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A shrub 3 to 8 ft high, with erect or arching dark brown, later greyish stems, which are furnished with many slender, straight or slightly curved prickles abruptly widened at the base, up to 3⁄8 in. long. Leaflets five, seven or nine, 3⁄4 to 11⁄2 in. long, oval or obovate, rounded or broad cuneate at the base, edged with a few compound glandular teeth, brilliant parsley-green and glabrous or with scattered hairs above, glandular and more or less downy beneath, like the rachis and stipules. Flowers deep yellow, 2 to 3 in. across, usually solitary. Pedicels and receptacle glabrous and smooth in garden plants, sometimes hairy or glandular in Asiatic forms. Sepals 3⁄4 to 1 in. long, lanceolate, with expanded leafy tips and sometimes with a few lateral appendages. Styles hairy. Fruits rarely seen on cultivated plants, but described as globose, red, and 1⁄2 in. wide. Bot. Mag., t. 363.
The ‘Austrian’ brier has been known in gardens since the 16th century and was known simply as the yellow rose, or R. lutea. But this old name, used by Miller, has to give way to R. foetida, given to it in allusion to its unpleasantly scented flowers, with an odour once likened to that of bed-bugs.
R. foetida is most nearly allied to R. hemisphaerica, but in that species the main prickles are stouter, gradually narrowed from the base and curved or hooked, and the leaflets are eglandular, tapered at the base and grey beneath. Both species differ from R. xanthina and its allies in their tailed sepals with fairly numerous lateral appendages.
R. foetida has been reported from a wide area in south-west Asia and western Central Asia, but over much of that area it is only cultivated or naturalised, and some records of its growing wild are the result of confusion with glandular allies of R. xanthina. Boulenger’s theory was that R. foetida is a hybrid between R. hemisphaerica and a glandular form of R. pimpinellifolia, taking from the latter its straight prickles, the shape of its leaflets, and their glands; it arose in Asia Minor and owes its dispersal entirely to the hand of man. Against that theory is the fact that it has been collected in Russian Central Asia in localities where the possibility of its being naturalised is almost out of the question. But, where-ever its native home may lie, it does not occur wild in Europe, though it occurs as an escape in some parts of central and south-eastern Europe.
It has been stated that R. foetida rarely produces fertile pollen or seeds which, if universally true, would tend to support the hypothesis of a hybrid origin, but would also mean that every seemingly wild stand must mark the site of former cultivation. However, this may be true only of clones cultivated in Europe since the early 19th century, when this sterility was first mentioned.
In Britain R. foetida thrives and flowers best in the northern parts of the country, but succeeds well enough in the southern counties. Its reputation for being a ‘bad Londoner’ dates from the days when the atmosphere in and around the capital was more polluted than it is today.