Updated: Aug 3
[This blog post is excerpted from a longer monograph on the 'History, Mystery and Chemistry' of roses and rose fragrance, including an examination of their aroma chemicals and how to replicate them with natural isolates and essential oils. It can be bought as a digital download here.]
The rose is an incandescent, evocative and timeless symbol of love and luxury. It is impossible to pass a tumbling rose without inhaling its scent, followed by the inevitable exclamation of delight or wistful sigh. Roses evoke nostalgia, pleasure, appreciation of nature and a whole host of personal associations. This ancient and most prized of flowers is rich in history and folklore, though its true essence - its captured fragrance - has largely been restricted to the wealthy. Rose fragrance is ubiquitous in cleansing, cosmetic and scenting products, but rarely is this fragrance the authentic essence, distilled at dawn from rose petals, and costing more than gold.
[Photo: Yves Duronsoy ]
THE HISTORY OF ROSES AND ROSE FRAGRANCE
The fragrance of roses symbolizes the summit of love, romance and luxury; a symbolism that has endured across time and cultures. It is said that in anticipation of the arrival of Mark Anthony, Cleopatra ordered the sails of the Royal barge to be drenched in rose oil, and she had her private apartments filled knee-deep with rose petals. Shakespeare captures the infatuated Cleopatra’s yearning love,
‘Purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them;’
[Anthony and Cleopatra, II, ii]
What is this flower which can so completely bewitch us with a magic unlike any other? The rose has been with us for at least 30 million years, fossil evidence shows this to be the small wild rose. Long before they were cultivated into blowsy hybrids, these smaller wild roses were used in the production of rosewater, scented oils and other fragrances. Many ritual and fragrance uses can be traced back to the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago, where it continued to flourish in what was to become Iraq and Persia (Iran). The origin of the rose that we know now, the cultivated rose, is to be found in China, approximately 2,500 years ago, where rose breeding and cultivation probably began.
[Image: Nakkaş Sinan Bey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
A garland of flowers, discovered in an Egyptian tomb by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1888, is said to have been revived in warm water and to have bloomed again to reveal the golden threads of the adornment, woven with pink rose petals. Sacred to the Goddess Isis in Egypt and Aphrodite in Ancient Greece, worship of the rose and rose cults also existed in ancient India and Syria. Assyrian tablets describe roses and rose water, and praise their sumptuous scent. The ancient Romans saw roses as symbols of rejuvenation, rebirth, and memory, with the red of roses felt to evoke the colour of blood as a form of offering to the dead, as practised on the feast day of 'Rosalia'. These feast days in later years are thought to have have become assimilated into Dionysian rites, when rose petals were scattered underfoot and maidens adorned in roses danced in celebration of the flowers’ healing and aphrodisiac properties. As the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, these associations and celebrations were transferred to Christian symbolism, specifically associations with the Virgin Mary, and the blood of Christ. What a contrast in symbolism with the excesses of the rose-adoring Emperor Nero, who filled his water fountains with rose water in a display of hedonistic luxury and showered rose petals from special chambers in his ceiling. It is said that he once showered so many petals on his guests that he inadvertently suffocated one of them, though this story also has attributions to other emperors in other cultures.
[Image: By Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888. Public Domain,]
Central Asia and the Middle East were the fertile ground in which roses were grown and cultivated, to be used for fragrance, to decorate the home and body, and incorporated into a host of delicious sweetmeats. Rose essential oil, known in both Europe and the Middle East as ‘otto’ or ‘attar’, indicates the origin of many rose varieties in the Middle East, ‘itr’ being the Arabic word for perfume. This was also the area of the great trade routes by which roses were traded across ancient Sumeria, Babylonia and from Egypt into North Africa.
Roses and their fragrance products eventually made their way from the Middle East to France, and from there to the Caucasus, carried by the Crusaders. It is said the Romans brought the ‘Rosa Alba’ to Britain, where, by the Middle Ages, roses were on the menu, in the medicine cabinet and fragrancing malodourous bodies. Roses were considered an important herbal remedy, possessing the ability to soothe and heal, and bring tranquillity. The following is a medicinal recipe for Rose Honey from the herbal “De Proprietatibus Rerum” printed by Wynkyn de Worde in1495,
“Rose shreede smalle and sod in hony makyth that hony medycynable wyth gode smelle: And this comfortyeth and clenseth and defyeth gleymy humours.”
[ ‘Shred your rose into small pieces and soak in the honey to make the honey medicinal with a good smell. And this comforts and cleanses and removes viscous humours.’]
[Image: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons. The British clipper 'Taitsing' (Great Arrow) off Hong Kong Date,1865]
The well-known ‘Tea rose’ is the name given to the Chinese cultivars that began to arrive in Britain in tea clippers in the early 19th century. They are renowned for their ability to flower more than once a year and for their black tea fragrance (specifically a fragrant Chinese tea note). In France, the assiduous Empress Josephine, also under the spell of the rose, created the astonishing ‘rose library’ of 250 varieties of rose at the chateau at Malmaison. She was supplied with roses from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and received some of the newly-arrived Chinese Tea roses from England. She also benefitted from the piratical actions of Napoleon’s navy who ensured any captured rose specimens were passed to her. It is the Empress Josephine we have to thank for the process of modern hybridization of roses through artificial pollination, which was developed by her horticulturalist Andre Dupont.
[Image: Photo by Ignacio Correia – Unsplash]
The rose growing industry of today is worldwide: South Africa, India, Pakistan, the USA, Kenya, and in new centres like Ecuador. Essential oil and absolutes are derived in the most part from three rose varieties, Rosa centifolia (the Cabbage rose), Rosa damascena (Damask rose) and Rosa gallica. There are also rose oils produced from the Alba roses, notably the White Rose Otto (so rare and exquisite that one must be invited to buy it by the producer), but the Damask rose dominates as the fragrance plant. The total annual production of rose oil is approximately 5 metric tons The notable centres of rose fragrance products are in India (Kannauj), Kashmir, France (Grasse), Morocco (Kalaat M'gouna), Bulgaria (the Valley of the Roses) and Turkey (Isparta), with Bulgaria and Turkey being major producers, followed by Morocco, Egypt, China, Russia, Iran and India.
Video - Harvesting Roses in Turkey
What was originally to be a brief blog post turned into a labour of love as I discovered more about the use of roses for fragrancing, the labour of harvesting and processing, the murky world of adulteration, and the intricacies of the chemical composition of rose oil. I uncovered industry secrets of how rose oil is replicated for fragrance and flavouring oils and discovered that there are several essential oils that are similar enough in composition to make a natural rose fragrance that is affordable for cosmetic use. The extended version is available from my web shop here.
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RESOURCES (additional references and resources to be found in the full monograph)
Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy, North Point Press, 2001.
Steffen Arctander, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. 1960 (various editions – online PDF at: https://archive.org/details/ArctanderPerfumeryBook
Andrea Butje, The Heart of Aromatherapy, Hay House, 2017
Gail Duff, Natural Fragrances – Outdoor Scents for Indoor Uses, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1989
Fenaroli, Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, 1971, and 6th Edition (Boca Raton, 2009)
Max Lake, Scents and Sensuality, Futura 1991
Julia Lawless, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Thorsons, 1994
Julia Lawless, Rose Oil, Harper Collins, 1995
Chrissie Wildwood, Create Your Own Perfumes Using Essential Oils, Piatkus 1994
Valerie Ann Worwood, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, New World Library, 2001.
A comprehensive guide to the history of roses: www.countrygardenroses.co.uk