Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Taste for Rose: Exploring the Many Nuances of Roses

May and June are traditionally the months when the queen of flowers, the rose, makes its regal appearance in gardens across the world. Shakespeare said it well "At Christmas I no more desire a rose. Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled shows; But like of each thing that in season grows." [from Love's Labour Lost] Ovid wrote: "The sharpest thorn often produces delicate roses" and a Turkish proverb claims "Thorns and roses grow on the same tree".
Rose has captured the imagination of all cultures, of all men. Its association with beauty, romance and physical perfection dates back a long, long time ago and doesn't show any signs of waning. All it asks is our appreciation. Like in Saint-Exypery's Little Prince, we must tend our rose (literal and metaphorical), for it to bloom and to reach its peak. But bend to actually smell the roses, literally, and you find a nuanced, multi-layered cornucopia of fragrant notes, evolving, tingling, provoking you into reaction... Rose isn't a simpleton.

The Rose Family
The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose
 ~Robert Frost (1874–1963)  

There are Five English Rose Fragrance Descriptors
According to David Austin Roses, the following descriptors, much like in wine and tea (or indeed like perfume!) serve to guide like a compass into how rose can have specific nuances in its scent profile.

Myrrh: An aromatic, anise-like scent; among roses it's found almost exclusively in English roses.
Fruity: Because the rose is related to apricots, pears, apples, strawberries and others, fruity notes often surface.
Musk: A romantic scent, it often comes from the flower's stamens. People are especially sensitive to the scent.
Old rose: The classic rose fragrance, it's found almost exclusively in pink and red roses.
Tea rose: A strong scent — like that of fresh tea — that often dominates a flower. Other fragrances can become evident over time.

An Expert's Favorites 

Michael Marriott handles as technical director and head rosarian for David Austin Roses and along with fellow scent expert Rober Calkin regularly oversees the production of roses. Not every variant can fit the needs we have. As Elenor Roosevelt once said: "I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall".

Here Marriot has chosen his top David Austin roses, based largely on their scent. His list of favorite rose variants:
Gertrude Jekyll: Marriott says this is considered the quintessential old rose fragrance: strong, rich, complex and well-balanced. (USDA Zones 4-8)
Munstead Wood: Also a strong old rose scent, it features notes of blackberry, blueberry and damson plum. (Zones 5-9)
Lady Emma Hamilton: A strong, fruity fragrance (pear, grape and citrus) that complements its orange and yellow coloring. (Zones 5-9)
Scepter'd Isle: With a strong myrrh fragrance, this variety has won the Royal National Rose Society's award for fragrance. (Zones 5-10)
Harlow Carr: Another old rose floral scent that complements a classic old rose form. (Zones 5-9)

Read more tips on appreciating the scent of live roses on this link


  1. lol
    I love the Eleanor quote! :)
    I don't know much about Eleanor (I really should find a good biography of her) but from I could gather she seemed like a very intelligent person with a good sense of humor.

  2. I had never read that Eleanor Roosevelt quote--it's wonderful--but can believe she'd say it; she was a brilliant woman.

    I have tried growing roses, and for years have coveted the David Austins. I concluded that they are far too needy for me to maintain. But aren't they the queen of all flowers? Hmm. Now you've got me thinking about that newly cleared, sunny space in my back yard...

  3. hahaa I have heard that Eleanor quote - love it. I just found out about those roses - and gasped at the beauty of Lady Emma Hamilton - now I MUST purchase one or two of them!

  4. Anonymous13:38

    How could he miss david Austin's most lovely, and fragrant, rose; Wise Portia. He he
    Portia xx

  5. ines,

    it's quite something, isn't it? Very witty!
    She's considered a paragon of wit in US culture from what I gather. Not unjustly.

  6. QC,

    she's certainly a very intelligent woman who will be quoted many many years from now. We're already quoting her many many years from when she said those things.

    I wish I were a good gardener. But I'm not. I'm wishing you best of luck with tending your flower beds. It's a rewarding task.

  7. C,

    yeah, it's brilliant. Love double-entendres in general.

    Those are some seriously beautiful roses. The shape is perfect.

  8. Portia,

    it's flattering, isn't it? Just be careful on the instructions they give on the catalogue.


  9. First of all, love the blog. Your writing is so informative and useful.

    I would like to weight in on this. I used to grow roses and years ago would have been considered an expert.
    Currently though I have not flexed my mental muscles in this subject area for a while and they have atrophied a bit, HOWEVER this list is far too short and misses the mark regarding the number of perfume types of roses and this is excluding all the minor ones. There is considerably more grouping but I am unable to locate the full list at this time. The following link lists is a very partial one:

  10. Moonviolet,

    thank you for your great comment and sorry for the delay.

    Great classification. Very compact. (Love the poetics of "blue")


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