Smelling of Roses



Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Well, whatever Shakespeare may have believed, roses have many aromas, depending on variety, where they grow, climate, time of year, even time of day. Whilst the typical English Tea Rose is full bodied and full of quintessential Englishness in its aroma (graceful, elegant, sweet and gentle), African roses often carry a richer, heavier, velvety fragrance, whilst Bulgarian roses, most often used in perfumery, can be warm, spicy, slightly medicinal and honey sweet. As Rose oil extracts can contain 300+ aromatic compounds, it's not surprising there is such variety in smell.

Chemically, the compounds that give a rose its smell are known as turpenes, ketones, esters,  benzenes and other aromatic hydrocarbons. Turpenes are fragrant alcohols found in many plants; rose oil has characteristic turpenes including geraniol (typically rose), citronellol (citronella), farnesol (floral), nerol (sweet) and linalool (spicy). Ketones are the volatile chemicals that we sense most readily. The level of these is key to giving rose aroma its potency - the higher the level of ketones the more strongly rosy a rose will smell.

To produce 1oz of pure rose absolut requires around 50,000 buds, best picked in the morning as they are freshly opening. The process of extracting the fragrance from a rose is much the same as any other flower extract; either steam distillation, cold solvent extraction or exceptionally liquid CO2 distillation. For the finest fragrances CO2 is the preferred method but adds to the cost.

Roses fragrances are said to bring feelings of calmness, well-being and romance. It is certainly true that roses and romance are intertwined throughout history and indeed our modern society. Can a fragrance inspire love? The correlation, in the case of roses, is very strong, roses at weddings, rose petal carpets, valentines day roses, single red roses - roses seem to be synonymous with love.

Baby powder has traditionally been rose scented, which probably helps the smell of rose trigger, in many people, that feeling of motherly comfort, warmth, softness.

However many roses have very little scent at all - as growers have cultivated and hybridised flowers for their colour or appearance or lack of thorns or their straightened stems or cut shelf-life, then the fragrance has been unfortunately sidelined.

Shakespeare, by the way, was believed to be making a joke at the expense of the Rose Theatre, which was next to an alley way used as a public convenience - definitely not sweet!