A Poem About Biological Systematics

Biological systematics is, let’s be honest… not a very sexy field of biology for most people. There is certainly something almost noble in the century-long quest to discover and classify all life on Earth and to unravel the deep and entangled thickets of the tree of life, to understand the literal origins of species. Not many scientific disciplines, I think, can boast such an inherent adventurousness. But that is all buried under layers of technical hemming and hawing about methods of tree construction, character validity, and taxonomic interpretation, all expressed in a jargon peculiar the the field, even within biology. So it’s not often that one sees systematics appear in the writings of non-scientists. But I did recently stumble on a poem, The Rose Family, by Robert Frost (1928):

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose —
But were always a rose.

The poem lightly pokes fun at the seemingly pinheaded idea of apples, pears, and plums being classified in the same family, Rosaceae as regular roses. I’m sure Frost would have loved to know that blackberries and strawberries are in the Rosaceae as well; in fact, we now know that these two groups are even closer relatives of roses than Frost’s fruit trees.

A quince tree (Cydonia oblonga); or, as we now know, a very tasty rose. From Wikipedia.

Of course, the scientific foundation on which this poem rests is logically shaky (rose relatives are emphatically not roses, the same way your cousin, your relative, is not you) but the point is to explain one’s love as constant and steadfast in its devotion even as others’ attentions, tastes, and attitudes wander unpredictably over time. The use of the romantic connotation of flowers, in particular of the rose as opposed to less well-regarded blossoms, deepens the poem’s intentions. It’s a quintessential Frost poem: short, intense, and sweet, but executed with a light touch, like the fragrance of a rose.


(Featured image: An assortment of what most would call hawthorn (Crataegus), but are they actually roses?? From Wikipedia)


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