Choosing Roses for Fragrance

What’s the first thing most people do when they are handed a rose? They smell it. The fragrance of roses has been cherished for ages and is one of the main motivations for growing them. Fragrant rosebushes, placed under windows, along walkways, or near outdoor seating areas, fill the air with a wonderful scent that complements the beauty of the flower. If a fragrant garden is your goal, or if you want fragrant roses to use in potpourris or recipes, you need to choose from the most fragrant varieties available.

Like other sensory stimuli, fragrance is highly subjective. A scent that appeals to one person may repel another and be barely perceptible to a third. And a rose itself may have different degrees and types of fragrance at different times.

A rose is most fragrant when it is one-quarter to two-thirds open and has been slightly warmed by morning sun. This heating causes the rose to release droplets of fragrant oil from tiny scent emitters on its petals and, in some types of roses, from the leaves. However, too much sun or wind can quickly carry these oils away and leave the rose with a faint or disagreeable odor. On a sunny day fragrance declines by as much as 40 percent. On a cool or damp day, by contrast, a rose releases little or no fragrance, and what fragrance is released may be masked by mildew.

Not all roses are fragrant, and the classic “rose” scent is just one of a variety of rose fragrances. Roses have seven basic fragrances: rose, nasturtium, violet, apple, lemon, clove, and tea. The traditional rose scent occurs only in red or pink roses—possibly for genetic reasons, although many red and pink roses are scentless. White and yellow roses tend to have tea, nasturtium, violet, or lemon scents. Orange roses usually smell of tea, nasturtium, violet, or clove. Eglanteria roses have an apple scent, which comes primarily from the leaves.

Rose breeders do not yet understand the genetics of rose fragrance, but they are aware that there are fewer fragrant modern roses than old garden roses. This may be because the primary goal of modem breeders is flower form, color, and disease resistance, with fragrance a somewhat lesser priority.

If fragrant roses are your goal, choose from the varieties in The Most Fragrant Roses. These roses are among the most fragrant available today. Some have been awarded the James Alexander Gamble Fragrance Award of the American Rose Society; a complete list of the winners of that award appears in The Most Fragrant Roses.

In addition, almost all alba, Bourbon, centifolia, damask, gallica, hybrid musk, hybrid perpetual, moss, noisette, Portland, and tea roses have fragrant flowers.