Reproduced from the Heritage Roses Group bulletin, November, 1999
Some time ago, I received a letter from an elderly gentleman, asking about fragrant roses. He had tried, he said, several of the varieties that were reported to be fragrant: ‘Mr. Lincoln’, ‘Fragrant Cloud’ and ‘Crimson Glory’. None of them smelled like the roses that grew in his mother’s garden when he was a child. And, he wanted to know, where could he purchase fragrant roses and what were the names of the old roses that smelled the way he remembered roses ought to smell?
Well, ‘Crimson Glory’ was probably one of them since it dates back to 1935 and was a rose my grandmother grew. That over-powering Damask fragrance was something I remembered from my childhood. If it doesn’t smell quite the same way today-deep enough to drown in-it is not that the rose has lost its scent but that, like many older people, my sense of smell is not as good as it was then. I tried to be tactful when I informed my correspondent that, lacking a fountain of youth, no list of fragrant roses was going to be helpful.
That Damask fragrance so typical in ‘Kazanlik’, ‘Celsiana’, ‘Marie Louise’ and a dozen others, comes through in a slightly altered form in ‘Madame Hardy’, lighter and with a faint whiff of lemon I associate with the Albas. ‘Maiden’s Blush’ and ‘Alba Maxima’ have this fragrance in abundance and so does ‘Königin von Dänemark’ though it may be my imagination that the ’Queen of Denmark’ has a somewhat heavier dose of Damask in it. ‘Alba Semi-plena’ is scented too but it is well to remember that in most cases the larger and more double the rose, the more essential oils that cause fragrance are produced.
My own favorites are the Centifolias, large double flowers bred in an age when fragrance was truly appreciated. ‘Juno’, ‘La Noblesse’ and ‘Crested Moss’, all have that sweet somewhat fruity but alluring scent. The Moss roses have it too-at least those of Centifolia ancestry do, but in the Mosses that simple fragrance is sometimes enhanced by the resinous smell of the moss itself - a bit piney perhaps. ‘Jeanne de Montfort’ is a fine example of this but so are ‘General Kleber’, ‘Henri Martin’ and ‘Old Red Moss’.
Gallicas are well known for fragrance and it is these roses that are often used for potpourri since the fragrance is strengthened rather than lost when the petals are dried. ‘Charles de Mills’ is an old favorite but the oldest is probably ‘Tuscany’; both it and the more double ‘Superb Tuscan’ are roses to count on for fragrance. ‘Belle de Crécy’ is a smaller plant in my garden but the mauve flowers are charming and the fragrance bewitching too. The ‘Apothecary’s Rose’ was an article of commerce in the middle ages both for dried petals and for a conserve that was used as a medicine for many ailments.
Most of these roses do not have a fragrance that is “free on the air” though in mid-June when the whole garden is in flower, the air is sweetly scented when the fragrance is released by warm sun. More reliable is the sweet brier, Rosa eglanteria, also sold under its former name of R. rubiginosa. With this rose, it is the leaves that are fragrant, though the flowers do have some perfume, too. Every rain shower brings a wave of scent to the garden and even on a clear day, as the morning sun warms up dew-drenched leaves, the smell drifts in through open windows. If Mother Nature is not cooperative, one may supply the necessary moisture with a garden hose. The plant is huge and the small, single pink flowers not particularly interesting so place this one at the back of a shrub border, but where prevailing breezes will blow the fragrance over the garden and towards the house.
Tea roses have an entirely different smell though to me it is fruitier than tea. Norman Young, author of The Complete Rosarian (1971), points out that geraniol is common in both rose essential oils and in tea, which may account for the detected similarity. He goes on to say that the fruity essence noted in the Tea roses can also be smelled in the best Darjeeling tea. He calls this a muscatel scent though to me it is more reminiscent of raspberries.
This fresh raspberry smell also appears in some Bourbons such as ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ as well as quite a few modem roses. And it is overwhelmingly present in ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’-one of the most fragrant roses of all. ‘La Reine Victoria’ is more lightly scented but still pleasant and ‘Louise Odier’ has this fragrance too. It is also passed along to the Hybrid Perpetuals, though many of these roses are more Damask than China. Particularly well scented are’Empereur du Maroc’ and’Monsieur Boncenne’ but then one expects fragrance in red roses and is always disappointed if it is absent. ‘Prince Camille de Rohan’,’Baronne Prévost’ and’General Washington’ are all scented Hybrid Perpetuals, and ‘Général Jacqueminot’ is particularly noted for its fragrance.
The Rugosa hybrids are considered modern shrubs rather than old roses but most of them have the clove fragrance of the parent R. rugosa and its double and white variants. This is a lovely smell but more spicy than rosy. The Austin shrubs are more noted for old rose fragrance and’Othello’ could give pointers to any red Hybrid Perpetual. My own favorite in this group is ‘Heritage’, freely flowering, fragrant and disease resistant. If only it were hardier! And the same goes for ‘Graham Thomas’.
The Chinas are mostly lightly fragrant-perhaps those with better noses could discern something more. The’Green Rose’ has a distinct smell of pepper-but then with no petals, it would be hard for it to produce the scent of roses. And though some Polyanthas are fragrant, they are the exception rather than the rule. ‘Cécile Briinner’, ‘Perle d’Or’ and ‘Nathalie Nypels’, as well as ‘Mrs. R M Finch’, have marked fragrance. I have yet to discern any in ‘Cameo’, ‘White Pet’, ‘Marie Pavie’ and perhaps a dozen others.
Rosa multifora gets its fragrance from the stamens rather than the petals and that scent is marked here in June when it floats over country roads where R. multiflora has found a home in abandoned pastures and hedgerows. The same fragrance is present in the so-called modern Hybrid Musks, most of them being R. multiflora hybrids. These again are modern shrubs, not true old roses, but their long canes enhance any garden as does their scent, carried on the breeze.
The complaints about modem roses having no smell have lessened since the Austin roses have come on the market. The complaint should go to the gardeners who turned their back s on such roses as’Lemon Spice’ (not a show rose nor very free blooming, but wonderfully scented of citrus and nutmeg) and ‘Papa Meilland’. ‘Double Delight’, on the other hand, has it all-color, fragrance, free bloom. If only it were more disease resistant and not quite so spray-sensitive!
Some of the modern Miniatures and Floribundas are richly scented one of the newest Minis is ‘Overnight Scentsation’ which would edge out many older roses for that characteristic. A bouquet of these little roses (though they are a bit large for Minis) would be a treat for any nose.
When shopping for fragrant roses, ignore those described as having “light fragrance”; in Catalog Speak, that generally means none or very little. In the Pickering Nurseries catalog, look for those that are marked fff; in others look for a description where the seller especially notes the fragrance. And judge for yourself when you visit other gardens-this is a highly individual matter and some people will detect a fragrance where others don’t. Remember too that it is truly said, “A rose without fragrance is a flower without a soul.”
* The Heritage Roses Group, formed in 1975, is a fellowship of those who care about Old Roses. To join the group and receive the quarterly bulletin, send $6.00 to The Heritage Roses Group, C/O Helen Pressley, P.O. Box 7606, Olympia WA 98507
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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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