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It has been said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But, do they? We've all heard the complaint that today's roses don't have the fragrance that yesterday's rose did. It's often blamed on the hybridizer, and it often seems to be true. Many an article has been written, and just about every rose book contains support for the idea. But, few offer an explanation as to why this should be the case.
The Complete Rosarian, by Norman Young, contains a very enlightening chapter on scent which relates that more hybrid teas grown prior to 1945, were rated as fragrant to very-fragrant than those raised after, based on his 1971 survey of eleven growers' lists. He places the "blame" for the reduction in scented varieties squarely on the consuming public. "If the ordinary amateur rose grower refused to buy scentless roses, they would not be put on the market. The breeder has no control over the scent of his roses; the factors which govern its appearance in new hybrids are quite unknown. So long as he knows that his best roses are still eligible for the highest show awards even though they may have no scent at all, we can hardly expect him to discard some of his finest seedlings and perhaps rob himself of a gold medal, however much he himself may regret their lack of scent. After all, he has a living to make; this is not a professional philanthropist... But it is one thing to recognize the present trend, and quite another to arrest and reverse it." (pages 132-133)
Edward LeGrice states in Rose Growing Complete, that, at least in England, the number of scented varieties is increasing, in no small part to the Royal National Rose Society making it nearly impossible to obtain the coveted Gold Medal for a scentless hybrid tea.
Jack Harkness' wonderful book, Roses, has a very interesting discussion on the chemistry of fragrance. He explains that "the alcohols and sugars which make up fragrance are stored under the inner side of the petal surfaces in "nipples" called papillae. The cuticle or petal skin must be chemically active and elastic enough to permit the storage and release of these substances. Cut flowers need thick, tough petal skins which won't bruise, rot nor be heated with alcohol. Such petals are unlikely to contain any perfume at all".
Florists and exhibitors have very similar requirements. They both need stiff, durable petals of heavy substance, able to withstand refrigeration, storage and travel. If that weren't enough, they have to withstand handling and remain looking great while being judged or presented as gifts. It's because of this waxy petal skin which gives these roses their "heavy substance" that they aren't chemically active and therefore, in most cases, have very little scent.
To take this one step further, exhibition quality is on of the most highly stressed criteria in the American Rose Society testing and ratings. So the roses with the thickest, strongest petals, and therefore the least perfume, tend to receive the highest ratings. The savvy breeder/nurseryman knows this quality in his rose will sell it to the segment of the market who will spend the extra dollar to get exactly what they want, the exhibitor. The catalog writers hype this "heavy petal substance" as a cue to the exhibitors and the public misinterprets the ratings and advertising as gauges to their general enjoyment.
W have far too many errors in retail as well as official American Rose Society registration descriptions. TROPICANA is still cataloged as having a "heavy raspberry fragrance"; BRANDY as having a "strong, spicy tea fragrance"; while STERLING SILVER, legendary for its heavy, spicy perfume, only merits a "slightly fragrant". Modern Roses 10 presents ABRACADABRA as "very fragrant"; BARBARA BUSH as possessing a "heavy damask fragrance"; BRIGADOON as "moderate spice"; GLORY DAYS as "fragrant"; and, thirty plus years after its introduction, TROPICANA as still having a "heavy fruity fragrance". These are only a few of the many examples available. This subject has interested me for a long time, and I have found no one who has agreed with the fragrance descriptions of any of these "official" reports. Either catalog writers fail to take their "noses to the roses" or they realize that "smell sells".
We vote with our dollars. By throwing our money at these cut flower favorites, we've gotten exactly what we've asked for, scentless roses. I believe it is long past time for us to make fragrance a more important characteristic in American Rose Society Trial Certificates, Gold Medals as well as in the ARS Annual's Roses In Review. Until we make selling fragrant roses more profitable, we have no room to complain.
There is hope, however. It appears that the surviving old garden roses with their moderate to strong scents are most likely the best of the breed. There have been hundreds, even thousands of Bourbons, Portlands, Damasks, Hybrid Perpetuals, etc. which did not stand the test of time, and many of them had no reference to fragrance in their descriptions. In my opinion, many of these "lost" roses probably didn't measure up to the survivors in important ways. I believe fragrance was probably one of the most significant. From searching out and collecting old hybrid teas not generally in commerce, I've seen that those old favorites still cataloged often represent the best of the breed, many of them scoring well on the fragrance scale.
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