How to smell roses – by the perfumer who taught David Austin

How to smell roses – by the perfumer who taught David Austin

Everyone knows that roses smell beautiful, but how many of us really linger to inhale the different fragrances till the notes of each plant become a familiar melody? If you were led round your garden blindfolded, could you identify your roses purely by their scent?

One man who might succeed in that test is Robert Calkin ­– one of the world’s great scent experts.

Calkin spent 40 years as a “nose-to-hire” in the perfume industry, teaching the skills required to understand and create scents for perfumes, laundry products and deodorants. As he was nearing retirement 20 years ago, he was approached through a mutual acquaintance by David Austin and asked for help in classifying consistently and accurately the scents of the plants the great rosarian was creating at his Albrighton nursery in the West Midlands. 

Though a reasonably keen sense of smell is a primary prerequisite for any career in perfumery, much of the skill also lies in what the brain does with odour perceptions and the development of an “odour memory”. Any decent trainee perfumer will learn to recognise within a few months the 200 or so main perfumery materials. For Calkin, learning to smell roses required the laying down of new odour memories and patience.

He says: “I went up to Albrighton for three days and I was completely at sea. I didn’t know what I was smelling – all these wonderful and complex scents.”

He was not helped by the fact that roses tend to be at their peak for just a few weeks in June. “For about three years I spent two or three weeks in the Austin gardens, while the roses were flowering. I was just smelling and smelling and smelling until eventually a pattern formed and I was able to produce a basic classification of rose fragrance for him.”

One of the problems we have is that there is no definitive vocabulary for describing scents. Each of us categorises fragrances by associations that are often very personal. Our ability accurately to recall smell in the sense of mentally re-experiencing it, as we can music or visual images, is limited. Calkin developed a suggested classification of five main types of rose fragrance – old rose, musk, tea, myrrh and fruity – with common associations that might help the gardener to recognise and appreciate the distinct and subtle nuances of each flower (see below).

He also developed a passion for rose history. He says: “I became really interested in the history because I wanted to know where these scents came from. I owe so much to David Austin and his head rosarian, Michael Marriott for their encouragement and for teaching me so much. I’ve found the old roses – those over 100 years old – have much purer scents than many of the modern ones. You can easily pick up the fragrance of a gallica or a pure tea rose. As roses became more hybridised the scents became more mixed.

“I think what happened in the last century is that modern breeders concentrated so much on colours and hardiness and disease resistance, that fragrance was rather overlooked. It was almost like mixing colours – you can mix two colours together and it looks beautiful but if you add a third, or a fourth and fifth, you end up with brown. All the interest goes. I think with a lot of modern roses the fragrance has simply become too complicated.”

Walking around his small garden in St Albans, Calkin points out his favourite roses from a mix of traditional and modern.

 Old rose 

First up is ‘Comte de Chambord’, a warm pink Portland rose introduced by the French breeders Moreau-Robert in 1860. Its strong delicious fragrance suggests its origins lie in the Damask roses, allegedly brought to Europe from Damascus by returning crusaders in the 13th century.

DNA analysis shows the Damask roses descend from the wild Rosa gallica (responsible for much of this ‘old rose’ perfume), the musk-scented Rosa moschata and the bran-scented Rosa fedtschenkoana.

Calkin describes the scent of ‘Comte de Chambord’ as “brilliantly warm and heady” with a spiciness coming from the moschata and fedtschenkoana ancestors.

He stoops, cupping a bloom in his hands and breathes deeply. “If I had space for just three roses, I’d have to keep a Damask because it is the rose used in perfumery and because of its history,” he says. “This is perhaps the quintessential rose fragrance. It cannot be described as anything other than pure “rose”. Quite wonderful.”

We pause to smell the pink Damask rose Quatre Saisons but struggle to pick up a strong scent. It is difficult to pinpoint when the optimum time for smelling roses is – most claim first thing in the morning, but there are many factors to take into consideration, including the weather. Our own ability to smell, has to be taken into account too. Our olfactory sensitivities decline as we grow older – particularly after the age of 60. Experienced perfumers recognise that there are points in the day when their sensitivity is heightened and many will adjust their working habits to accommodate this.

“If summer sunshine had a fragrance this would be it.” – Robert Calkin

As we stand, disappointed, over Quatre Saisons, Calkin says wistfully: “For fragrance this in my number one rose. It is perhaps the oldest rose in cultivation and I like to think perhaps the one associated with Cleopatra. It has a more brilliant fragrance than Comte de Chambord – intoxicating. If summer sunshine had a fragrance this would be it. It is very close to the fragrance of attar of roses used in perfumery which comes from another damask. It’s a shame it’s having an off day!”


The second and third roses on Calkin’s “must-haves” list are both repeat flowering climbing tea roses renowned for their fragrance – the pink hybrid tea Lady Sylvia (“one of the best cut flowers”)and the yellow Lady Hillingdon. Both of Calkin’s specimens have fallen victim to honey fungus and the old, though contested, adage that you cannot plant a rose where another has been, mean he has not been able to find space in his small retirement garden to replace them.

Calkin continues: “The first tea roses were imported from China at the beginning of the 19th century. There are a number of accounts for how the name came about. The first was that they had been bred by a nurseryman called Mr Fa Tee. Others said they were called tea roses because the seedlings were shipped over on the old tea clippers.

“The obvious explanation is quite simply that they smelled of tea and that was recognised very early on when they were often described as ‘tea-scented roses’ rather than simply ‘tea roses’.

“My ultimate authority is ‘The Rose Fancier’s Manual’ written by Catherine Gore. In it she describes the yellow tea rose of Guerin as ‘very agreeably scented with the aroma of Pekoe tea.’  That was written in 1838 and they only came over around1809. I would agree with her. To me they smell of a freshly-opened packet of China tea. They have a sort of tarry smell that is completely unrelated to the European roses – chemically absolutely different and the smell must have evolved completely differently.”

The tea scent is often associated with yellow and orange flower colour and in Calkin’s garden is now represented by a David Austin rose, Graham Thomas.


Musk comes from the scent gland of a small deer native to the Himalayas and has been used as a perfume from antiquity, firstly in China and subsequently in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the deer is now nearing extinction and is a protected species. Calkin, one of the few people to have smelled the original, says modern chemical imitations are “like the sound of a plastic violin compared with a Stradivarius” but is happy to search out hints of the scent in his own musk roses.

In musk roses the fragrances are produced by the stamens rather than the petals and are characterised by a prominent clove character similar to that in dianthus and carnation. Another type of “musk” fragrance is that of the wild field rose, thought to be the “musk rose” of Shakespeare. Here, Calkin says, the fragrance is “almost pungent, or aldehydic, as in orange peel” – not a scent represented in his garden.

In many roses a musk fragrance coming from the stamens mingles with the fragrance coming from the petals. As for example in the yellow hybrid musk, Buff Beauty – which Calkin says smells of musk, old rose, tea and violets. “It’s a complex but very beautiful fragrance and would be a candidate for my Desert Island selection. As with all musk-scented roses the fragrance has enormous carrying power. It can fill a small garden.” Calkin also recommends Paul’s Himalayan Musk (a rose I have climbing successfully through an old apple tree) and Rambling Rector, which he has climbing through a hedge on his drive.


The myrrh scent in roses is not that associated in the Bible with gold and frankincense. It refers to the wild herb Sweet Cecily, Myrrhis odorata, which has a similar sweet anisic character. The plant grows abundantly in the area of Scotland where the first myrrh scented roses were grown.

David Austin’s Scepter’d Isle rose has a strong smell of anise.

For an example of a rose with a strong myrrh fragrance, Calkin recommends a more modern Austin rose, Scepter’d Isle. “The myrrh smell comes from one single chemical, which I had isolated and had synthesised by the company I worked for. It’s an anise smell, or liquorice, found in trace amounts in other roses. But it’s a very, very powerful chemical, and you only have to have about 1% of it in the composition and it completely dominates the fragrance.”  I’ve never had Scepter’d Isle analysed but I would guess it has 2% in it.”

This is a rose I know well – a beautiful, soft, pink cup-shaped flower that I grow at home. I had struggled to pinpoint the smell, limply concluding that is was ‘peppery’. The moment Calkin says ‘anise’ I recognise what he means. It is not a smell I particularly like. “It’s a scent you either love or loathe,” says Calkin. “But it can grow on you.”

Calkin continuously alludes to chemicals responsible for each scent. “Fragrance is almost always a chemical reflection of the whole chemistry of the rose,” he explains. “The original flower fragrances were probably waste products of the plant, designed to keep a balance in the cells. If a plant gets too much sunshine it can produce an excess of things that have to be excreted. So pines and conifers produce resins, for example; roses produced scent. From there the co-evolution between flowers and insects developed. It’s generally thought that insects established their own odour memories and plant preferences. This is fortunate because it meant they kept visiting the same species of plant – a lot of pollen would have been wasted otherwise. The evolutionary process encouraged plants to develop stronger scents.

“Even Darwin himself noted that wind-pollinated flowers have little or no fragrance compared with those, like roses, that are pollinated by insects.”


For the fruity scent Calkin points out Mme Isaac Pereire – a deep pink bourbon, which has a warm and powerful fruity fragrance. “Someone once described it as smelling like a French boudoir. I’m afraid that is not an association I can lay claim to.”

Mme Isaac Perreire

We have missed another important historic rose, Old Blush, which is not in flower. Calkin says: “It’s an unassuming rose, introduced into Europe from China in 1789. It was crossed with a number of European roses to give many of the most important groups of roses grown today. It is very shy about producing its own fragrance and when it does it smells of sweet pea but it was largely responsible for the repeat flowering of modern roses and for the introduction of fruity fragrances.

“It’s important to understand that the fragrance that results from a cross between two roses is not just a blend of those of the parents but of the hybrid chemistry of the two. So, for example, the fruity character of the bourbon roses – one parent of which is thought to be Old Blush – is not found in either parent but is the result of the alcohols of the European roses being converted into esters.”

As we stand beneath ‘Mme Alfred Carrière‘ – the climbing noisette bred by Schwarz in 1879 – Calkin explains how the age of the flower can affect the scent. “That’s an interesting example of a fruity smell,” he says. “It’s got quite a complex ancestry. It begins when the flowers first open in the spring.

“It’s got a lovely light old rose, fresh clean, beautiful fragrance, slightly citrus – a little bit lemon. As it ages it goes to grapefruit and then to blackcurrant. And as it ages even further it can smell of cat pee. And in fact grapefruit, blackcurrant and cat pee are all chemically related.”

For those wishing to learn to recognise different scents, Calkin recommends starting by focusing on two different roses and smelling them against each other to develop an odour memory.  Enjoy!

Robert Calkin’s classification of rose fragrance

Old Rose – The typical fragrance which we think of as rose.  Associated with the old European gallica roses, descended from the wild Rosa gallica, and their descendants, the damasks, centifolias, and albas. Found also in the Rugosa roses coming from China and Japan. In many we can find hints of lemon, almond, honey, hyacinth and watercress. Also from the stamens, clove and cinnamon and in the Rugosas, sometimes, cucumber.

Tea – Found in roses originating in China. Typically tarry, earthy, humid fragrances often with a rich violet character. In its purest form, smelling of a freshly-opened packet of China tea. Occasional fruity hints of apricot. The malt whiskies of the rose world.

Musk – Fragrance coming from the stamens Three main types; clove, aldehydic and cut grass/banana. Often in combination with fragrance coming from the petals.

Myrrh –Sweet anise-like fragrance often associated with that of the Old Rose fragrance though in modern roses sometimes with Tea.

Fruity – Many fruity notes are found in roses derived from crosses between the old European roses and ancient roses coming from China. Notable are the bourbon roses which fall into two groups: those with a fresh slightly grassy character (Souvenir de la Malmaison) and those with a warm, heady character (Mme Isaac Pereire). Fruity notes are also found in many of the noisette roses (Mme Alfred Carriere). Look for lemon, grapefruit, apple, pear raspberry strawberry, peach, apricot melon, grape, lychee, and guava.

Other fruity fragrances and linseed oil – Many of the Wichuraiana roses have a strong apple character; while those related to Rosa foetida have an oily association

China roses – Roses have been grown in China for well over a thousand years and many of the ancient hybrids show an extraordinary range of fragrance. Apart from Tea, there are those smelling of patchouli, sweet pea. violet, spilled beer, and chocolate. China roses have had a considerable impact on the fragrances of their hybrids with European roses.

Thomas Edison, plant patenting and a New Dawn

Thomas Edison, plant patenting and a New Dawn

The acclaimed inventor, Thomas Edison, seems an unlikely hero to rose lovers, but his contribution to plant breeding is not inconsequential and the story bizarre enough to warrant telling.


Henry Ford, fishing with Harvey Firestone, Christian and Thomas Edison

In 1915, Edison (by then 68 years old), along with his great friends, carmaker Henry Ford, tyre manufacturer Harvey Firestone and the naturalist, John Burroughs, decided to go on holiday together.

They undertook to live under canvas and “cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.” It was an adventure they were to undertake several times over the course of the next nine years, caravanning through the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, New England and North Michigan. At one point they visited President Coolidge at his home in Vermont. President Harding joined them in 1921.

Thomas Edison camping. From the collections of The Henry Ford

The “Vagabonds”, as they called themselves, were not exactly slumming it. Newspaper photos show them sitting at a camp table in formal shirts and ties, waited on by a butler. Their entourage on some trips stretched to as many as 50 chauffeured vehicles (all Fords, with Firestone tyres, of course). A media circus (including Ford Motor Company film crews) followed their adventures, which generated newspaper headlines like: “Millions of dollars’ worth of brains off on a vacation” and “Genius to sleep under stars”.

Images clockwise from top left:
The trips were supported by an entourage of trucks, Henry Ford, President Warren Harding and others dining on a Vagabonds trip in 1921 – women in hats, men in bow ties and the biggest Lazy Susan you have ever seen! (From the collections of The Henry Ford), Roughing it outdoors
The Vagabonds on a camping trip in 1923. (From the collections of The Henry Ford Museum)

On this first adventure they visited the great Californian American plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849-1926).

Burbank was famous for having developed more than 800 new plant varieties, including flowers (amaryllis and hybrid lilies), fruit (a white blackberry, developed from more than 65,000 hybrid bushes) and vegetables, including a late blight-resistant potato, the Burbank potato– a response to the Irish potato famine.

Burbank was comfortably well off, largely due to an early inheritance, but none of his discoveries could be patented under contemporary plant patenting law. He complained to friends: “A man can patent a mousetrap or copyright a nasty song, but if he gives to the world a new fruit that will add millions to the value of earth’s annual harvest he will be fortunate if he is rewarded by so much as having his name connected with the result.”


Plant patenting


In 1889, rejecting an application to patent a fibre found in pine needles, a US Patent Office commissioner had summed up the general consensus of the time when he declared that if it were allowed: “patents might be obtained upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth, which of course would be unreasonable and impossible.”

It meant effectively that the plant originator’s only hope of financial reimbursement was – as Congress was to note later – “through high prices for the comparatively few reproductions that he may dispose of during the first two or three years.” After that, the discovery was likely to be reproduced in unlimited quantity by all. It was the big nurseries that could multiply the stock and sell it rapidly who profited most.

Many plant breeders therefore chose to sell their discoveries to a nursery to start with to make what capital they could. Burbank, for instance, sold the rights to his eponymous potato for $150.

The situation was similar in Europe. In 1880 the Rouen rose breeder Armand Garçon sold the rights to his fuscia pink Bourbon, Le Bienheureux de la Salle,to Jacques Julien Margotin, the nurseryman who thirty years earlier had introduced the world to Louise Odier.

Margotin renamed Garçon’s rose Mme Isaac Pereire, after a wealthy patron – the widow of a Parisian financier. (There was controversy in 1882 when he showed it in London, claiming the credit as breeder of this new discovery. The Rouen Central Horticultural Society wrote in protest and Garçon’s name was reinstated as breeder).

To Edison, who over his lifetime accumulated 2,332 patents worldwide for his inventions and was regularly in the courts defending or litigating patent breaches, this was a nonsensical way to do business.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, 1921 Camping Trip. From the collections of The Henry Ford Museum

He clearly sympathised with Burbank. Maybe it was while sitting under the stars over the post-prandial whiskeys, that the idea came to them – in 1927 Edison, Ford and Firestone launched a joint business venture. The Edison Botanic Research Corporation was to look for alternative sources of rubber in US plants.

With a legitimate business interest of his own now at stake, Thomas Edison joined those lobbying for a change in the patent law. Giving evidence to Congress in favour of plant patenting, he argued that it would “give us many Burbanks”. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia (of LaGuardia Airport fame), retorted: “Luther Burbank did very well without protection.”


Plant Patent Act


But Edison’s arguments held sway. In May 1930 his efforts were rewarded when Herbert Hoover signed the US Plant Patent Act (as part of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that introduced tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods worsening the economic depression already hitting the country).

The Act gave the holder of the patent exclusive rights for 17 years to propagate a plant by asexual reproduction – “grafting, budding, cutting, layering, division, and the like” – but not by seeds. Tubers were also excluded.

 “The new plant-patent bill will be a great boon to agriculture and plant development. I am elated at its passage and believe it will surprise every one by its results in the coming years. Luther Burbank would have been a rich man if he had been protected by such a patent bill. As a rule, the plant breeder is a poor man, with no opportunity for material reward. Now he has a grubstake.” – Thomas Edison

The restriction to asexual plants meant the legislation did not have quite the impact Edison anticipated, but it did benefit rose breeders. In the 40 years to the end of 1970 only 6,000 plant patents had been granted under the legislation and 60% of these were for roses (compared with three and a half million patents for mechanical, chemical and electrical inventions)[1].


‘New Dawn’


On Monday July 27, 1931, the New York Times reported that the world’s first plant patent had been awarded – to Henry F Bosenberg and assigned to Louis C Schubert, of the Somerset Rose Nursery, both of New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Rosa New Dawn

“The patent covers ‘a climbing or trailing rose’, the ‘new dawn,’ and the patentable feature is its ‘everblooming’ character. The rose is described as identical with the Dr Van Fleet climbing rose, except that instead of blooming once a year it blooms successively after the manner of everblooming tea roses.”

Bosenberg had discovered the rose in 1926 after buying a dozen ‘Dr Van Fleet’ roses (one of the most commonly grown in America at the time) from his brother, August – part-owner of the Somerset Nursery named on the initial patent claim. He sold 11 and “heeled in” the 12th. He said it was “like Topsy and just grew”.

The paper continues: “The plant bloomed as usual but then continued to give blooms during the entire summer… he decided the rose was a ‘freak’ when it continued to bloom until November. The following year he budded 200 plant with ‘eyes’ from the ‘freak’” and sold them to his brother.

The Indiana Gazette in August 1931 reports how the Department of Agriculture’s Chief of the Bureau of Plant Industry, to whom the application was transmitted, was initially sceptical, seeing no difference between it and the well-known Dr. W. Van Fleet rose, of which it was a sport. Bosenberg had to submit affidavits in support of his repeat flowering assertion. His claim took over a year to process.

Even with a plant patent behind them it was clearly still more profitable to sell the rights on to a large nursery. In October 1931 the Times and Democrat, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, reported that the Henry A Dreer Company, in Philadelphia, had “captured exclusive distribution for this country. Publicity already in ink proves that that astute corporation realizes the advertising possibilities of a long sought variety – and also of US Patent No. 1.”

That same month Thomas Edison died. The New York Times obituarist reported that he had spent his final years at Fort Myers in Florida, where “he experimented with a miniature rubber plantation and tried out several thousand varieties of plants which he thought might produce rubber or textiles or some other valuable product.”

It took more than three decades for Britain to pass similar patenting legislation – the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act of 1964.

Nurturing innovation

Today international plant patent law has been extended beyond asexually reproducing plants and it still prompts controversy. The argument between Edison and La Guardia continues too. Has plant patenting really encouraged innovation?

Britain’s most famous rose breeder, David Austin, introduced his first creation, Constance Spry, in 1961 – three years before he could apply for a patent here. Over a 70-year career he has created more than 230 varieties and built a major family business at his nursery in Albrighton, Shropshire, which today employs about 160 people.

Could he have achieved the same success without patent protection? The head rosarian at the nursery, Michael Marriott, says: “Almost certainly not on the scale that the nursery is today. Breeding new varieties of roses is a hugely expensive business – the annual bill for that is over £1 million – and to finance that without the benefit of protection would be impossible.

“To get the three varieties that we usually introduce at the Chelsea Flower Show we initially do about 150,000 crosses, which produces around 300,000 seeds. From this we get about 150,000 seedlings, of which 10,000 will be selected in the first year of flowering and the rest will be rejected. Over the next eight years the number of selections are gradually reduced until we have just the three left that are then named. Protecting the roses means we can control the nurseries that grow our roses to ensure the quality is kept high and also that we receive an income from the royalties.”

The 1930 plant patenting law may not have created quite the new dawn of innovation that Edison envisaged, but if it has been responsible for the committed breeding programmes of modern commercial rose nurseries it has been a significant benefit to modern rose lovers.


[1]Patents, Trademarks and Related Rights: national and international protection – Stephen Pericles Ladas, Harvard University Press 1975

Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

The Office for National Statistics estimates that between 1970 and 2013 the population of house sparrows in the UK declined by 72%. 

I am very lucky in having a gang of sparrows noisily chasing each other around my garden, flitting from rose to rose picking out the greenfly and anything else tasty they can find.

Gardeners have not always been so affectionate towards the sparrow. William Watson, editor of the  Gardener’s Assistant, writing in 1900 had a particular aversion to them. He wrote:

The sparrow, or ‘Avian Rat’, is the most troublesome and mischievous of all British birds, whether in the corn or seed-fields, or gardens… Incessant war should be waged against the sparrow, the worst of all feathered pests.”

19th century French roses: Mme Alfred Carriére

It’s difficult to understand this hatred for sparrows, but Watson, who was assistant curator at the Royal Gardens in Kew, was not alone.  

Sparrow clubs

From the 18th century onwards, many agricultural parishes had “sparrow clubs” whose members were rewarded for destroying the birds and went into battle with typical Victorian excess. The Bucks Herald reported in May 28th 1892 that the “Tring and District Sparrow Club made a record of destroying 5,345 sparrows in the last five months. 20,000 were destroyed over the whole area and prizes were given.”

Many Victorians understood the value of the birds in eating caterpillars and keeping down garden pests – a pamphlet from the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales published in 1862 makes this clear:

“Even sparrows may be included in the list of useful birds, notwithstanding the damage they cause at times to the orchard or cornfield, because they feed their young (which have very good appetites) exclusively upon larva, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, worms, or ants; and both old and young at the end of summer are constantly filling their crops with the seeds of weeds. A couple of sparrows will consume in food for their young about 3000 insects weekly, each parent bringing a bill-full 30 times an hour. These services are well worth a few cherries. The field-sparrow does not, moreover, eat cherries, and a small number of these birds will soon cleanse many shrubs and rose-trees from the aphis.”

 In 1865 The Gateshead Observer, responding to news that one individual at a sparrow club in southern England had killed 6,000 birds, quoted the President of the Naturalists’ Field Club, the Rev G. C Abbs, who calculated that those 6,000 sparrows would have eaten 6,307,000,000 caterpillars. And noted: “While the clodhoppers of Sussex are killing sparrows by the thousand, the Australian colonists are importing them at considerable expense from England, to act the part of protectors of the crops.”

Others pointed out that farmers had themselves to blame if there were too many sparrows – they had also killed the sparrow hawks that kept populations in control. The lesson about ecological balance was not learned. In 1958 Mao Zedong launched the “smash sparrows campaign” in China to protect crops. So many were killed it resulted in a surge in the locust and insect populations, which stripped the fields, causing famine.

Tree sparrows

My sparrows are house sparrows. Watson was writing mainly for landowners and the owners of stately homes (or their armies of gardeners). The sparrows he was contending with may have been tree sparrows (which the ONS records show have declined by 90% since 1970 in the UK).

Maybe their numbers were so great that they were a pest. But for a humble town gardener like me, these birds are a rich blessing.

Watson, for all his vitriol adopted a humane policy of ‘pest control’ – chasing off the birds.

“In the case of orchards and large quantities of valuable seed cultures, a boy may be engaged to scare away birds. Scarecrows are generally so evidently a burlesque on anything real that birds take pleasure in sitting upon them.”

Zephrine Drouhan (pink rose) is highly susceptible to greenfly. Also pictured, Mme Hardy (white rose)

In my small walled garden I have now over 60 roses. I leave fatballs and seed out for the sparrows – and occasionally treat them to some dried mealworm. In return they strip my roses of greenfly. 

Occasionally the weight of the sparrows as they perch cheekily on a rose stalk hunting their prey does cause damage, but I am happy to tolerate that for the benefits they bring.


Banner image – Prasan Shrestha, CC BY-SA 4.0

Shaky start: The launch of the first national rose show

Shaky start: The launch of the first national rose show

On the eve of the London Rose Show I thought I would share an amusing (by Victorian standards) account of the first national rose exhibition, which took place in the capital in July 1858.


It was the brainchild of the rosarian cleric Dean Reynolds Hole, who was upset that other flowers had exhibitions dedicated purely to them, but not the rose.

“There deepened in my heart an indignant conviction that the flower of flowers did not receive its due share of public honours,” he wrote later in A book about Roses.

Samuel Reynolds Hole, from Vanity Fair 1895

In April 1857 he suggested in The Florist magazine the idea of a GRAND NATIONAL ROSE SHOW – “a feast of Roses, at which the whole brotherhood might meet in love and unity, to drink, out of cups of silver, success to the Queen of Flowers”.

He waited with bated breath for a response. “I felt confident that the world would be pleased… Should I be chaired at the London flower-shows? Perhaps I should be made a baronet. For some days after the publication of the magazine I waited anxiously at home. I opened my letters nervously, but the public made no sign. Had it gone wild with joy? Or were its emotions too deep for words? Weeks passed and it was still mute.”

So he wrote to the country’s leading rosarians – Rivers, Paul and Turner – to ask if they would help him organise the event. To Hole’s delight, all three wrote back quickly in assent. “I remember that in the exuberance of my joy I attempted foolishly a perilous experiment, which quickly ended in bloodshed – I began to whistle in the act of shaving.”

The four met in Piccaddilly to organise the event. Each put forward £5 and then others joined till there was £200 in the kitty – £156 of prize money was proposed, 36 silver cups ordered and 30 guineas splashed out on booking St James’s Hall. On the day of the exhibition carpenters and labourers invaded the hall in the early hours to set up long tables covered in baize ready for the exhibitors to set up.

“Half the nurseries of England poured their treasures into St James’s Hall” – Dr Lindley wrote in the Gardener’s Chronicle afterwards. All was set.

Lawrence Hall, home of this year’s London Rose Show

As he stepped forward to open the doors, Hole was understandably nervous. Clearly, he was also worried that they had spent more than was perhaps prudent.

“Would the public endorse our experiment? Would the public appreciate our Show? There was a deficiency of £100 in our funds for the expenses of the exhibition were £300; and as a matter both of feeling and finance I stood by the entrance as the clock struck two, anxiously to watch the issue. No long solicitude. More than fifty shillings – I humbly apologise – more than fifty intelligent and good-looking individuals were waiting for admission; and these were followed by continous comers until the Hall was full. A gentleman who earnestly asked my pardon for having placed his foot on mine, seemed perplexed to hear how much I liked it, and evidently thought that my friends were culpable in allowing me to be at large. Great indeed was my gladness in seeing those visitors – more than 2,000 in number – but far greater in hearing their hearty words of surprise and admiration.”

The roses exhibited even “defied and defeated with their delicious perfume the foul smell which at that time invaded London from the Thames.”

In this sister blog you can read the story of how a group of gardening framework knitters in Nottingham converted Hole into a rose lover.

Constance Spry – David Austin’s first rose

Constance Spry – David Austin’s first rose

Born in Derby, Constance Spry achieved celebrity for her flower arranging – and quite late in life. It’s hard to imagine, but she really did shock the staid florists – and the public – of the 1950s (and in her 50s) with what she could do with some greenery and a pair of secateurs.

She broke many existing conventions, for instance, setting up large flower arrangements on pedestals and using unusual plants, like hedgerow flowers, decorative kale or leek seed heads in her arrangements. She was daring with colours, favouring smoky pinks and lime greens.

She was also a very successful businesswoman. One of her big breaks was securing  a regular order from Granada Cinemas – yes, flower arrangements in cinemas! At one point she had a shop in Mayfair and employed over 70 staff.

Constance Spry at work

In 1952 she was commissioned to arrange the flowers at Westminster Abbey and along the processional route from Buckingham Palace for the coronation of Elizabeth II.

She died in 1960 at the age of 74 and was honoured by an up and coming rose breeder from the West Midlands, David Austin, a year after her death when he named his first rose after her.

Constance Spry in the garden

Constance is a tough old bird – she survived builders trying to concrete around her and coat her in brick dust in our garden, and still came back as glamorous as ever.

The blooms are big and blousy, there are plenty of them and the scent is strong.

David Austin has gone on to create many beautiful roses since 1961, but his first is still one of the best and remains one of my favourites.

Roses – great if you smell like a goat

Roses – great if you smell like a goat

“To cure the goat-like stench of armpits, it is useful to press and rub the skin with a compound of roses.” – French hygienist 1572


Keeping clean was beyond the capabilities of most in the 16th century. In fact, after the Black Death many considered water simply opened the pores to contagion – safer (though perhaps not sweeter) to give yourself a bit of a wipe with a dry, perfumed cloth.

Roses were used in medicine for centuries as a cure-all for ailments, including worms, wind, back ache and sore eyes. The 16th century herbalist Gerard recommended a morning salad of Musk rose petals as a purge of “waterish and choleric humours”.

Though possibly efficacious – the cure was said to produce six to eight stools for every twelve to fourteen Musk flowers consumed – the treatment was not without its disadvantages. It could only be given from June to October and no doubt emptied the patient’s rose garden as quickly as his bowels.

Going back even further, in ancient Chinese medicine dried rose hips were used as a male anaphrodisiac to blunt the libido. They were also believed to help loss of hearing.