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Fruity, Musk or Myrrh? A Simple Primer on English Rose Fragrances

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If you feel a rose is not a rose unless it has intense and exciting fragrance, then look no further than the big, blowsy classic blooms of English hybridizer David Austin. Austin’s English Garden Roses, with their plump blossoms, fine coloring and vigorous garden performance are the lusty ladies of garden roses, recalling the tempting lasses of 18th century English novelist Henry Fielding’s famous “The Adventures of Tom Jones.”

Such a description would be anathema to the ever-proper Austin, now 86 and an elder statesman of garden rose hybridizers. But a bit of hyperbole should be allowed if it communicates to uninitiated American gardeners the luscious qualities of these exceptional roses.

Austin’s English Roses are considered to be among the most fragrant of all rose groups today. They encompass the full range of fragrances found in classic old roses or tea roses and can be grouped into five basic types, including myrrh, fruity, musk, old rose and tea rose.

But, what exactly do these descriptions mean? What is the fragrance called myrrh? How is it different from musk or fruity? What is the line between old rose and tea rose?

The best way to learn rose fragrance types, of course, is to literally stop to smell the roses. In the absence of one-on-one instruction, the best way to teach your nose to know is to sniff along with the experts.

Following is a guide to the five fragrance types found in English Roses. The descriptions come from the four-man fragrance team led by breeder David Austin, Sr. joined by president David Austin, Jr., senior rosarian Michael Marriott and British floral fragrance expert, Robert Calkin. These observations seek to identify the character of each fragrance type, and offer examples of English Rose varieties that epitomize it.

  • Myrrh – This imposing scent has the aromatic, licorice warmth of sweet anise. Amongst roses, it is now almost exclusively found in the English Roses (primarily the pinks), although there is an element of it in the fragrance of other plants, such as lilac and hawthorn. The name is believed to derive from Myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely), which has sweet anise-scented leaves. Myrrh is a scent beloved by most, but to some it can be reminiscent of anise seed-based hospital-type, antiseptic creams. Indeed, myrrh serves as an interesting reminder that fragrance preference is subjective. Best examples include: ‘Constance Spry’, 'Boscobel', 'Wollerton Old Hall' ‘Scepter’d Isle’, ‘Claire Austin’, and 'The Ancient Mariner'.
  • Fruity – The rose is related to many fruits, including apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries and apricots. Fruity notes frequently appear in the fragrances of English Roses of all colors, including those of apple, raspberry, strawberry, pear and lemon and even more exotic lychee and guava. Best examples include: 'Lady Emma Hamilton’ 'The Poet's Wife', 'Jubilee Celebration', and‘ Jude the Obscure’
  • Musk - Even a small amount of musk rose scent will perfume the air. The source of the romantic scent is frequently the flowers stamens, where it readily shakes off and wafts through the air. Human noses are particularly sensitive to musk so we pick up the scent of even tiny quantities. Musk is most often found in the rambler roses, where huge quantities of single flowers abound with prominent stamens. Best examples include: ‘Snow Goose’ and ‘The Generous Gardener'.
  • Old Rose – Breeder David Austin’s own favorite rose fragrance is that of the classic old rose. To him it is the most alluring of all rose perfumes. This is the classic rose fragrance, absolutely delicious, the true “rose” fragrance that everyone loves. It is almost exclusively found in pink and red roses. Best examples include: ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, 'Munstead Wood' and ‘Harlow Carr’
  • Tea Rose – Often compared to the aromatic sensation one gets in opening a fresh packet of China Tea, this fragrance is sometimes so strong that other, softer notes only become apparent after the flower matures for a few days. In English Roses, the tea rose scent most frequently appears in the yellow and apricot roses.Best examples include: ‘ Graham Thomas' and 'Golden Celebration', although it is also present in 'Princess Alexandra of Kent', and the 'Lady Gardener'.


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