A dozen long-stemmed red roses for Valentine’s Day is all very well, but where is the fragrance? No production-line rose raised in a plastic tunnel can compete with the romantic thrill of the perfume from a rose grown in your garden — provided, of course, you choose the right one.
If you are buying from the garden centre now — and this is a good time to get them into the ground, while they are dormant — many of the old roses and shrub roses are best bets. You can still get your fragrance fix if you are short on space by growing shrub roses in big tubs, using soil-based compost. The trick is to avoid made-to-measure patio and miniature roses which have little or no fragrance.
Robert Calkin, notable perfume “nose” and former perfume lecturer, is fragrance consultant to David Austin Roses and, a keen rose grower himself, has the tricky task of describing for the catalogue the various fragrance attributes of each rose. “A rose’s fragrance should have a simplicity of character but the composition should be complex,” he says. Some roses, for instance, carry notes of myrrh, not the myrrh of the Bible, but Myrrhis odorata, or sweet cicely, which has distinctive anise-scented foliage. So if you like the smell of fennel, Calkin suggests Austin’s first rose, deep pink Constance Spry, as well as a more recent descendant, softer pink Scepter’d Isle.
Calkin even differentiates between the fragrance of petals and stamens in certain roses. Wild Edric, like all the tough rugosa roses including the outstanding magenta Roseraie de l’Hay, has a wonderfully rich, old rose fragrance, but he points out that the petals also carry hints of watercress and cucumber, while the stamens are pure clove. Either way, you are guaranteed a sublime perfume.
Some roses offer more of a full bouquet. Summer Song, a short, bushy shrub with cupped burnt orange flowers that is perfect for pots, has the scent, says Calkin, of a florist’s shop, mingled with chrysanthemum leaves, ripe bananas and tea. Petite and pretty Rosemoor’s blush-pink rosette flowers offer a frisky fragrance: old rose, with hints of apple, cucumber and violet leaf.
Today’s roses — hybrid teas, shrubs — are bred from the original tea roses imported from China, and they did smell strongly of black tea. Modern musk hybrids, soft yellow Charlotte, rich peach Port Sunlight and deep magenta Young Lycidas — voted most fragrant in US rose trials last year — all carry that fabulous tea rose fragrance, but if you like a smoky tang to your tea, Calkin recommends the divine butter-yellow Graham Thomas, which has a definite whiff of Lapsang Souchong.
The fruity notes in David Austin’s English roses derive from that original tea fragrance. I’m a fool for Lady Emma Hamilton, a beauty with unusually vibrant tangerine blooms that carry a potent perfume redolent of the most delicious fruit salad. Calkin describes it more precisely as a strong, fruity fragrance with hints of pear, grape and citrus fruits. If you, too, favour fruity-scented roses, you will love apricot-yellow Jude the Obscure, with notes of guava, citrus and sweet white wine, and Munstead Wood, renowned for its perfume of old rose with notes of blackberry, damson and blueberry that underscore the lush velvety crimson of the full blooms.
The ancient Damask roses are the ones used in the perfume industry and one of this group, Quatre Saisons, with clear pink, shaggy flowers receives Calkin’s ultimate accolade: the finest fragrance of any rose. When asked to describe it, he is at a loss but says simply: “If summer sunshine had a smell, that would be it.
“At the opening of every term, I’d cut a bloom from my garden, pass it around my students and tell them, ‘If you can create anything as beautiful as this fragrance in your lifetime, you will have achieved something.’”