A glimpse on the Queen

PART ONE: A brief story of old roses
PART TWO: Flower alchemy



For starters, we have to say that every rose, every single variety, has its own peculiar story. But the story of roses starts a long time ago, about 35 million years, in Oregon, North America. Here has been found the oldest fossil of a Rose, a plant which probably looked pretty much like the Rosa nutkana C. Presl, we can still see today growing spontaneously in the region of Vancouver. It’s a rowdy rambler, with simple and plain flowers.

We know the Rose has been known and loved by humans since a long, long time. Probably, in prehistorical times, our ancestors used to gather the berries of Rosa canina L., for their sweetness and their nutritional value.

Later, our ancestors started to cultivate it and discovered with wonder that, if watered and put in a rich soil, this warrior of waste lands flourishes, becoming more vigorous, increasing the perfume and, in some cases, as for example the genus Gallica, doubling its flowers.
Both in Europe and in China, the Rose was the first domestic ornamental plant.
The rose gives the name to the entire family at which it belongs, the Rosaceae. It is the wonderful and very human friendly family at which belong also many of our fruit trees: peach, apple, pear, plum, almond, cherry and apricot tree are all Rosaceae, as well as many of the red fruits and berries.

In the East as well as in the Old Greek and Roman culture the Rose was always seen as a symbol of beauty and richness. Its perfume enchanted and gave inspiration to many men and poets.
In Greece, the isle of Rhodes owes its name to this flower (in fact rodon in Old Greek means rose), and stories tell us about when the entire island was covered with rose shrubs. Rosa gallica and Rosa damascena (a cross between Rosa gallica and Rosa phoenicia) were the roses known at that time.

Kazanlink (Rosa damascena trigintipetala) is one of the most reknown varieties of Damask rose, and it’s the variety cultivated in the Valley of Roses, in Bulgaria, the 80 km long and 15 km wide (at max) valley which lies between the villages of Kazanlink and Kurlovo, in Bulgaria. Surrounded by 2000 mt high mountains, the valley lies at about 600 mt on the sea level, and here temperatures rarely go below 0°C, reaching the maximum high at about 20°C. Here, the 90% of all the roses of the world is cultivated, and they are for the most part Damask roses, especially Kazanlink. They are cultivated for the extraction of their essence, a precious essential oil, but we’ll talk about this later.

Virgil, the Roman poet, wrote about a rose which flowers twice: one time in the spring and one in the fall. Yes, because at those times, in Europe, roses flowered just once… except for the Rosa damascena Quatre Saisons continue, the one described by Virgil.

Also Plinius the Oldest, in the first century after Christ, in his Naturalis historia, wrote about a rose with a hundred petals and the sweetest perfume. But it was during the Middle Age that the first yellow rose appeared, and it was a Rosa foetida. It was always during the Middle Age that the species Alba was discovered. A spontaneous breeding of (probably) canina, gallica and damascena, Rosa alba is generally a vigorous shrub, with silver leaves and white or soft pink flowers, very beautiful and sweetly scented.


And now, I kindly ask you to jump forward in time, right to the XVIII century, when all through Europe started quite a big ferment around flowers and roses especially. In those years, in Holland, the Rosa centifolia was discovered, another breeding of canina, gallica and damascena, characterised by large and ultra scented corollas with a hundred petals (different though from the rose described by Plinius). Centifolia rose became one of the favourite flowers for painters of those times. The variety Fantin Latour owes its own name to the painter Henri Fantin Latour, which painted this particular variety in more than one of his oeuvres.

At the end of the Eighteenth century, the East India Company brought to Europe the first Chinese roses. They were also called Tea roses, or Tea scented roses, because the merchants used to put them in tea boxes to carry them trough the sea.
The varieties of this genus come from a breeding between Rosa chinensis and R. himalayana (a tough rambler, with huge white flowers and many thorns) and they bring a big innovation among the western roses. In fact, China roses flower ceaselessly, and they brought repeat flowering to the european varieties that, up to that moment, had shown that character only in the Quatre Saison Continue. The breeding of Rosa chinensis and the old european species gave rise to all the Hybrid Perpetuals, which display a wonderful range of shapes and colours, and often a very generous flowering.

At the end Eighteenth century, from Japan arrived to Europe also Rosa rugosa, from which started a separate descendance.
While during the Nineteenth century, on the island of Reunion, called Bourbon then, a new kind of rose was discovered, probably a spontaneous breeding between a China and an Autumn Damask. Bourbon rose is a tough shrub which loves the sun, here we have some wonderful specimen.
In the same century, in Italy, still a new variety was discovered. It was a scarlet rose (chinensis x damascena x gallica) and the Duchesse of Portland brought it with her to London, giving it her name.

And here, my friends, we come pretty much to an end of the story of old roses. With the Polyantha, in fact, as well as with the Noisette (breeded by the famous Noisette brothers) or the Poulsen, we enter the domain of modern roses, fine products of the art of hybridation. Today there are around 45.000 varieties of roses existing on our planet. It takes 10 years to breed a new variety, and a long and delicate process, in which art and nature collaborate. In fact, to create a new variety hybridators do exactly what sometimes happens spontaneously in nature, as in the case of the lovely Rosa muscosa, a spontaneous mutation of Rosa centifolia entirely covered with a sort of scented mossy hair.



The Rose has become so famous and beloved thanks to its inspiring grace, and one of the main reasons the Rose is so blissful is surely its scent, together with the many properties of this generous plant: the Rose has always been useful to humans, despite of its thorns, and knows them since a long time.

While in the majority of flowers scent spreads from the nectar, in the Rose it spreads from the petals, and only when they have reached a certain degree of maturation.
Scent, as we can perceive it, is caused by the evaporation of the essential (or etheric) oils. The essential oil, as the name says, represents the chemical identity and essence of the plant. It comes from an internal alchemy, which transforms sugars in terpenes and alcohols which, both combined, give origin to the scent. But why do plants distillate such a precious element, burning their food to transform it into few and small molecules of oil? The answers given by science are many. Essential oils in fact have many functions: they work as antibiotics as well as attractions for the pollinators. They also constitute one of the many ways plants use to communicate with the rest of nature: insects, animals, other plants. Essential oils production varies depending on the climate and the circumstances in which the plant grows. They are a sort of language through which plants express their identity (a signature) and their actual condition. Every plant contains essential oils, but just a few of them are called “essential herbs” or “medicinal plants”, because just from few of them it is possible to extract a sufficient quantity of oil, since they have a great concentration of it and are kin to share some of their liquid fire with us.
Anyway, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding this world and its functioning.

So, returning to the Rose: its scent varies depending on the proportion between terpenes and alcohols, which is determined by many factors: variety, climate, soil… and nose!
In fact, a big role in how we actually perceive a scent is played by our nose and its receptors, which directly bring the olfactive stimula to the brain, triggering memories and emotions.
In general, human beings have a low degree of consciousness regarding their sense of smell, and do not develop it as other animals do. But this makes smell the more powerful sense since it is connected to our unconscious, it reaches it bypassing the rational mind.
Everyone of us has a different perception of the same smell (try in describing the scent of a rose!) and our receptors deteriorate with time, changing our perception. This is why in many flower scent-contests the jury is composed by children and this is why, growing old, sometimes we just cannot find the smells of our childhood anymore.

The creators of roses talk about 5 tones of scent:
-the green note, which reminds of freshly cut grass
-the rose note, the most rare among modern roses, which is typical to old varieties and is the specifically scent of roses
-the citric note: lemon, lemongrass, verbena (Lippia citriodora)
-the fruity note: peaches, apricot, raspberries and strawberries
-the spicy note: vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg

The flower of the Rose is a laboratory, where many reactions take place, from the magic of impollination to the production of oils, to the shaping of colour.
The hue of the flowers is determined by a complex alchemy.
If we watch a petal of rose under a microscope we will see three layers. The first one, the one above, is constituted by coloured, cone-shaped cells. They give the petal its velvety consistence. In the middle layer we find a zone with no pigment but tiny air bags, made to emphasise the hues with fleshy reflections. On the third and lower layer we find coloured flat cells, which create silvery reflections.

There is a multitude of colorants, but we can divide them in two groups: water soluble (the anthocyanins, residing inside the cell vacuoles and changing colour depending on the PH) and fat soluble (residing in special cells called chromoplasts).
The final colour derives from the interaction of the various colorants and the PH.

The PH of plants changes in time, and so does, sometime, the flower colour. So some roses, ageing, change. There are also some varieties in which the edge of the petals is of a different colour. This is because it was formed before than the rest of the flower and already lost part of its acidity.

Blue roses in nature don’t exist, because roses do not have the colorant delifinidine in their vacuoles. But black roses, or almost black, they do exist. For example the Black Baccara. But these are usually greenhouse varieties which, if exposed to direct sunlight, turn their hue into burnt brown (since this is the reaction of cyanidol, their colorant, with sun rays).

So the alchemy we make when we distill with the alembic started well before us, inside the petals, and even before then, in the ground where the plants sucks minerals and water, and in the leaves, where the chlorophyll photosynthesis creates sugars. So when we do it, when we distill, we have to be conscious and careful, so to insert us with harmony in the flow of transformation and not to spoil the product.

Traditionally, roses are collected from May to June, from 4 to 9 a.m.. The roses collected later, till 4 p.m., are for the rose marmalade industry.
The roses from the morning are for distillation, to get the precious oil. With roses, you must be very careful since their most powerful chemical elements (such as damascenone) are present just in nanograms per gram of essence: sometimes they are not detectable through any other instrument but the nose! They are mainly composed of hydrogen, so they are very inflammable and volatile.
The water vapour distillation, the traditional way of distilling, is risky and some of the elements will be inevitably lost.
An other traditional way of extracting essence from roses (and flowers in general) was the enfleurage, a complex technique involving the use of animal fat and alcohol. This technique has been abandoned for its high cost and difficulty. Today, somebody uses other chemical solvents, but this can spoil the quality of the product, since you can never be sure the solvent has completely evaporated.
Anyway, in using the water vapour distillation technique, one must put the roses directly in warm water, and then, during the process, pay attention not to go over 70/80° degrees C. The oil percentage will be scarce, but the other product of the distillation, the hydrolatum (also called “water of roses”, composed by water + molecules of essential oil) is very useful and sweetly scented.

Every year, around 10.000 tons of roses are harvested. The 90/95% of the production comes from Bulgaria and Turkey, the remaining 5% from India.
You need 3,5 tons of flowers to get 1 kilogram of essential oil. A rose weighs around 5 grams, so it takes 200 roses to make a kilo. A shrub of roses in full production offers around 400 flowers.

As for the wine, for roses also we have years: the 2002, for example, is remembered as a terrible year for roses, mostly because of the great cold and the ice. Temperatures in the Valley of Roses reached -20° C.

Rosa damascena Quatre Saisons Continue

To know more: Charles and Brigid Quest-Ritson, The Royal Horticoltural Society Encyclopedia of Roses, DK Limited, London 2012.