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The Scent of Roses

July 8, 2022

By Ali Brown, Volunteer, Royal Botanical Gardens

As you walk along a trail you don’t notice them right away, hiding just off the main path and surrounded by greenery, however your attention is immediately grabbed when the wind blows towards you, and you inhale the unmistakable perfume of roses.

When you stop and let your nose scan around there they are, the lovely rose, Rosa multiflora, commonly called rambler rose. This is one of the many beautiful imports from Japan which, since its introduction in 1886, has become invasive. Humans are not often reminded of the power of our sense of smell and allowed entry into the wonderful world of our canine friends whose daily experience is organized around their amazing sense of smell.

A short, wide spreading rose bush with white blooms
The invasive Rosa multiflora

Form Over Fragrance?

Many of us are the products of an age which valued the visual properties of a rose bloom or the ability of a rose to repeat bloom over the scent when rating rose varieties. As a result, the importance of fragrance declined, and many newer varieties literally had no smell.

Later in the day, I strolled RBG’s Rose Garden where the garden’s designer (Peter Kukielski), had wisely selected many varieties which have a memorable ‘rose scent’. We all have a feeling about the ‘the scent of roses’ is which often has more to do with Yardley hand soap or an elderly relative who always ‘smelt good’ than from actually smelling a rose. However, modern roses bring scents beyond what we may usually consider.

Touring the Rose Garden by Scent

Touring the Rose Garden using our noses as our guide, fills us with wonder. The first thing we notice is that when we are guided by our noses instead of our eyes, we are attracted to a completely different group of flowers. Our selection isn’t dominated by a particular colour, flower shape or petal number but is a heterogeneous group of many colours and different shapes. When we study our selection and put each flower through the smell test, we realize the scents of roses are as varied as their colours.

  • Earl orange rose blooms in Hendrie Park
  • Path winding through the rose garden, featuring red and pink roses spilling over the path, leading to a gazebo
  • Large pink rose
  • Black steel rose garden climbers surrounded by hot pink roses

The scent of each rose is a unique blend of many different odours and is classified as one of the seven main rose scents: damask, nasturtium, orris (like violets), violets, clove, apple and lemon fruit. The basic blend of these elements is subtly adjusted with the addition of other shades from 26 other distinct odours as varied as parsley and citrus.

Not only do different varieties of roses have different perfumes, but the smell changes depending on the time of day or season, early or late, whether it is on the rose bush or a cut flower in a vase or over the length of a single inhale of breath.

Curator Favourites

Here are a few of the Rose Garden‘s “must smells” according to RBG’s Curator of Collections, Alex Henderson.

Large marbled light and dark pink garden rose on a bush

Rosa ‘Thérèse Bugnet’

Old rose fragrance.

Rose bush with groupings of flat, light peachy-coloured roses

Rosa ‘ZLEeltonStrack’ sold as: ABOVE AND BEYOND™

Sweet rose, citrus and raspberry fragrance.

Grouping of bright fuchsia garden rose blooms growing up a black gazebo

Rosa ‘Ruselliana’

Light to old rose fragrance.

Large grouping of light pink, almost white garden roses, very delicate blooms

Rosa ‘KORgeowim’ sold as EARTH ANGEL

Mild spice fragrance.

Pink garden rose just beginning to bloom

Rosa ‘AUSmixture’ sold as OLIVIA ROSE AUSTIN

Fruity fragrance.

Final Thoughts

Although we are fascinated by the scent of roses and drawn to the flowers, we are not the main audience. The primary audience is the many pollinators which are essential to the rose’s reproductive cycle. Walking through the Rose Garden you’ll often find those blooms with the strongest scent to you, may also play host to the highest concentration of bees, butterflies and more.

Next time you’re in Hendrie Park, take a stroll through the Rose Garden and follow your nose; you may be surprised by which cultivars become your new favourites!

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