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2



This posting is an abbreviated copy of the following article:

Stearn, W.T. 1965.
The five brethren of the rose: an old botanical riddle. Huntia 2: 180-184.

It is posted in BEN with the kind permission of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, A Research Division of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The article should not be copied or distributed outside this BEN issue.

William T. Stearn was 90 years old when he died on May 9, 2001. Although he was self-taught, he published 470 scientific publications and is best known for his seminal work Botanical Latin, the indispensable aid to descriptive botanical taxonomy. For his obituary see:

I hope that you will enjoy his writing, even if it challenges your knowledge of Latin. - Adolf Ceska

Here it is:

Quinque sumus fratres, et eodem tempore nati,
Sunt duo barbati, duo sunt barba absque creati.
Unus et e quinque non est barbatus utrinque.

On a summer's day, in sultry weather,
Five brethren were born together.
Two had beards and two had none,
And the other had but half a one.

So run two versions of an old riddle. I first heard it many years ago from the late Edward Augustus Bowles (1865-1954), who had it, I believe, from Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822-1916), who probably learned it from his father the Rev. Henry Thomas Ellacombe (1790-1885). In this way from person to person, rather than from book to book, it has been passed on for centuries, going back to Middle Ages, before the invention of printing. To find it in print requires, indeed, considerable search, and the versions found differ much in wording, which points to long transmission by word of mouth. Who or what are these strange brothers, all born at the same time of the same mother, two bearded, two beardless, and one with only half a beard?

The five brothers are, in short, the five sepals of Rosa canina and the other dog roses. Two of the five are completely outside the others and have appendages or beard along both edges; two with plain unappendaged edges are completely overlapped along the edges by other sepals; the fifth has one edge appendaged and outside, its other edge plain and inside, in other words it has only half a beard.

Roses were favourite flowers in monastic gardens and it is a fair supposition that the riddle was invented in a medieval abbey in Germany, but no-one knows where, when, or by whom. W. Rytz in Gesnerus 14: 76(1957) attributes it to Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) of Regensburg. Ellacombe in Cornhill magazine (July 1905) wrote that the earliest version he had traced was quoted by Fumarellus (Antonio Fumanelli?) in 1557. However J.C. Rosenberg, Rhodologia seu philosophico-medica generosae rosae descriptio (1628) does not quote it, although he describes the rose-bud (p. 188) in words which suggest it: "Alabastri sunt calycis partes laciniosae ... quae quidem quinque sunt ut plurimum; duae nimirum barbatulae; duae imberbes; & quinta partim barbata, partim imberbis." Johann Herrmann (1738-1800) of Strasbourg in his Dissertatio inauguralis botanico-medica de Rosa p. 12 (1792) describes the calyx of Rosa canina in a similar manner: "Calycis foliola in longum apicem producta, duobus utrinque, uno ab alterutro tantum latere pinnatis, duobus integris." He then adds --

Vetus hinc etiam aenigma ortum traxit:
Quinque sunt fratres,
Duo sunt barbati,
Sine barba sunt duo nati,
Unus ex his quinque
Non habet barbam utrinque.

Scarcely different is the version quoted in Wilhelm Troll's Praktische Einfuehrung in die Pflanzenmorphologie 2: 13 (1957):

Quinque sunt fratres.
Duo sunt barbati,
Duo sine barba nati.
Unus a quinque
Non habet barba utrinque.

There is also the version published by Adrian Hardy Haworth (1767-1833) in his Miscellanea naturalia p. 197. footnote (1803) and by W. Rytz in Gesnerus (loc.cit.):

Quinque sumus fratres, sub eodem tempore nati,
Bini sunt barbati, bini sine crine creati,
Quintus habet barbam, sed tantum dimidiatam.

That light-hearted scholar E.A. Bowles, when expounding the relation of aestivation and phyllotaxy in his My garden in summer, p. 54 (1914), gives a version different from the four quoted above:

Quinque sumus fratres, unus barbatus et alter,
Imberbesque duo, sum semiberbis ego.

This version is also quoted in Troll's Praktische Einfuehrung 2: 13 (1957).

There is equal choice of English translations, almost all of them made in the nineteenth century. A version attributed to the now almost forgotten poet James Montgomery (1771-1851) renders it as follows:

Five brethren there are
born at once of their mother,
Two bearded, two bare,
The fifth neither one nor the other
But to each of his brethren half brother.

The Rev. Kirby Trimmer (1804-1887), author of the Flora of Norfolk, claimed in Notes and Quotes, VI 4: 74 (July 1881) the following version printed there as being his composition:

Of the five brothers at the same time born
Two from our birthday ever beards have worn
On other two none ever has appeared
While the fifth brother wears but half a beard

Another, quoted by C.W. Bingham (loc. cit.: June 1881) from Evening hours 1: 208 (1871), runs as follows:

Five brothers all equal in age,
Two bearded and equally wise,
Two beardless and equally sage,
One bearded though one half in size.

Ellacombe (1905) has a different one:

Five brothers we, all in one moment reared;
Two of us bearded, two without a beard;
Our fifth on one cheek only wears the beard.

Another attributed by Bingham simply to "a learned Cambridge professor" and by A.W. Hill (Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, p. 299: 1919) to Prof. Edward Byles Cowell (1826-1903), professor of Sanskrit in the University of Cambridge, is as follows:

Five brethren of one birth are we
All in a little family
Two have beards, and two have none
And only half a beard has one.


Stearn's article continues with two German versions of this riddle and with a short technical discussion about phyllotaxy (=positioning of leaves on stem) of the dog rose sepals.

Before you run out to buy a rose for your beloved (in order to investigate its sepals), here is yet another version that my friend discovered in The Countryman (April 28-June 15, 2000 issue):

We are five brothers at the same time born,
Two of us have beards; by two no beards are worn,
While one, lest he should give his brothers pain,
Hath one side bearded and the other plain.


From: Brenda Callan []
Holliday, P. 1998, 2001.
A dictionary of plant pathology. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. xxiv+536 p. ISBN 0-521-59453-7 [hardcover] 1998 - US$120.00 ISBN 0-521-59458-8 [softcover] 2001 - corrected ed. - US$44.95

Available from:
Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Bldg., Cambridge CB2 2RU, United Kingdom
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA

This reference is welcome addition to a plant pathologist's reference shelf. It is a carefully updated and improved version of the first edition (published in 1989). Lengthened by over 150 pages, it contains over 11,000 subject entries. The dictionary is especially useful as a starting point for literature searches, and for linking common names of pathogens to Latin binomials. As pointed out by the author, the masses of electronically abstracted literature now available at our fingertips can make it extremely time-consuming to locate key review papers on unfamiliar topics - we could use more references such as this one to give us a head start. Government agents involved with quarantine regulations and enforcement will certainly appreciate the Dictionary's global coverage of plant diseases, both temperate and tropical. A few specific comments that reflect the bias of this reviewer: the names of Hypoxylon mammatum (Entoleuca mammata) and H. atropunctatum (Biscogniauxia atropunctata) have not been updated, although the current monograph of Hypoxylon by Ju and Rogers (1996) is cited. On a more positive note, the Armillaria section has been thoroughly updated, which will be appreciated by forest pathologists. Fungi are still defined in a broad sense (e.g., Oomycetes are still included), but brief discussions of current taxonomic concepts in fungi are given so as to avoid confusion. The paperback edition is nicely bound so that it lies flat on the desk or lab bench when open.


From: Bruce McCune []

I have established a new web site called "Epiphytes and Forest Management:"

We have learned a lot in the last ten years about how forest management practices are likely to affect lichens in the Pacific Northwest of North America. The purpose of this web site is to help communicate those findings in a question-and-answer format. Although the web site is targeted toward botanists and forest managers in the Pacific Northwest, and draws primarily on the literature from North America, the questions (and perhaps some of the answers) are universal among forested areas of the world:

A glossary and bibliography are included. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are welcome (

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