Where's The Fragrance?

By Steve Jones, Master Rosarian

When our rose society had a membership drive at a local nursery during bare-root season, one of the common complaints was that "Roses don't have fragrance anymore". Everyone remembers the fragrant roses of their childhood, and that they have all disappeared. Has it always been this way? Were roses more fragrant 30-50 years ago? Or is it that we remember them because our sense of smell triggers a certain memory that has remained in our minds?

I recalled reading an article from one of the earliest ARS Annuals about fragrance. I referenced several documents and was quite amazed at what I found. Apparently from the advent of Hybrid Teas and the introduction of China and Tea roses into the breeding programs, most people have complained about the loss of fragrance in roses, some from as long as 80 years ago!

The bottom line is, what does everyone do when they see a rose? Smell it, of course. So why is there such a lack of fragrance today? Or is there? In the 1919 ARS Annual, Dr. W. Van Fleet mentioned that fragrance is one of the most valued attributes of the perfect rose, although many indispensable species and varieties do not possess it in marked degree. E.T. Cook in Rose Growing Made Easy (1906) discussed scentless roses and said "But a rose without scent is bereft of its sweetest charm". Walter Wright in Roses And Rose Gardens (1927) said that the perfect rose must have fragrance. "There are many roses that are particularly sweet, and we must take care to grow them, even if they never win a prize...".

Even the older Royal National Rose Society Annuals had comments on the lack of fragrance. In the 1927 RNRS Annual, George Taylor wrote "Fragrance is the soul of the rose, without it, the flower is nothing". The Rev. Pemberton wrote in the 1917 RNRS Annual an article titled "Rose Perfumes". When asked why roses are as popular today as in days gone by, he answered "fragrance". Fragrance was so popular years ago, Shakespeare wrote many lines about its sweet scent. 

So how did this happen, or did it happen? I found that regardless of the year, most references in the 1900's complained about the lack of scent in roses. N.F. Miller in the 1947 ARS Annual stated, "There is no use kidding ourselves, most modern varieties furnish but faint traces of the glorious perfumes that used to permeate old time gardens". In the 1924 ARS Annual, an article discussed that "people today are so amazed by the perfection of the rose that they don't believe they are real, and the lack of scent doesn't help". In the same annual, George Prime said there is a definite move to win back the lost fragrance of the rose. In the 1944 ARS Annual, Mrs. Bruce Ford reminisces about the fragrant roses of her childhood and asks to give us back those fragrant roses, especially from the florists. Sitwell in Old Fashioned Flowers said about Old Garden Roses, "They possess, and this is beyond argument, better qualities of scent than their modern descendants". A.G.L. Hellyer in Simplified Rose Growing (1930) talked about Damask roses and how they passed on to Hybrid Perpetuals, "...their magnificent perfume that is so frequently absent today".

It appears that the age of scentless roses came about with the introduction of China and Tea blood into roses and the need to introduce yellows and other colors into the Hybrid Teas. In Pemberton's article, he says that because of our quest for longer blooming cycles, brilliancy in colouring, diversity of habit, and perfect form for exhibitors, fragrance is now secondary. One of the scentless roses that most references discuss is the 1901 Hybrid Perpetual, Frau Karl Druschki, a white rose with top quality blooms that, unfortunately, are scentless. George Taylor's comments on Frau Karl Druschki is that he wouldn't have the rose because it reminds him of a beautiful woman without character. He also admits that the scentless roses are necessary to create the new colors, and that sweetly scented roses are available and more of them are on the horizon. 

Of course, fragrance is subjective and is affected by climate. Another article, from India, in the 1924 ARS Annual comments that the scentless roses from America are actually very fragrant there. In the 1968 ARS Annual, Arthur Bouquet (an appropriate name), notes that many articles center around the fact that most modern roses are devoid of scent. While this may be true of a number of them, there are roses today that carry as much fragrance as roses of earlier days. He claims that 50% of today's roses have some sort of distinguishable fragrance, compared to 75% of older roses. In the 1934 ARS Annual, R. Marian Hatton, ARS Secretary, states that we still have many of "yesterday's" roses and many of them, like Frau Karl Druschki, aren't fragrant. He discusses that fragrances have changed from the heavy scent of Damasks, Centifolias, and Teas, to the different scents of today, citing Madame Cochet-Cochet as having a fragrance of clover honey. It's interesting that he discusses whether the people of the future will wonder what happened to the fragrant roses of 1934. Ortho's Enjoying Roses (1992) states that fragrance is subjective and that what pleases one nose may be offensive or nonexistent to another. The article further states that the best time to smell roses is in the morning when the sun warms the plant, thus allowing the oils to be released. It is also stated that all rose breeders are aware that there are fewer fragrant modern roses than there are fragrant Old Garden Roses.

Some people were a little stronger in their comments. N.P. Harvey in The Rose In Britain (1951) writes that "The number of modern varieties that which have a pronounced perfume, perceptible by a person with average sense of smell, and not by a trained bloodhound, is not extensive". He also suggests that if the rose is of light scent, then no reference to fragrance is to be made by the seller. On the pro-fragrance side, I can only find a few articles, each were probably in response to the flood of nonfragrant rose comments. Hennessey in Hennessey On Roses (1942) writes "Perfume in roses persists so that most modern roses manage to be fragrant in spite of, rather than because of, the rose hybridizers". He also asks "So please, before you make a solemn pronouncement as to the fragrance or lack of fragrance of any rose, be sure you observe it under numerous differing conditions". Norman Lambert in the 1936 RNRS Annual writes "Only a very small proportion of the newer meritorious introductions are lacking in scent". Tony Gregory in the 1964 RNRS Annual, fires back on the common "fact" that roses have lost their scent. He claims that modern noses have lost their smelling power and that fragrant roses are available if you know where to look. He also suggests that our noses are controlled by our eyes. In the same annual, T.C. Thacker agrees with Gregory.

And what about comments from the major rose breeders? Sam McGredy in A Family Of Roses (1972) states that breeding for fragrance is far down the line, mostly because you can't breed for it. If you breed for fragrance alone, you would lose too many other qualities. Genetically, the gene for fragrance is recessive, thus for a rose to have fragrance, both parents must have the recessive gene. As a side line, McGredy thinks the use of the word fragrance was "witty", because no one used the word in reference to roses before 1924.

Harry Wheatcroft in In Praise Of Roses (1970), discusses fragrance as being a minor component in rose breeding as only 10% is allowed in the point scoring at the rose trials. So why concentrate on 10% and not the other 90%? He also claims that breeding for fragrance is hit and miss. Two fragrant parents will not necessarily produce fragrant offspring (such is the case for Frau Karl Druschki). Only 10% of his seedlings ever have an appreciable scent. In his memory, people mostly buy roses for color first, and not so much for scent.

Wilhelm Kordes in the 1954 RNRS Annual claims that people have lost their sense of smell and that there were many old fashioned roses with little to no scent, and that many of today's roses have scents not found in older roses. He comments on breeding for fragrance by using the example of Crimson Glory, one of his most fragrant roses. Both Crimson Glory parents were scentless, as were most of its seedlings. So where did the scent come from?

The ideal rose should have great form, come on a clean and healthy plant that laughs at disease, be winter hardy, bloom a lot, have a wide range of colors available, and have a unique and pleasant fragrance. This is harder to accomplish than you think. We all know that most yellow roses have very little to no fragrance, and that most fragrant red, orange, and pink roses are mildew mongers. One day we may have a good selection of these roses, but until then, for each newly introduced variety,..."would it smell as sweet?"

© Copyright Steve Jones. All rights reserved.

This article is an ARS Award of Merit Winner, originally published in "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

For questions about Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, contact:
Kitty Belendez


Updated January 7, 2016

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