The Scent of Roses, Past and Present

Category: Rose fragrance

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We love roses for many reasons. They are beautiful, they symbolize love, and no other flower’s scent can compare to that of a rose. If you love a rose, you have to love its fragrance too. That’s why it’s hard to believe that, in the 20th century, fragrance was not a key priority in commercial hybridizing. The history of rose popularity and commercialization sheds some light on how the scent of roses disappeared from so many modern roses.

The Blooming and Fragrant History of Roses

The scent of roses has a long history. According to the legend, Cleopatra filled a room with a foot-deep bed of rose petals to weaken Mark Anthony’s resistance to her charms. Rose fragrance and rose oil were used throughout Medieval times for medicine and to mask bad odours. In the 12th and 13th century, Crusaders bought back Damask rose from the Middle East because of its lush fragrance.

The amount of fragrance varies depending on rose classification. Albas and Gallicas, two of the oldest classifications, were fragrant; it was probably petals from Alba and Damask roses that Cleopatra used to cover the floors of her palace in fresh rose petals to a depth of half a meter. In the late 16th century the Dutch developed the Centifolia rose, often known as the “Cabbage Rose,” because of the large number of fragrant petals each bloom produced.

In the 17th century, travellers brought home roses from China that had repeat bloom and the lighter yellow shades desired by breeders, but little fragrance.

Historically all roses had an odour, but during rose mania in the mid to late 19th century, French rose breeders mainly focused on rose colour and bloom repeat. To achieve those highly desired qualities they coupled European rose varieties with a China rose. Since China rose is almost scentless its child roses also lacked smell. Some of these new roses, the Tea roses, had a fresh, tea-like scent, but it was far inferior to the deep, complex fragrances of the old European classifications. This is how in the 19th-century smell was slowly bred out from many new rose varieties.

It is not true that French rose breeders hated the scent of roses. The French enjoyed the scent of Bourbon roses discovered in 1817 on the Ile de Bourbon. Breeding efforts in France and the United States produced the fragrant Hybrid Perpetual and the Noisette classifications. Still, the main priority of this period was to create a rose that had consistent repeat bloom.

As rose hybridizing continued to increase and the popularity of roses spread, nurserymen became interested in showing the results of their efforts. The first rose show, the Grand National Rose Show, took place in England in 1858. At the time roses were judged solely by their looks, rose scent was not one of the factors that the judges paid attention to. The first rose show in the United States was held by the American Rose Society (ARS) in 1900. Again, visual qualities and presentation determined the success of a rose in the show; fragrance was not an important element in judging. Around the same time, the first Hybrid Tea was produced – a variety named La France that had a compact growth and the much desired reliable repeat bloom. The era of Modern Rose had begun.

Rose shows were heavily attended – 2000 people were present at the Grand National show. Exhibiting increased, local rose societies were founded, and rose shows became more and more important. Yet fragrance was still not part of a rose’s evaluation. Even in judging standards which were published in 1959, rose scent was not important for success in exhibiting.

Things started to change for rose smell by the end of the 19th century. In 1956, Doctor James A. Gamble became concerned about the lack of fragrance in new roses. In a large study, he determined that 25% of rose varieties had no scent, 20% were strongly scented, and the rest varied in the strength of fragrance. To encourage the breeding of more strongly fragrant roses he endowed an ARS medal, the James Alexander Gamble Fragrance Medal. Winners of this medal are judged for fragrance over a five year period and must have an ARS rating of 8.0 or above.

Even to this day, the six prime elements of rose judging in ARS rose standards don’t include rose fragrance. There is however a special class “Fragrance Class” thanks to James Alexander Gamble.

Chemistry behind Rose fragrance

The most fragrant roses release their scent from tiny glands in the petals. The fragrance itself is the result of the mixing of many chemicals and pheromones; however, in the making of rose oil, only four compounds are important. It takes over 60,000 flowers to create one ounce of rose oil. The number and quality of petals on a bloom affect the amount of fragrance – usually many petalled blooms are more fragrant than single-petalled ones. The fragrance varies over time as different chemicals change and disappear. All sorts of factors contribute to the fragrance of roses: soil pH, water and humidity, time of day, a season of the year, and even their geographical home.

Rose fragrance identification is a tricky business since every person has differing amounts of healthy cilia in their nostrils, which is where the scent molecules land, so different people smell differing amounts of fragrance. Then there is the confusion in deciding how to describe a specific rose scent. Like wine experts describing taste, rose experts search for ways to describe the subtleties of aroma. One of the most commonly accepted lists of fragrance types is rose (damask), nasturtium, orris, violet, apple, lemon, and clover. However, musk, cloves, pepper, bay, honeysuckle, fruit, hyacinth, raspberry, and other scents have been identified by experts.

Return of fragrant old garden rose

David Austin played an important role in changing the way people around the world viewed roses. Before Austin, hybrid tea roses ruled the world. But that world was crumbling, and if you have ever visited a rose garden in late summer in parts of the country you will know why. His emphasis was on breeding roses with the character and fragrance of old garden roses but with the repeat-flowering ability and wide colour range of modern roses such as hybrid teas and floribundas.

Michael Marriott, a hybridizer who works with David Austin and who has been referred to as the “Rose Nose.” Marriott has the unenviable job of detecting the fragrance of Austin roses and describing that fragrance on the website and in the catalogue. Michael Marriott and David Austin have come up with five fragrances that they claim exist either singly or in combinations in David Austin roses.

Old rose: True to its name, this is the fragrance of the older classifications such as Gallicas, Damasks, Albas, Portland roses, and Hybrid Perpetuals. It occurs almost exclusively in pink and red roses such as Gertrude Jekyll, Eglantyne, and Munstead Wood.

Tea rose: A fragrance that was the result of hybridizing China roses with a tall climbing species rose, Rosa Gigantea, some compare this to the fresh, sharp smell of new tea. Molineux, Pat Austin, Graham Thomas, and Golden Celebration have this scent.

Musk: This fragrance is released almost totally from a bloom’s stamens and is named for the secretion emitted from Himalayan musk deer that has been used in perfumes. Comte de Champagne, Blythe Spirit, and The Generous Gardener give off a musk fragrance.

Fruit: It is not surprising that roses can have a fruit-like aroma as many fruits, such as apple, pear, raspberry, apricot, peach, and strawberry are in the same Rosaceae family as our favourite flower. This fragrance can be quite complicated and changeable over time. Jude the Obscure and Lady Emma Hamilton have fruity overtones in their scents.

Myrrh: Some love this fragrance and others don’t; it is distinctive and strong and is almost exclusively found in Austin roses. The anise-like smell comes from Austin’s use of a descendant of an Ayrshire rose in his hybridizing, a variety that is hundreds of years old and is believed to have originated in Scotland. It often occurs with other scents, such as fruit or tea rose and can be found in Claire Austin, Spirit of Freedom, Strawberry Hill, and Tea Clipper.

Fragrance vs disease resistance in roses

If you love strong fragrance, one of the prices to pay is disease resistance. Rose fragrance is a recessive gene, so a rose must have two fragrant parents in its background. The dominance of recessive genes in a plant is bound to result in a weaker plant than one in which the recessive genes have been bred out. Fortunately, although it is very difficult to specifically breed for, the desire for fragrance has become so important to rose lovers that commercial growers have acknowledged its importance in creating new roses. As a result, we have the good fortune to look forward to plenty of fragrance in our roses and our gardens for years to come.