Every summer for years, my family would pack up the station wagon and drive north to Long Island. There we would chug as far as Bay Shore and then take a ferry out to Fire Island.
Now Fire Island, for those who do not live in the New York Area, is (was?) a rather humble resort built on a very long sand bar sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is distinguished from that other Long Island based summer playground The Hamptons by the much more modest nature of the people who go there. If it’s Polo in the Hamptons, then it’s table tennis on Fire Island, or if it’s foie gras in Sag Harbour, it’s clam chowder and weenies in Lonelyville. We had a rackety old beach house there, and would spend four flip-flopped weeks every summer simply going back and forth to the beach and acquiring a tan and getting scratched by the miles and miles of rugosa roses that (along with poison ivy) grew all over the island.
To this day I can’t think of a rose scent which I like better than the smell of dune roses. There have been a couple of attempts by perfumers to capture it, but it is always wrong. Ecume de Rose by Les Parfums de Rosine, a rose scent with water lily and aquatic notes in it as well as rose, is light and pleasant. It does not smell like rugosa roses to me. The other entrant in the sweepstakes is a new Rosine Une Rose au Bord de la Mer a limited edition featuring immortelle and labdanum along with bergamot, musk, jasmine and oh rose of course. I haven’t smelt it, but can tell from the notes that it doesn’t smell like rugosas.
Then there is Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Beach Roses which introduces a distinct aquatic note into the rose bouquet along with some geranium- but it doesn’t smell like rugosas! Nothing does.
The plain truth is that rugosas do not smell of salt or sand, although you can smell those things in the vicinity of seaside rugosas. Actually what rugosas smell of is rose, almost a tea rose scent, and then cloves, or possibly mace. There is something like cardamom going on in the background, and the whole thing is less sweet than many rose smells. Before it is anything else, rugosa is spicy, and it’s this that I miss. When hips are on the bush along with the roses-which often happens-then there’s a fruity tart smell as well that recalls rose hip jam.
So you can see the actual perfume of rugosas if it existed would look more like this:
Top: rose, cardamom, apple, saline note
Heart: rose, clove, mace, apple blossom
Base: rose, cedarwood, driftwood
Well, I’m no perfumer, and I suppose you’d have to fool with the notes a bit, but I’m pretty sure that this is what I smelled on Fire Island, and what I smell every summer now on the Jersey Shore. So far it seems no one has tried to put it in a bottle.