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Scents of Time: The Rose Garden

Martha Stewart Living, March 2009

What I insist is a tealike sweetness can seem, to you, indisputably spicy. Or, as you sniff the flower with a smile, I might tell you that it has no smell at all. To complicate matters, a rose's fragrance varies with the weather and the time of day. Strongest on mild and somewhat humid mornings (when bees are busy pollinating), it fades or changes as the hours pass and essential oils evaporate from the flowers petals.

The colors of roses can affect our impressions, too. Peach- and apricot-hued blooms, more than reds and pinks, are perceived as fruit-scented, even when they're not. Then there are roses that lack fragrance altogether, a trait common to many 20th-century Hybrid Teas, which were bred mainly for their colors, crisp shapes, and longevity in the vase.

But over the past few decades, in response to popular demand, hybridizers have been bringing back scent. Consider the names of some modern rose introductions: 'Fragrant Cloud,' 'Sheila's Perfume,' 'Scentimental.' Still, the most familiar rose fragrance, the one we all agree smells, well, overwhelmingly like a rose, belongs to older cultivars: European Damasks, Gallicas, and Centifolias. One of these, the Bulgarian-grown 'Rosa Kazanlik,' is used to make attar of rose and is considered the gold standard by many in the perfume trade.

Some of the newer hybrids ('Memorial Day,' 'Mr. Lincoln) share a similar old-fashioned bouquet, partly because breeders have reintroduced old-rose strains into recent crosses. But other moderns smell of tea, hinting at Chinese-rose relatives (such as R. gigantea) or apples (descendants of R. wichurana).

In fact, modern rose scents cover a wide spectrum, including nutmeg-tinged 'Mojave,' citrusy 'Lemon Spice,' and berry-rich 'Liv Tyler.' Rose grower David Austin, often credited with the commercial comeback of the flower's fragrance, has contributed some unusual scents of his own, among them myrrh, in his 'Fair Bianca' and 'Tamora,' and honey-vanilla, in 'Jude the Obscure.' Such perfumes waft from glands on a rose's petals. So in general, the more petals one of these flowers has, the more perfumed it is. Some old roses carry fragrance in their leaves or in other parts. The eglantine, or sweet briar, for example, has balsam-scented foliage. The moss rose possesses a soft, pine-smelling growth at the base of its buds.

To get the full effect of rose aroma, Henri Delbard, a renowned French rose breeder, suggests sniffing blooms for about five seconds to imprint your memory with the experience. Although rose scents are usually summed up in a couple of words, savoring one deeply requires more. For example, your initial whiff of the French Hybrid Tea 'Peter Mayle' might give you a classic Damask sweetness. But as you linger over the flower, you get additional hints of jasmine, apple, and lime and a complex fruit-and-flower finish.

How and where roses grow affect the perfumes they emit. Mildew, for instance, will diminish fragrance, so choose mildew-resistant types if you live in a damp region. Chemical fertilizers and pest controls also can inhibit scent, says Danielle Hahn, co-owner of Rose Story Farm, in Carpinteria, California. Consequently, Hahn, who specializes in fragrant cut roses, fertilizes plants with a blend of bat guano and bone-, blood-, and feather-meal, and doses them with herbal oils that include thyme, rosemary, and peppermint.

Once they're cut -- and cut off from their food supply -- roses begin to lose their scent, but they'll retain a still-potent fragrance if snipped and brought indoors before 10 a.m. Only a few (including 'Mr. Lincoln,' 'Kazanlik,' and the old apothecary's rose, R. gallica var. officinalis) hold on to their bouquet when dried. But to many, that evanescent quality is part of a rose's charm: fleeting and ineffable, hard to capture and keep.

See more fragrant-rose photos and tips on rose care

Fragrance and Flavor
Some say the deep-red 'Benjamin Britten' has hints of berry; others detect an aroma of pears or wine. Here, the rose is paired with two Hybrid Teas: yellow 'Lemon Spice,' redolent of citrus, and pale-pink 'Johann Strauss,' suggestive of apples.

In Search of the Sweet (Peachy, Honeyed) Smell of Success
Old-Rose Scents
Autumn Damask' medium-pink Damask
'Common Moss' pink Centifolia
'Comte de Chambord' pink Portland
'Gaspard Monge' lilac-pink Centifolia
'Gloire de Dijon' cream-and-apricot Climbing Tea
'Louise Odier' rose-pink Bourbon
'Memorial Day' lilac Hybrid Tea
'Oklahoma' red Hybrid Tea
'Princesse de Nassau' creamy-white Noisette
'Rose du Roi magenta Portland

Fruit Scents
Double Delight' red-edged white Hybrid Tea (citrus)
'Golden Celebrations' yellow-gold David Austin (fruit and tea)
'Jaune Desprez' shades-of-apricot Noisette climber (tropical fruit)
'Mme. Hardy' white Damask (lemon)
'Mme. Isaac Pereire' violet-pink Bourbon (raspberry and old rose)
'Royal Sunset' yellow-and-apricot Modern Climber (peaches and tea)
'Sombreuil' white climbing Tea (green apple)
'Sutter's Gold' orange-tinged yellow Hybrid Tea (lemon)
'Zepherine Drouhin' pink climbing Bourbon (apple and tea with hyacinth notes)

Spicy Scents
'Fair Bianca' white David Austin (myrrh)
'Felicia' pink-orange Hybrid Musk (tea)
'Fragrant Cloud' orange-red Hybrid Tea (clove and nutmeg)
'Great Maiden's Blush' light-pink Alba (sweet hint of herbs)
'Mojave' coral-orange Hybrid Tea (nutmeg)
'Secret Garden' white climbing Musk (vanilla and musk)
'The Garland' creamy, sometimes pink-tinged Multiflora Rambler (clove)
'Wildberry Breeze' lavender-pink Rugosa Hybrid (clove)

Other Scents
'Lady Hillingdon' gold Tea (honey)
'Martine Guillot' creamy pink-white Generosa (gardenia)
'The Mayflower' rose-pink David Austin (lilac)

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