It can’t be felt, tasted, heard or seen, yet rose fragrance has long been part of the human sensual experience, and no amount of human intervention could eliminate the craving.
The sweet smell of roses has been one of the great unseen sensory pleasures of life for millennia, written about since 375 BC.
Their fragrance can induce powerful memories and emotions from our past similar to the effect of the aroma of a warm apple pie, the touch of a soft breeze or the sound of crashing waves.
In late spring, the sun and warm air combine with rose blooms to produce a heady aroma that has been described by some as cloves, apples, lemons, nasturtiums or nectarines.
Most fragrant roses seem to have a mixture of these aromatic elements in great depth, and rose lovers can’t seem to get enough. It is as if our human DNA is predisposed to react to these provocative scents.
How then do we explain the fact that fragrant roses became so difficult to find during the past 50 years when their fragrance was prized by many cultures worldwide?
The answer lies in the early 18th century, when European plant explorers, who were working in China, uncovered something unheard of in Europe at that time. They found that some roses were blooming in the fall while others never stopped blooming at all during the growing season.
Up to this point roses were spring blooming shrubs, no different from rhododendrons or azaleas.
After these discoveries the race was on to cross the Chinese roses with European ones, creating one of the largest horticultural crazes since “tulipmania” hit Holland in the 1630s.
The European roses were highly fragrant and the Chinese roses had the reblooming gene, plus a wider palette of colors, red and yellow, for example.
By the late 1700s, the rose revolution had begun and the foundation was built for further market demands that came with unintended consequences.
In 1867, the first reblooming fragrant hybrid rose, La France, was introduced in France, creating the line of distinction between modern roses and antiques. It can still be found today at specialty nurseries.
In the 20th century the cut-flower trade emerged, which relied on air shipments, as well as blooms of increased strength and longer lasting freshness.
Requests for new colors emerged as well so breeders were busy creating new hybrids with expanded characteristics that did not include fragrance.
Without a warning, a tectonic shift in hybridizing had occurred creating alarm among many rosarians.
By the early 1960s a mere 25 percent of roses that were introduced had a detectable fragrance. This fact was uncovered by James A. Gamble, a doctor who endowed the American Rose Society with funds to produce an annual award for the most fragrant rose.
In the1960s and 1970s the public began demanding roses that had an aroma that one would expect. David Austin, a rose breeder from Albrighton, an English village, launched his first hybrid rose, Constance Spry in 1961, and the renaissance in breeding for fragrance began, changing modern roses forever.
Austin crossed deliciously scented antique roses, those available before 1867, with those from the modern age that had reblooming characteristics due to their Chinese ancestry.
To date he has bred more than 200 roses, creating the new classification of English Roses.
Meanwhile, breeders in France, Germany and the United States emulated his success. Today there is a huge variety of highly scented, wonderfully colored reblooming roses on the market.
Austin has earned numerous international awards, titles and a place in the World Federation of Roses Hall of Fame for his work in this area. In the rose hybridizing universe this is akin to having an armload of Oscars on your bookshelf.
The work of rose breeders these past 200 years brought new dimensions to hybrid roses, important both historically and genetically.
There are colors and shapes never imagined in Europe, plus richly fragrant flowers and shrubs that provide continuous blooms and are highly prized in today’s landscape.
Although the love affair with everything Chinese began with silk and tea, it eventually led to the queen of flowers. Shipped to England in the 1790s, members of the Rosa chinensis classification created a new family tree becoming the horticultural parents of the plants that we enjoy today.
Now it is time to prepare our olfactory nerves and, with an expression of gratitude on our faces, bend over and inhale that ephemeral aroma against which all other fragrances are measured, the fragrant rose.
Sandra Schumacher writes the Plants of Merit column for The Herald and is a freelance garden writer. She is a member of the Garden Writers of America.
Join a rose society
Tri-Valley Rose Society: Meets at Totem Middle School, 1605 Seventh St., Marysville. www.tri-valleyrosesociety.org.
Seattle Rose Society: Meets in Seattle http://seattlerosesociety.org; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Rose Society: www.ars.org.
Jennings Park: WSU master gardener demonstration garden, 6915 Armar Road, Marysville.
Antique Rose Farm: 12220 Springhetti Road, Snohomish.