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Sniffing Out the Story of English Rose Fragrance

English Rose ‘Harlow Carr’

When one sees a beautiful flower, it’s natural to lean in for a sniff. If there’s no fragrance, it’s disappointing. When the flower is a rose, the anticipation of fragrance is heightened, and if there is no scent the disappointment is somehow deeper.

Fortunately, sniffers of David Austin’s exquisite English Roses are generally happily rewarded in this regard. The British rose company’s creations are widely regarded as the most fragrant group of roses in the world today.

Fragrance has been a hallmark of the Austin rose hybridizing program since 1961, when David C.H. Austin introduced his first English Rose, the marvelously myrrh-scented ‘Constance Spry’. Today, each of Austin’s English Rose introductions delivers a distinctly different scent all its own that is traceable to the genes of its rose parents.

A rose variety’s fragrance is determined by its parentage. In the traditional hands-on hybridizing still practiced by David Austin Roses, two varieties are strategically crossed to create offspring that have traits from both parents. Each rose parent contributes scent elements, with the scents of the parents and offspring all drawing on elements of five basic rose fragrance groups: Old Rose, fruity, musk, myrrh, and Tea. When scent stars align, magic happens!

Petals, Stamens and Fragrance

The fragrance in roses comes from two different sources. 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, 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. As many as 200 to 300 other oils — often present in only minute quantities — can play a part. The rich and varied fragrances of English Roses stem from mixes of these oils.

Rose oils are formed from precursors, which are produced at the bud stage, three or four days before the flower opens. At this stage, the warmer the day (within reason) the more precursors are produced and the stronger the fragrance. The great variety of resulting oils 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 typically musky in character, often also clove-like. As cloves are a natural preservative, some speculate the fragrance helps 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.

Extend the Sniff, as Professional “Rose Noses” Do

When evaluating — or enjoying — a rose’s fragrance, avoid the quick sniff, say the fragrance experts at David Austin Roses. To cultivate a “rose nose,” extend the process. Slowly roll the bloom and savor its scent as you might the bouquet of a fine wine. Everyone’s nose smells things differently, so don’t be shy about describing the scents you sense or detect.

Austin’s experts add that it’s always important to smell several different flowers on any given rose bush, as some flowers may not readily resonate, while others more exuberantly exhibit their fragrance. They also advise that some varieties smell consistently the same each time they are sniffed, while other varieties smell quite different at times. Sometimes, too, the fragrance can be different according to the maturity of a particular flower. For example, English Rose ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent’, has a Tea fragrance when the flowers first open, but later turns lemony, eventually taking on hints of blackcurrant as the flower matures.

Scent is Entirely Subjective

People react differently to different fragrances. This is partly chemical and partly because people associate fragrances with personal sense memories and responses. The scent myrrh, for example, is closely associated with the English Roses. Some people love strong myrrh scents, some don’t and a few can’t detect it all, say professional rose noses. Myrrh appeared in David Austin’s very first rose, ‘Constance Spry’ as a powerful, spicy top note inherited from one parent, ‘Belle Isis’, a strongly perfumed Gallica type. ‘Constance Spry’ is said to have been Steve Job’s favorite rose. Presumably for him, myrrh evoked the quintessential rose fragrance.