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!”

Tea

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

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.

Myrrh

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.”

Fruity

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.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.