“I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island
What’s the first thing you do when you see a rose? Bend down and smell it, right?
Ever done this in a florist or nursery recently? You would have noticed, if so, that the roses on display are very pretty, and smell wonderfully of… well, nothing much. You instinctively touch the petals because you think that maybe this is one of those ingeniously crafted silk or plastic facsimiles, but no, they’re definitely real flowers. It’s confusing because there is so much in the media and literature extolling the beauty of the rose and its evocative scent, its ability to transport to the gardens of Eden or the Versailles. But no, nothing’s happening.
What’s going on here? A rose is a rose, or maybe not anymore. Its soul is missing.
In the 1927 Royal National Rose Society Annual, George Taylor wrote “Fragrance is the soul of the rose, without it, the flower is nothing“.
So what happened? The scent of rose itself has never gone out of fashion – half the products on the shelves are rose scented, even if they are mostly a generic, standardised rose smell. Have consumers become so isolated from reality that they no longer expect or desire to smell the real thing from real flowers?
This is actually not a recent phenomenon, there are many references in rose literature spanning the 20th century bemoaning the loss of the rose’s soul:
From 1924 – “people today are so amazed by the perfection of the rose that they don’t believe they are real, and the lack of scent doesn’t help”
In the 1968 American Rose Society Annual, Arthur Bouquet noted that many articles centre around the fact that most modern roses are devoid of scent.
The demotion of scent as an integral part of the rose flower began with the introduction of the small and almost scentless China Rose and the larger Tea Rose, both from China, in the 19th century. These roses were hybridised with other varieties to obtain a larger variety of plants and blooms to sate the never ending desire for variety and novelty.
The different hybrids are better suited to a wider range of climates, resistant to disease to varying degrees, have blooms that last longer when cut or have longer stems for display. They can have flowers that are multi-layered and they may bloom more frequently during the year and for longer periods. They have a greater variety of colours – yellows and white and pinks that were not available before.
But there has been a price to pay. All of this hybridisation has somehow resulted in the loss of scent. No-one seems to know why exactly. Some say that the gene for scent is recessive and has mostly been bred out. Another possibility could be that scent scores low in rose trials because smell is so subjective and difficult to judge, so breeders can’t be bothered with it as a result. Breeding for scent is not easy, apparently and there is no guarantee that two fragrant parent roses will produce a scented progeny.
It is true that there are still some wonderful varieties of scented roses out there. There’s antique roses, particularly those bred by the David Austin company. Some fine examples include:
Jude the Obscure
Charles de Gaulle
and many more.
There are the Damasc roses which are used by the perfume industry for rose oils and absolutes. Indeed many of every class of modern rose are fragrant to some degree. But just try finding them without going to a specialist nursery.
Here’s some links that may help if you are searching for lists of the most fragrant roses.
Many argue that there are now actually a larger range of rose scents available as a result of the explosion of rose varieties. Notes in modern roses include clover, nasturtium, orris, violet, fern, moss, geranium, tea, hyacinth, clove, lily-of-the-valley, wine, marigold, pepper, honey and almond, as well as fruits such as apple, lemon, raspberry, peach, pear and quince. It’s just that you have to concentrate a little harder to detect them. Smelling a modern rose has become an intellectual exercise, like picking out the notes in the bouquet of a fine wine. You may even have to catch the rose in the morning or at a particular season.
Overall, though, the modern rose has lost its fragrance. What has been revered throughout history as a priceless, fragrant gift from mother nature is now just a pretty ornament.