While sitting in the branches of the Oak-tree, the Nightingale overhears the Student lamenting the fact that his sweetheart will not dance with him unless he brings her a red rose. The Nightingale sees in the young man a real-world example of the romance she sings about, and she thinks to herself how awe-inspiring and powerful love is. Impressed by the apparent depth of the Student's emotion, she decides to help him secure the girl's affections.
The Nightingale first flies to a White Rose-tree standing in the center of a plot of grass and asks him for a red rose. He tells her that all his roses are white, but advises her to find his brother, the Yellow Rose-tree standing next to a sun-dial. The Nightingale flies to him and is again disappointed. The Yellow Rose-tree in turn suggests that she visit his brother underneath the Student's window. This Rose-tree confirms that his roses are red, but adds that as it is wintertime, he cannot provide her with a blossom.
In despair, the Nightingale wonders aloud whether there is any way she can find a single red rose. Reluctantly, the Rose-tree tells her that her only option is to spend the night singing with one of his thorns in her heart. Her music will bring the flower into existence, and her blood will dye its petals red, but the process of impaling herself on the thorn will kill her. Although the thought of losing life's pleasures saddens the Nightingale, she concludes that the sacrifice will be worthwhile if done for love.
The Nightingale returns to the Student and attempts to tell him her plan, asking that he repay her by always being a true lover. The Student cannot understand the Nightingale's words, but the Oak-tree, saddened, asks her to sing a final song for him. She agrees, and the Student complains that her song lacks meaning and emotion before going home.
That evening, the Nightingale flies to the Rose-tree and allows the thorn to pierce her. She sings about love through the night, gradually pressing herself further onto the thorn. As she does so, a rose takes shape on the Tree, finally turning red when the thorn pierces the Nightingale's heart and kills her.
Later that day, the Student finds the red rose outside his window, but does not realize where it came from. Nevertheless, he picks it up and brings it to the girl, who is sitting outside her home spinning silk. The girl, though, rejects the gift, saying that she prefers the jewels she has received from a wealthy suitor. Angry, the Student throws the rose into the road and storms off, deciding that love is not worth the trouble. The story concludes with him opening a book and returning to his studies.