One of the most difficult things to describe in words is the fragrance of a flower, be it a rose or a peony or something else. Fragrance is so subjective and so relative that at times I have despaired of trying to describe it. How did Shakespeare put it? “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” But though the fragrance of roses is indeed sweet, it is quite variable and different roses can have vastly different fragrances. Why this essay on fragrance? If you look through the list of roses on my web site, which covers all those that I have grown and am currently growing you’ll find that almost all of them share one trait in common: intense fragrance. To me, the long-stemmed florist’s roses that have almost no scent aren’t really roses. To be a rose, it has to be fragrant, the more fragrant the better! That’s why I love the old garden roses such as Louise Odier — their fragrance is overwhelming. Now that more and more of the roses are waking up, I thought I’d say a bit about their fragrance, though of course what I have to say is based on the flowers that I grow in my garden here in Central New Jersey and is based on my nose; your mileage can and will vary.
The classic fragrance that everyone associates with roses is traditionally called Old Rose or Damask and is the fragrance of such old garden roses as Louise Odier and Zephirine Drouhin, both Bourbons. It is very strong to overpowering in both of those flowers – if I cut just one and bring it inside, the entire room is soon perfumed. The same fragrance, at about the same strength, is found in Gertrude Jekyll, a David Austin English shrub rose. At a lesser strength, it’s found in Melody Parfumee and Fragrant Cloud, both hybrid tea roses. It’s once I leave the roses that have the classic Old Rose fragrance that I usually get into trouble. How do I describe the fragrance of another of the English roses, Winchester Cathedral? It’s strong and pleasant but bears no resemblance to Old Rose, at least to my nose. David Austin’s catalog says that it has Old Rose character with a hint of honey and almond blossom. I detect no Old Rose; honey I can believe because I can smell the hint of it, but almond blossoms I have never smelled so can’t say. The fragrance is unusual and once you smell it, you will always recognize it as Winchester Cathedral, but I’m at a loss as to how to put the fragrance into words. The same is true for Heritage, another English rose. The catalog says that it’s beautiful, with overtones of fruit, honey, and carnation on a myrrh background. I agree about the beautiful part but what in the world does myrrh smell like? Not a clue here! 🙂 It’s a lighter fragrance than Winchester Cathedral, it’s pleasant, but it’s clearly different. The same goes for Pat Austin. The catalog says it’s tea scented. It may well be that it has the fragrance of tea roses; it certainly doesn’t smell like a cup of tea! Again, a light, pleasant fragrance that for the life of me I can’t put into words. Dr. Huey on the other hand is easy to describe: no fragrance to speak of. New photos of each of these varieties have been posted on my main web site.
Roses aren’t by any means the only fragrant flowers that I grow. Right now, the Peony is in full bloom. The fragrance is very strong, very intoxicating, and smells like — peonies! 🙂 The Mock Orange is also in full bloom. This one at least I can describe. It smells just like true orange blossoms. I spent time in Florida and got to smell orange blossoms, so I can say so from experience. If you haven’t had that opportunity, you’ll just have to take my word for it! 🙂 It’s very fresh, very crisp and clean, and if I could figure out how to bottle and sell it I’d make a fortune! New photos of both have also been posted.
As you walk in the front yard and a breeze comes past the Mock Orange and toward you, you’re enveloped by the sweet fragrance. As you walk past it and turn the corner into the side yard, well, there’s Louise Odier with hundreds of flowers waiting to overwhelm you. My garden right now isn’t just a feast for the eyes, which I can share with you through my photographs, it’s also a feast for the nose. Unfortunately, all I have to share that with you are words and that’s a poor medium indeed when dealing with something so sweet. I think I just did a pretty good job of proving that! 😀