The Damask rose is the most fragrant of all the roses; its scent is not released into the air but contained within the petals. For this reason, it is used in the production of attar of roses, the essential oil that is believed to most faithfully reproduce the true scent of the rose. The compounds that produce the distinctive rose scent are beta-damascenone, beta-damascone and beta-ionone. These comprise less than one per cent of rose oil but account for 90 per cent of the fragrance.
But the true glory of rose scent is the great variety that exists among the species – other compounds give notes of apple, balsam, myrrh, clove, musk, honey, wine and tea. Some scent the air, while others need to be inhaled at close quarters.
While almost all roses are fragrant to a greater or lesser degree – a few have good looks and no perfume at all – those highlighted here all pack a powerful, perfumed punch. Plant them close to where you sit and they will scent the air. To cut them for the house, do so early in the day and when they are half-open and ready to be pollinated. That way you will enjoy the most fragrance. The wafts of scent will be strongest on sunny days.
01. Gertrude Jekyll
The exquisite planting schemes of the inspirational and influential English garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, earned her an international reputation and won her many awards. David Austin introduced a rose named in her honor in 1986; it has since gone on to become one of the most popular roses in his collection.
Apart from being a rose of great beauty, Gertrude Jekyll is deservedly famous for its exceptional perfume; the blooms exude an intensely powerful Old-rose fragrance. The small, dark pink buds open with a speedy flourish into fulsome, dusky pink rosettes but this demure rose attempts to conceal its sepals underneath an artfully pleated spiral of petals. The flowers open to an impressive diameter of 11cm (4½in).
This vigorous shrub can be trained as a climber against a wall and will grow taller in warm climates. Just make sure you plant it near the house, where the fragrance can float in through open windows, or against a pergola you like to sit beneath, so you can breathe in the heady perfume. It needs to be deadheaded and pruned lightly through the summer to keep the flowers coming. Often, things of such beauty have to have one flaw – and in the case of Gertrude Jekyll it is her rather vicious array of thorns. Wear gloves, she scratches!
Gertrude Jekyll took the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1994. It was voted Britain’s favourite flower in the BBC television’s Gardener’s World poll in 2006.
02. Winchester Cathedral
All roses are beautiful but Winchester Cathedral has the full package – beauty and fragrance. It buds a mix of raspberry-cream and green that fades to the palest shell-pink as it begins to unfurl, fading further as it opens into a frilly white ruff of a rose. The petals are cupped initially, then reflex to reveal curls of inner petals and occasionally the merest hint of gold stamens. The flowers, which reach around 10cm (4in) in diameter, are borne on long, thorny stems, which are the only downside. The blooms have a glorious fragrance – a honeyed Old rose with notes of almond blossom.
This is a superb garden shrub that is splendid as part of a mixed border; the blooms also make exceptional flowers for cutting. It is a sport of David Austin’s Mary Rose and sometimes reverts back to its parent, but this is almost a bonus, as it then produces the odd flower, or stem, of pink blooms.
David Austin introduced this rose in 1998; it was named to mark Winchester Cathedral’s 900th year. The cathedral has a history dating back to the seventh century. It is the burial place of King Alfred the Great, King Cnut and King William II, better known as the quick-tempered William Rufus. It is also where Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest child and queen of England from 1553 to 1558, chose to marry Philip of Spain. Given the symbolism of the rose to both church and monarchy, Austin could not have chosen a more fitting salute than this perfect white rose.
Felicia is a charming Parisian corsage of a rose, though it was actually introduced by the esteemed, and very English, Reverend Joseph Hardwick Pemberton, in 1928. He is famous for creating a number of beautiful Hybrid Musks, Felicia included. The parentage results in many of these roses being Floribunda in form – producing great bunches of flowers, with a strong Musk-rose perfume. The sheer abundance of blooms ensures that their fragrance floats in the air.
Felicia’s looks belie her upright English roots; she is a ruffled chaos of perfectly pink petals that fade charmingly from a sweet blush-pink to a creamy buff, with all shades in between. From pale raspberry buds, she bursts into feminine flower and, like a great courtesan, ages magnificently. Blooms reach around 8cm (3in) in diameter and appear in clusters of 5–15 blooms, the clusters increasing in size through the flowering season. But on top of all this beauty, there is Felicia’s intoxicating perfume. This is a rose to bury your nose in and inhale with all the strength you can muster.
Felicia is a shrub that responds well to some tender loving care, doing best if fed regularly. It can be left to grow into a generous arching shrub; just give it a light prune or cut it back harder to keep its growth restricted. Be patient and keep feeding; it takes time to reach its full magnificence.
04. Duchesse de Brabant
There is portrait of Marie-Henriette of Austria, later Duchess of Brabant, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, that does not reflect the tragedy of her life after her marriage to the brutish and bullying King Leopold II of Belgium. Like Winterhalter’s delicate portrait, the Duchesse de Brabant rose, introduced in 1857 by the French rose grower, H B Bernède, is an equally fitting tribute to a woman dubbed the ‘Rose of Brabant’ by the people of Belgium. It has all the delicacy and finesse of a Winter-halter portrait.
It is a truly spectacular rose, producing long, shell-pink buds that open into a papery sugar-pink confection – a cup of curling petals. The colour is variable and can be more intense – even with a hint of peach – but it always produces a delicious array of washed-sorbet tones. The blooms reach a diameter of around 7cm (2¾in). Duchesse de Brabant has a strong Tea-rose perfume that lingers, even when the flower is cut and as it matures. The flowers grow in clusters of 3–5 blooms and nod their heavy heads, releasing perfume into the air. They do not survive rain showers well, so this is a shrub that does best in warmer climates.
It is often stated that Duchesse de Brabant was US President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite rose and that he had a penchant for wearing it as a boutonnière. Sadly, pictures of Roosevelt – something of a dandy, it must be said – reveal a rather more macho approach to his public image; perhaps the Duchesse de Brabant was a private passion. This rose is also known as Comtesse de Labarthe, Comtesse Ouvaroff, Shell and, somewhat unflatteringly, Countess Bertha.
05. Rose de Rescht
This is a mysterious rose – its true origin is unknown – but it was brought to England in the 1940s by a Miss Nancy Lindsay, who claims to have found it in an old Persian garden in ancient Rescht [sic] – doubtless Rasht in Iran, a flourishing city on the Caspian Sea. Lindsay, a plant collector and daughter of society gardener Norah Lindsay, seems to have been a colourful and somewhat fractious character, however she deserves acknowledgement for rediscovering this deeply fragrant rose.
A bushy shrub, it produces short-stemmed bright pink buds in clusters of 3–7. The double, dark pink flowers are packed with wavy, ruffled petals that turn a lovely purple-pink as they mature. Blooms reach a diameter of around 6cm (2½in) and you might see a small golden eye at their center. It has a deliciously intense fragrance.
There is some disagreement amongst experts as to whether this is in origin a Gallica, a Damask, a cross between the two, or indeed a Portland.
06. William Lobb
Generally hailed as one of the best Old roses, William Lobb produces bristle-covered dark pink buds. These open to glorious wavy rosettes in shades of dusky pink to intense purple-pink, sometimes almost wine-colored, with the backs of the petals paler in color. The shades are variable, depending on conditions. The blooms, which reach around 10cm (4in) in diameter, age beautifully, fading to lavender as they mature and scattering fragrant petals everywhere. The weight of these multi-petalled blooms makes the stems droop. At the base of the petals is a white splash and in the eye there is a small cluster of sulphur-yellow stamens, which darken with age. The flowers have a superb, strong Old-rose scent.
This is a vigorous shrub, which will happily blend with other plants at the back of the border. It can benefit from supports – chestnut coppices work extremely well. It can also be trained as a climber but just bear those thorns in mind. It flowers less well in hot climates.
The French grower, Jean Laffay, introduced William Lobb in 1855. It is named after the Cornish plant collector who brought the Monkey Puzzle Tree and other conifers to Britain, leading to him being dubbed ‘the messenger of the big tree’. Given the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993, William Lobb is also known as Duchesse d’Istrie and Old Velvet Moss.
07. Coupe d’Hébé
This is a sugar-pink powder-puff of a rose, a ruffled petticoat of perfumed petals that form a goblet-shaped bloom. The dark pink buds open to many layers of pleated petals, which twist and fold in the center, modestly concealing the stamens. The flowers reach a diameter of around 8cm (3in) and they bloom in clusters of 3–5 buds. The elegant blooms fade and become more papery with age. There is only one flush of flowers but the weight of the intensely fragrant blooms makes the heads droop and nod, and perfume the air. The flowers are followed by red hips.
This rose has a quite upright growth and can be trained as a climber. It is somewhat susceptible to mildew so may require spraying. If you prune it too hard it won’t flower.
Coupe d’Hébé was introduced by the French grower, Jean Laffay, in 1840. The literal translation of the name suggests that it was named in homage to Hebe – Hébé in French – daughter of Zeus and Hera, and cupbearer to the gods. She was supposed to have had the power to give eternal life.
08. Lady Emma Hamilton
The auburn-haired Lady Hamilton was the great beauty of her day. Undoubtedly something of a saucy minx, she made her living by her looks and eventually met and married the considerably older Sir William Hamilton. While living with him in Naples, she met Lord Nelson, who quickly became besotted and eventually abandoned his wife and family for her. After Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, Emma was left without an income and after a spell in a debtor’s prison, died penniless in Calais.
This rose was introduced by David Austin in 2005 and named after the beautiful Emma Hamilton to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
It is appropriate that a rose named after Emma should be gloriously flamboyant in hue and intoxicatingly perfumed. It buds dark red with orange flashes and opens into a goblet of incurving, rich gold and tangerine petals. The color is intense, with hints of apricot and a deep sulphur-yellow producing warm, glowing blooms that reach around 8cm (3in) in diameter. It has a distinctly fruity perfume and has been described by perfumiers as having a top note of citrus-fruit zest underpinned by nectarine.
It took the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012 and was awarded first prize in the 2007 Biennial Fragrant Rose Competition, which is judged by a panel of grands nez – leading international perfumiers.
Heritage is a rose of delicate beauty, infused with the softest shades of pink and with an absolutely fabulous fragrance. It buds a pale pink, opening to a beautiful cupped bloom with incurving petals. The outer petals are a washed creamy white with the merest hint of pink, grading perfectly to inner petals of an enchanting blush-pink. The bush carries masses of flowers from top to toe, especially in the first flush, and these have a strong perfume infused with notes of honey, fruit and carnations. The blooms reach a diameter of around 9cm (3½in), occasionally opening widely enough to reveal their stamens.
It litters its petals freely and sheds them within a few days as a cut flower but it is so exquisitely lovely that it is more than worth the effort. The blooms don’t much care for the rain, so rush out and collect armfuls of flowers if the weather forecast is bad.
Deadhead to promote repeat-flowering and leave at the end of the season if you want rosehips. This shrub fares better in cooler climates; in hot conditions, the blooms open and shed at speed. It is prone to blackspot and benefits from spraying. David Austin introduced Heritage in 1984.
10. Souvenir de la Malmaison
This Old rose can more than hold its own against many of its younger competitors in both looks and perfume. There are numerous stories about the origins of its name but it was probably simply christened in tribute to the Empress Josephine’s supposedly superb rose garden at Malmaison. She died in 1814, some 30 years before this rose was introduced.
Souvenir de la Malmaison buds blush-pink and initially opens to a pale green-pink, then opens further to pale sugar-pink cupped flowers. The petals are quilled and quartered to form technically exquisite and visually perfect blooms that exude a strong Tea-rose fragrance. They reach an impressive diameter of around 12cm (5in) and flatten and fade beautifully as they mature to creamy white confections.
This rose can be purchased as a shrub or a climber. It is a slow starter, so you need to be in a position to give it time to grow. Needless to say, any great old lady has a few idiosyncrasies. Souvenir de la Malmaison prefers the warmth– she’s a tender soul and does much better in warm climates. The blooms spoil easily in the rain and unopened buds frustratingly rot, ball and brown. Nevertheless, it is still a fabulous rose and was hugely popular with nineteenth-century florists in Lyon.
It was introduced in 1843 by the rose grower Jean Béluze of Lyon, who guarded it jealously, reputedly selling it for an impressive 25 francs in 1845 – a vast sum at that time, which put it out of reach of all but the very wealthy.
11. Munstead Wood
This is a sultry, intense rose in a deep, dark red. It has a warm, fruity Old-rose fragrance with notes of blackberry, blueberry and damson. It buds a perfect scarlet, opening to a cupped whorl of pleated and folded petals of a dark burgundy-red. The outer petals are lighter in tone, which enhances this bloom’s dark heart. As the flowers open still further, you might catch a glimpse of the bright gold stamens. The blooms are held quite erect.
David Austin introduced this rose in 2007 and named it after the Surrey Arts and Crafts home of garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. The house marked the first of Jekyll’s fruitful collaborations with architect Edwin Lutyens. She lived there for 35 years until her death in 1932, and created an extraordinarily beautiful garden there.