Since I am not only a fragrance enthusiast but also a rose nut (we prefer the term rosarian) every year that comes by, I look at catalogs and dream. Unfortunately, these dreams can’t always be turned into reality. My space at my current address is limited, but I’ve already found a way to cram the largest rose on my street into a garden bed that is too small for it. After doing that, I did the eminently sensible thing, and found two other roses at a local nursery which got taken home and fussed over, dosed and clipped, and cosseted like prize poodles. Then to top it all off, I rustled two roses from the doomed garden of an abandoned building.
The trouble is that I’m looking to re-create the lushness, the sheer delight, of cascades of roses all around. I only pulled that off once, and the effect requires space, and ideally, old fashioned varieties.
Back then I had the luck to discover Roses of Yesterday and Today- the post illustration is from their 1951 catalog that I found in a used bookshop and bought for fifty cents. The firm still exists, and you can go and read their poetic descriptions online (and what is even more wonderful, their customers descriptions) of old roses in the garden. The majority of what is on their list is either antique or else hard to find. Almost all are fragrant, some varieties intensely so.
If I could buy anything from them now, one of my first selections would be the venerable climber, City of York. This produces a bushel full of creamy white loose blossoms that are pale yellow in the middle and fragrant. For more serious perfume, the once blooming, but prolific, old fashioned Constance Spry, with its pink cabbage shaped blooms straight out of a chintz pattern, and an incense fragrance. You can get a whoosh of essence from them, and who would want to miss that? Plus, just armloads of flowers, and when you have roses, you can never have too many.
One of the most fascinating aspects of growing roses is the broad spectrum of fragrances you can inhale. Non-rosarians seldom realize just how wide the scent strip for roses is, comprising everything from myrrh to lemons. Some ancient rose families, the Damasks for instance, have the most conventionally rose fragrance. You smell them and say, oh, rose, and there’s no surprise there except how sweet and pervasive it is. If you haven’t had the luck to smell old damasks in bloom, you sometimes come across their un-mistakable distilled rosiness even in modern hybrid teas.
Unfortunately, most old roses are not very prepossessing in the garden. They have slightly gray or matte foliage, and flower only once, but their perfume is just exactly what you dream of in rose fragrances.
More modern, showier, but still in a 1715 Watteau palette, are the hybrid musks. Kathleen from 1922 would be my choice there, with its apple blossom flowers and great generosity of bloom. As to the scent of Kathleen and other Hybrid Musks, “On a summer breeze the perfume is intoxicating, sometimes perceptible yards away. It’s a blending of the hot honeyed scent of R. Multiflora, some clove, and the orris of Tea Rose in varying amounts…” write Leonie Bell, and Helen Van Pelt Wilson in The Fragrant Year.
Last but not least, there has to be that one old reliable red rose, really fragrant, tough, a comer every year, with a bouquet of saturated blood red blooms. I could go with several varieties here, but Hortulanus Budde (no I’m not making it up) from 1919 is my probable selection. A big old true crimson with an imposing perfume, the perfect Valentine’s Day rose, and best of all, they still sell it. Just how romantic is that?
Does anyone bottle the quintessence of rose perfume? Only Creed came close to my mind with Fleur de The Rose Bulgare. If you know any unadulterated, straight up rose perfumes, please do share.
My illustrations are from the top: Constance Spry from The Antique Rose Emporium catalog, Kathleen also from The Antique Rose Emporium, and good old Hortulanus Budde from Roses of Yesterday and Today.