“I have become a rather compulsive sniffer,” admits British rose expert Michael Marriott. “And not just of roses. We want flowers to have a delightful fragrance. It’s a natural reaction when one see’s a flower to lean over and sniff it. If there’s no fragrance you’re disappointed. I believe, however, this is doubly true of roses. With a rose the anticipation of fragrance is so strong. If a rose is not fragrant the disappointment is somehow deeper.”
Fortunately Marriott, the senior rosarian of David Austin Roses in Shropshire, England is rarely disappointed, certainly not on the job. The voluptuous English Roses of David Austin are generally regarded as among the most fragrant groups of roses available today. In addition to vigor and lush flowers, fragrance has been a hallmark of Austin breeding since the beginning in 1961. Today the catalogue of fragrances waiting to tempt and delight growers of English Roses spans the full range of classic old rose or tea rose fragrances, from fruity to flora to musky or spicy and beyond.
One of Marriott’s tasks as senior rosarian is to oversee the official description of the fragrance of each of Austin’s English Rose varieties. In this task he is joined by Austin’s “rose nose” Robert Calkin, the acclaimed British perfumer and floral fragrance educator.
“It is a struggle sometimes to describe the intricate mix of scents that make up any particular rose fragrance,” says Marriott. “But luckily this is Robert’s special talent and passion. As his co-conspirator, I get to spend three delightful dedicated days per year with him literally drifting in a sea of fragrance. We amble about our nearly 2-acre show garden, sniffing rose after rose, debating and fine tuning our thoughts on its signature scent characteristics.”
This background as a professional sniffer has given Marriott some unique insights into the subject of roses and fragrance. For those wishing to learn more about what the nose knows, some of his observations follow.
Of Rose Petals, Stamens and Fragrance
“The fragrance in roses comes from two different sources,” says Marriott. “Most commonly it comes from the petals, but sometimes it also emanates from the stamens. This is especially true in varieties with single or semi-double flowers where stamens are abundant.”
In the petals, he says, the greater part of any rose scent originates from its mix of just four or five different primary oils. Professionals call these a scent’s “base notes.” But rose scents are nothing if not complex, and Marriott says that this complexity comes from the role played by as many as 200 to 300 other oils present, often in minute quantities. This mix yields the wonderful richness found in rose fragrances.
The oils are formed from precursors, which are produced at the bud stage, three or four days before the flower opens. The warmer it is (within reason) at this stage the more precursors are produced and the stronger the fragrance. The great variety of resulting oils will combine to produce the old rose, the fruity, the myrrh and the tea fragrances.
The fragrance of the stamens of single and semi-double flowers is often musky in character and also clove-like. “Cloves, of course, are a preservative,” explained Marriot. “So it could be that the fragrance does in fact help to prevent decline in the stamens. Some varieties, especially from the Hybrid Musk group of roses, combine the fragrance from both the petals and from the stamens.”
How Fragrance Can Vary, Day to Day
During the eight-year trialling process of every English Rose candidate, the David Austin team assesses the character and strength of each rose’s fragrance. “The interesting thing is that while some smell consistently the same each time we sniff them, some smell quite different each time, says Marriott. “For instance, last time Robert and I wandered the rows, the roses were smelling extremely well and we detected cocoa powder in one variety, ‘Buttercup’, where we’d never spotted it before. We also picked up almonds for the first time in ‘St. Cecelia’.” Savoring the Scent, The Mechanics of Proper Rose Sniffing
“When smelling a rose don't just give it a quick sniff,” insists Marriott. “Try to smell it as you might savor a good wine by rolling it around the nose. Everybody's nose smells things differently so don't be shy about describing the scents you sense or detect. One of Robert’s tips is to learn to explore rose scents by comparing two roses side by side to highlight their differences and similarities, just like a wine tasting.”
Marriot adds that it is always important to smell several different flowers on any given bush, as some might not readily resonate, while others exuberantly exhibit their fragrance. Sometimes the fragrance can be very different, according to the age of a particular flower. A variety like David Austin’s ‘Golden Celebration’ or ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent’, for example, has a tea fragrance initially which turns fruity, often citrus-like, then eventually evokes black currant as the flower matures.
“Always stop and smell the roses,” says Marriott. “Whoever said this knew what she was talking about!”
As With All Things, Scent is Entirely Subjective
People react differently to different fragrances. This is partly chemical, says Marriott, and partly because each individual associates fragrances with a different set of sense memories and responses. The unusual scent, myrrh, for example, is closely associated with the English Roses. “Some people love strong myrrh scents and a few can’t detect it all,” says Marriott.
“Myrrh appeared in David Austin’s first rose, the once-flowering ‘Constance Spry’, Marriott notes. “It appears as a powerful, spicy top note inherited from one of the parents, ‘Belle Isis’, a strongly perfumed Gallica type.” ‘Constance Spry’ is reputed to have been Steve Job’s favorite rose. For Jobs, and many others, ‘Constance Spry’s is a quintessential rose fragrance.