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Why a Fragrant Rose Matters

by Darrell g.h. Schramm

A common complaint about roses is that they lack fragrance. That may be generally true of most florist roses, but it needn’t be so of roses in the garden. True, even many garden roses refuse to please the human nose; part of the reason is that in the last half of the 20th century breeders were more interested in hybridizing roses for size, vigor, and new or unusual color. They overlooked scent.

Yet as early as 1912, rosarian T. Geoffrey Henslow wrote, “The Show tent has largely been responsible for the loss of perfume in our gardens.” Clearly, over a hundred years ago, breeders had become more concerned about appearance of a rose rather than its integrity.

Fortunately, about ten years ago a few hybridists, having heard the public clamor for scent, began breeding fragrance into roses again. Unfortunately, as the current and the last 10 years of American Rose issues indicate in their list of new rose introductions, few new roses have a strong scent; most produce a mild or no scent at all. As for those that do, one contemporary rose breeder has written that “modern roses have relatively simple ‘nose catching’ fragrances that don’t seem to have the complexity of the OGRs [Old Garden Roses].

Nonetheless, we do have the David Austin roses, nearly all of which contain some fragrance, from ‘Munstead Wood’, ‘Queen of Sweden’ and ‘Evelyn’ to the earlier ‘Tamora’ and ‘Gertrude Jekyll’. Aside from Austin’s roses, we also have such modern roses of scent like ‘Best Kept Secret’ and ‘Summer Romance’ (both of 2014), ‘Julia Child’ (2004), ‘Scentimental’ (1999), ‘Fragrant Dream’ (1988), ‘Double Delight’ (1977), ‘Fragrant Cloud’ (1967), ‘Mister Lincoln’ (1964) and other hybrid teas and floribundas.

It is, however, the scent of certain roses our grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew that many of us remember with nostalgia, strong, often powerful fragrances that plant themselves in our memories. To name just a few pinks: the big, fat rose ‘The Doctor’ (1936), the subtle  ‘September Morn’ (1915) and the once-famous ‘Radiance’ (1908). To name a few color blends, some combination of pink, orange, yellow, vermillion, salmon and/or buff: ‘Girona’ (1936), ‘Condessa de Sastago’ (1932), ‘Talisman’ (1929) and ‘Gruss an Coberg’ (1927). And then we have the reds, which are dependably often more fragrant than other colors, the following being dark crimson: ‘Crimson Glory’ (1935), ‘Barcelona’ (1932), ‘Etoile de Hollande’ (1919) and ‘Hadley’ (1914), all with a strong damask-rose perfume.

But one need not have been a grandparent to grow even older fragrantly complex roses —  roses known as heritage or antique or just old garden roses — of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which are still available. Inhale ‘Celsiana’, ‘Marie Louise’ or ‘Trigintapetala’ (Kazanlik), the latter rose for centuries used to make rose oil, exuding a damask scent. ‘Louise Odier’”Mme Isaac Periere’ and ‘Zepherine Droughin’ waft the aroma of raspberries. ‘Queen of Denmark’ suggests doses of damask and lemon, ‘Mrs John Laing’ damask and parsley, ‘Mme Hardy’ damask and marigold; ‘Blush Noisette’ cloves, ‘Marechal Neil’ strawberries, ‘Perle d’Or’ nasturtiums, ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ apple and cloves — yet none quite as simple as my comparisons; these scents predominate but there is invariably something more to the complex perfume. And there are ‘Baronne Prevost’, ‘La Reine’, ‘Reine des Violettes’ and ‘Sombreuil’ to name a few of my favorites, and hundreds more with fragrance so strong and delicious one is tempted to sleep on a bed of such roses if not make a feast of them.

Do keep in mind that not everyone’s sense of smell is equal. Furthermore, most roses are the most intensely fragrant in the morning when their petals begin to warm. Warmth and sunshine usually increase the scent. A rose delightfully fragrant in morning sun may emit only a weak scent in late afternoon. Fragrance varies in staying power; some scents, such as citrus, evaporate more quickly than others, such as clove or damask. Moist soil promotes fragrance as well. And there are roses that become more fragrant when cut.

Why are rose fragrances so wonderful, so lusciously pleasing, so uplifting, so memorable? Why does rose fragrance matter to so many rose lovers?

Smells are unavoidable. You can pinch your nostrils closed only so long. Smells are linked to breath. Breath is life. Scent taps our memories and our emotions. Because smell is the sense most commonly neglected, to use it makes us more human; we then employ all of our five senses, all of what makes us sensate human beings. In fact, various studies have shown that olfactory impressions are the first to register themselves in the human brain. Smell, odor, scent is a part of us.

For me the fragrance of a rose reveals the absolute meaning of a rose. What meaning does a rose have without scent? It may win an award at an exhibit, but when the show is over, generally the rose is tossed away. Thus it has served primarily as a commodity, a thing of use. The success of the rose at a show is coupled with its own destruction. We might as well have gazed at a photo of a rose. At the rose shows I’ve attended, the fragrance category is among those with the fewest entries. Appearances, not essence, seem to be what matters.

Though I expect a hue and a cry of protest against what I’ve written in the previous paragraph, I know that I speak not for myself alone. For some of us rosarians, the beauty of a rose without scent symbolizes the aesthetics of illusion, a promise meant to be broken. Thus we bow our heads, expectant, into a lovely rose but recoil in disappointment and dismay — no scent. A promise unfulfilled.

And so I love old roses. I can rely on most of them producing a fragrance, if not in their petals, then in their stamens or even their foliage. Some old roses, like certain gallicas, may have a scent that is weak in flower, but when dried the fragrance is potpourri-powerful and long-lasting. To breathe into and inhale such roses is to feel alive. Scent is the essence of a rose, the attar of its beauty. Fragrance matters.

Darrell g.h. Schramm (schrammd[at]usfca.edu), ‘Why a Fragrant Rose Matters’, September 2014. North Bay Rosarian. Richard Affleck (raffleck[at]sbcglobal.net), ed. North Bay Rose Society.

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