Fragrance in Roses Revisited

By Steve Jones
Master Rosarian
Fiddletown, CA

When I wrote the first article on fragrance (or lack of) in roses, I had a mountain of references available and it took a herculean effort to condense them into a single article. I'd like to thank Kim Rupert for his award-winning article on further information about fragrance in roses, but I just couldn't let the stink end there. 

In his book, Roses (1908), the Reverend Joseph Pemberton wrote "Perhaps if modern raisers were to resort to the Damask once more, crossing it with a perpetual, we should regain that which makes the rose so popular, and in which most of the new present-day roses are so lamentably deficienta rose perfume." J. Weathers in Beautiful Roses (1903) wrote, "The sweetest scent of roses has been proverbial from time immortal. And yet all roses do not exhale a fragrance. Many of our choicest varieties, such as Baroness Rothchild, Duke of Edinburgh, [etc], lack delicious fragrance that makes the Sweet Briar, The Cabbage, Musk Roses, many of the Hybrid Perpetuals, Tea Roses, and others, so deservedly popular." But then he adds, "After all, the absence of scent is but the exception that proves the rule, as most roses will be found to have a fragrant odour." 

Helen Van Pelt Wilson wrote in her book Climbing Roses (1955) that "Indeed, I never sniff a faintly scented or scentless rose without feeling disappointed, even frustrated. Such beauty without fragrance seems to me an error of nature, perfume being the proper heritage of the rose." N.F. Miller in the 1950 ARS Annual wrote an article titled "Have You Tried These Fragrant Roses?". In the article, he tested 100 varieties of old fashioned and shrub roses. He claimed only 1/4 have any perfume. He added that even though the blooms were simple, it had to be the fragrance that gave it such prestige. Dean Ross in his book A Manual Of Heritage Roses (1983) wrote "Of all virtues that people ask most of a rose is that it be fragrant. This is not surprising, for fragrance is the one feature that sticks indelibly in our minds, and can bring back memories of years ago." Later he added on the subject of people reporting different fragrances from the same rose, "Having said this, I must hasten to point out that both the rose and our nose can play tricks."

An excellent article on fragrance by Dr. Van Fleet was printed in the 1919 ARS Annual. The editor, Horace McFarland called the article "...the last word on the subject. Who noticed before that there was no odor of musk in the Musk rose, and none of cinnamon in the Cinnamon rose?" Dr. Van Fleet said agreeable fragrance is one of the most valued attributes of the perfect rose, though many indispensable species and varieties do not possess it in marked degree, and not a few are either odorless or even distasteful. An interesting point he makes is that the wild roses inhabiting the coastal areas around the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern shores of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the northern temperate zones possess agreeable fragrance in the highest degree, while those native to the interior uplands of the respective continents are, to a great extent, devoid of this pleasing attribute.

S.C. Harland wrote in the 1967 journal The Rose, an article on the fragrance of old fashioned roses compared to modern roses. He questioned if the older roses were more fragrant or not. Using Modern Roses 6 as a guide, he found that the modern Hybrid Teas were not much less fragrant than the Hybrid Perpetuals, Teas, Bourbons, or Noisettes, however, the very popular Floribundas were appreciably lower (19% non-fragrant versus 45.4% fragrant). 

A. Norman in his book Successful Rose Growing (1953) wrote "Nor is the rose lacking in perfume, in spite of the number of uninformed persons who write to the press deploring its absence. Although it is true that many modern roses are almost scentless, it is by no means a condition peculiar to the present time, for some of the most popular roses of the last century were entirely without scent." He then mentioned roses Baroness Rothchild (1869) and Frau Karl Druschki (1900) as examples. Later he wrote "It is perfectly true that in the last century there were more scented varieties of rose than there are today, but it must be realized that in the class called Hybrid Perpetuals there was a great deal of similarity, for, since there were only two colours, in various shades, namely crimson and pink, this was more or less inevitable." He later questioned what happened to the scent after Teas and Hybrid Perpetuals were bred to create the Hybrid Teas. "What happened to the scent in the progeny of this union? In some instances the heavy damask perfume was retained, mostly in the red varieties, and the tea scent in varieties of the paler shades....Now, as in the past, some varieties are quite scentless, but those varieties have such other good qualities that the lack of scent can be overlooked."

Bertram Parks looked back in history when he wrote in his book The Guide To Roses (1956), "There are two or three hundred native species of roses spread all over the northern hemisphere, from which our cultivated roses have descended, but only half a dozen or so are fragrant. In spite of this handicap, the hybridists have succeeded in bringing out the fragrance in modern roses, and we ought to be sending up paeans of joy that there are so many roses with fragrance from which to make a selection for our gardens." Mr. Parks was so perturbed at the comments from the lack of fragrance in roses, he named the chapter "Modern Roses Have Lost Their Fragrance!" then he proceeds to refute the comment.

The debate on roses and scent will continue into the future. In some ways, Harry Wheatcroft is correct, a majority of people buy roses based on color and not so much on fragrance. Also, fragrance and lack of disease resistance seem to go hand-in-hand, therefore many are turned off with fragrance if the plant is a mildew monger. Until we can introduce more clean roses with good fragrance, we won't have much of a leg to stand on. This is one area where McGredy and David Austin English Roses are helping to fill a niche.

Originally published in "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of the Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.


© Copyright Steve Jones. All rights reserved.
Updated January 3, 2016