Everything’s Coming Up Roses…

2nd March 2012

The proliferation of roses on Valentine’s Day set me thinking recently about the history and versatility of this lovely plant. Researching this piece has increased my appreciation of them still further, and I proudly declare myself a rosarian, says Mary Linehan.

Forced to choose, it’s the one flower I could never cut out of any garden of mine. I don’t tend to buy them for indoors, mainly because it’s so hard to get beautifully scented ones, but I do love everything about them…

I knew, for example, that for the most beautiful and opulent plants one should go to David Austin; their annual catalogue is probably the most beautifully designed and informative there is – coffee table quality in fact. What I didn’t know is that the rose has been around for millions of years and is indigenous to the northern hemisphere. Or that the thorns are prickles, and that it’s actually a fruit tree. (That’s apparently why deadheading roses is so important – not only to encourage new growth, but to stop the plant reverting to its fruity heritage. And there was I, thinking that the rosehips were perfect winter interest as well as seed pods!).

Nor was I aware that at the start of the 18th century there were about 24 rose species, but that by the end of it, thanks to the prolific hybridising antics of the French and Dutch, there were hundreds.

The origin of the association with love and beauty seems to have its roots in Greek and Roman mythology, and later with Christianity as a symbol of the Blessed Virgin. Drilling down further into the symbolism, different coloured roses have their own symbolic meanings – red is love, white is purity, yellow is happiness and so forth.

Roses have been valued ingredients for health, beauty and perfumery for even longer. When it was first used medically in folk remedies (especially popular in China), the full benefit wouldn’t have been known – but the rosehip is a rich source of vitamins, including A, C, D and E and B3. It also delivers the exceptional antioxidant lypocene, plus bioflavonoids, chemical compounds that are themselves potent antioxidants and that support the role of vitamin C. They are also rich in essential fatty acids – the big ingredient for the skin and brain health.

Its anti-inflammatory properties mean that it can be used for joint pain and the vitamin content makes it a brilliant booster for the immune system. It’s also anti-bacterial. No wonder that it’s used so prolifically in skincare.

Helen Amrosen, Product Inventor at Lush, works by hand utilising rose in its purest and most natural and high-grade form in many of the company’s freshly made creams and lotions. That’s rare for a major international skincare brand. She says, “It is very beautiful, very mild, very luxurious and very beneficial to the skin. It’s incredibly good for dry skin due to its resinous nature, and especially for sensitive skins.”

Lush uses rose petals and rose absolute in its Skin Drink face moisturiser, one of its best-selling products. Created for skin that’s sensitive with a tendency to redness, it can help to treat broken capillaries, allergies and inflammation. Rose absolute is also in Lush’s signature body moisturiser Dream Cream, which drenches the skin in hydration without being greasy, and is a fantastic skin saviour as an antidote to eczema or sunburn.

Apart from the heritage, if you’re lucky enough to work with pure rose, it’s a particularly heady experience. In aromatherapy, rose is used for its reputed anti-depressant values and ability to invoke happiness and positivity. Hardly a surprise then, that Helen finds it such a joy to work with.

Local perfumer John Bailey is a scent historian, artisan creator of beautifully crafted bespoke fragrances, and the appointed purveyor of the Royal National Rose Society’s collection of classic rose scents. A self-confessed rosarian, he has contributed many pieces for magazines and books, including The Spirit of the Rose, by David Lloyd and Annie Beagent, written in praise of this evocative and beloved flower. John has an encyclopaedic knowledge of rose – including the fact that the organisation’s original signature scent, named Society Rose, was inspired by the very first fragrance of a certain François Coty dating back to 1903.

Rose is one of the most expensive and refined ingredients in perfumery, in no small measure because it takes something like 10 kilos of petals to produce 2-3 grammes of rose oil. The two types of rose cultivated for perfumery – rosa damascena and centifolia – bring their own exoticism to the process. Damask is mainly cultivated in Bulgaria, Turkey, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, with the centifolia, or May Rose, mainly grown in Morocco, France and Egypt. Even China is getting in on the act now.

The oil used to produce a scent depends on the extraction process, though, rather than the location, and is either rose otto, the product of steam distillation, or rose absolute from chemical extraction.

John points out that rose is one of the first raw materials that every aspiring perfumer is required to study. “An indisputable material that is a pillar on which perfumery is founded”, he calls it. “It is so substantial that it only takes a very little amount to create a wonderful aromatic depth to a fragrance that lasts a long time.”

John believes that rose lovers all over the world might perhaps never agree on the scent of a particular rose, since they are so complex and substantive. And there’s such a wide variety of sensory hits within the different rose varieties, from fruity hints of peach, apple, or apricot, to more honeyed tones of myrrh and rich tea. Other varieties exude mossy, or leafy green tones or citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit. And then there are the sensual spicy notes or velvety musks of others. It’s as complex as wine-tasting. But, to quote John further, “The art and craft of the perfumer is to capture the alluring scents from flowers and blossoms, to create and compose, blend and dispense their precious essences into bottles.”

Personal Perfumer Sarah McCartney has been newly inducted to the world of bespoke fragrance. She uses real rose for its smooth cool sophisticated scent, but adds, “Genuine, natural rose can be tricky to work with because the scent varies according to where it was grown, or how many days of rain or sunshine there were that particular season.” Again, just like wine.

In Sarah’s experience of working on bespoke scents, “People often think they don't like rose in perfumes because they've smelled too many strong synthetic versions. Then they're amazed to find that they love scents that have rose in them.” As she says, some of the most commercial rose scents, with rose in the name, came straight from a factory, and there's no real rose in there… “It's easy to see how they'd get the wrong idea.”

Lovers of pure rose have to look much harder to find a scent not laden with synthetics and so it tends to be the work of an artisan or even aromatherapist, but there are, thankfully, some to explore: The Perfumers Rose by John Bailey, for example, is described as a beautiful bouquet of old roses; the old-fashioned floral Classique by Alec Lawless at Essentially-Me.co.uk with rose otto and rose de mai at its heart; Lush’s Imogen Rose: all worth checking out.

Rose makes great jams and marmalades, and even soup, and it also makes a traditional Hungarian tipple called palinka. It’s very potent – just like the rose itself. Raise a glass to this most versatile of flowers…

Further information:
Lush – www.lush.co.uk, or visit Lush, The Harlequin
The Perfumers Guild Ltd. – visit www.theperfumersguild.com
Sarah McCartney – sarah@sarahmccartney.com
Essentially-Me – www.essentially-me.co.uk
David Austin roses – www.davidaustinroses.com
Spirit of the Rose - David Lloyd & Annie Beagent: ISBN No 09543939-0-2

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