The ancestry, symbolism and scent of the rose

the delicate rose

Staying loosely with a seasonal scent theme, I had been planning to blog about the fragrances of summer flowers, but a strange string of coincidences over the last couple of days has prompted me to focus on just one – the rose – and all because of my family ancestry! Here is how it came about… Correspondence with a new colleague in the aromatherapy world mentioned, by chance, a family connection with geology at the University of Edinburgh. I too have a connection there – my great great grandfather (on my paternal grandfather’s side) was Alexander Rose, who was the ‘founding father’ of the Edinburgh Geological Society. I was fortunate enough to have inherited an old book about him and his grandson Robert Traill Rose (an artist) from my father, who had done some research of his own about this side of the family. I have just spent a rather emotional time pondering genealogy, re-reading this old book – and thinking about its author, Mary Stoddart Tweedie Rose, also an artist and the wife of Robert. I am left wondering if many of my own passions and interests are, in some way, her legacy… Anyway, with this rather tenuous link, let’s explore another aspect of the ‘Roses’, not my ancestry, but their ancestry, symbolism and scent.

Roses have captivated mankind for thousands of years. A quick look reveals just how its beauty and fragrance has permeated many diverse societies, and from the earliest times. Roses and scented rosewater were known to the Mesopotamians, the rose was sacred to the Egyptian deity Horus, and the 3500 years old ‘Blue Bird’ fresco at Knossos in Crete depicts a light pink, five petalled rose. Roses were also important in early Persian societies, and today, to modern Sufis, the rose flower symbolises perfection, and its thorns represent the obstacles one must overcome to reach perfection. According to several accounts, when the Islamic prophet Mohammed was taken to heaven, some of his sweat fell down to earth where it was transformed into the rose, and so it is said that whoever smells the scent of a rose smells Mohammed. The ancient Greeks wove the origin of the rose into myth, as did the Romans, and consequently many of the rose’s associations, and its powerful symbolism – love, beauty, purity, desire and passion – informed many cultural practices. However, of all the early societies, it was the Romans who took the celebration of the rose to a whole new level. They had a rose festival, Rosalia, and rose gardens were established at Paestum to satisfy the huge demand for the flowers. It is even said that at one of the (completely and utterly outrageous) Emperor Elagabalus’ feasts, guests suffocated during a floral ‘shower’; this is depicted in the 1888 painting ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by Alma-Tadema. On first glance this looks beautiful, although decadent, until you realise that some of the guests are in the throes of death, while the young Elagabalus, draped in golden silk and wearing a tiara, and accompanied by his mother and one of his male lovers, looks on from above…  However, Pliny the Elder also described the medicinal importance of the flower, mentioning many rose-perfumed remedies – and it should be borne in mind that in ancient Rome, perfumes were medicines too.

The rose represented secrecy. This symbolism has ancient mythical origins, and this particular association has also endured throughout time; from the paintings of roses on Roman banquet room ceilings which signified that everything said under the influence of wine, sub vino, should remain sub rosa (kept in confidence), through the Middle Ages, where they appeared on the ceilings of council chambers, and were carved on Christian confessionals, to the adoption of the white rose as a symbol by the Jacobites.

Weiss (1997) tells us that the first modern book on roses was ‘A Collection of Roses’ written by Mary Lawrence in 1799, and that the most famous illustrations, by Pierre Joseph Redoutė were published in three volumes of Les Roses, between 1817 and 1824. These include the roses in the Empress Josephine’s famous collection. Today, there are over 150 known species of rose, derived from the ancient Rosa gallica of Europe, Turkey and Iraq, and the wild rose of China, Rosa chinensis. Today’s roses are classed in three groups. The Canina group includes the albas (white roses), dog roses and briar roses, but the famously scented Rosa centifolia, is also included here.  This is better known as the cabbage or Provence rose, and characteristically has rich pink, very fragrant flowers. The Gallica group is named after R. gallica – crimson, deep pink or mauve, and sometimes with stripes or splashes of colour, and with an intense and spicy ‘old rose’ perfume. The Gallica group also includes cabbage types, the damask types (named after the highly perfumed R. damascena) which are white to dark pink and with a fruity aspect to their scents, the moss roses and Portland roses. The third group is the Chinensis group and here we find the exquisite tea roses, noisettes, bourbons, hybrid perpetuals and hybrid climbing tea roses. This is a complex picture from the botanical perspective, however here it is scent that we want to explore, and that, of course, is equally complex.…

Not all roses are scented, only 30% of more than 3000 hybrid tea roses have strong scents (Helgeson 2011), and the scented varieties vary widely from the fresh, woody, powdery, fruity, green, violet-like and sweet notes of ‘Lady Hillington’, to ‘Diorama’ with its tea-like, geraniol-like and violet-like note, and ‘Grand Mogul’ with its fruity, green and powdery notes. The fresh scent of modern hybrid tea roses is mainly due to a constituent in the volatile oil called 1,3-dimethoxy-5-methylbenzene (DMMB); this has a fresh, earthy, and phenolic spicy note, and is also found in their Chinese ancestor, R. gigantea. Also present is the violet-like and earthy dihydro-β-ionol, the fresh leafy green cis-3-hexenyl acetate and, inherited from the European ancestry, the rosy-scented alcohols such as geraniol, citronellol, nerol and linalool, and a unique constituent, 1,3,5-trimethoxybenzene (TMB), that has a phenolic, spicy earthy and animalic note, which might be a legacy of their R. chinensis ancestry (Joichi et al. 2006). So, it is interesting to see how the rose’s ancestors have left their scented legacy in today’s flowers.

The respected perfumery educator, Robert Calkin, explored the fragrance of old roses, and gives us further insight. The essential oil of R. damascena ‘Kazanlik’, which is the variety most widely cultivated for the production of rose otto, has over 400 constituents. However, around 85% consists of just four materials – the so-called ‘rose-alcohols’, another 10% is represented by ten more constituents, while the remaining 5% contains several hundred constituents. In fact, it is the hundreds of other minor and trace constituents that define the beautiful scents of the fragrant roses. Other rose scent characteristics include the exotic and spicy, verbena, and anise (or ‘myrrh-scented’). The Bourbon rose, also important in perfumery, originated in the Réunion islands and was a hybrid of the Autumn Damask ‘Quatre Saisons’ and the R. chinensis ‘Old Blush’; it flowers continuously and has a vibrant, rich fruity character. R. moschata is the ancestor of the noisette, and is known as the Musk Rose; it has a pungent, diffusive and clove-like scent, carried in the stamens, a feature that appears to be absent in  many modern roses. ‘Roseraie de Haÿ’ has a ‘sumptuous’ Rugosa scent in its petals, but its stamens have a fresh, cucumber-like scent; this combination is also used by perfumers. Similarly, R. gallica petals have a typical Old Rose fragrance, which fades as the flowers mature and the light musky scent of the stamens comes to the fore (Calkin 2013).

The scent of rose is thought to be antidepressant and an aphrodisiac – a property allegedly exploited by Cleopatra when she welcomed her lover Mark Antony to her chambers… More recently, Hongratanaworakit (2009) demonstrated that absorption of rose oil via the skin and by inhalation can produce a state of relaxation, and he supported its use in aromatherapy for the alleviation of stress, depression and anxiety, irritability and mood swings.

So, harness the benefits of the rose in your lives. During the flowering season, take every opportunity to enjoy the many scented varieties, get to know their different nuances and personalities. Let the fragrance of rose otto or absolute, or rose attar help you relax and unwind. I find it quite humbling to think that when we bury our nose in these fragrant blooms, we perceive the same scent and experience the same responses as our ancestors: scent thus gives us a unique and direct link with our collective past. Such smells have remained constants in an ever-changing world, and so, with imagination, we can even indulge in a little olfactory time travel!


Calkin, R.R. (2013) The Fragrance of Old Roses. Accessed on 11/02/2013 at (First published in the Historic Rose Journal Spring 1999 No. 17.)

Helgeson, L.A. (2011) Fragrance in Roses. Accessed on 11/02/2013 at

Hongratanaworakit, T. (2009) Relaxing effects of rose on humans. Natural Products Communications 4, 2, 291.

Joichi, A., Yomogida, K., Awano, K. and Uedo, Y. (2005) Volatile components of tea-scented modern roses and ancient Chinese roses. Flavour and Fragrance Journal 20, 152-157.

Weiss, E.A. (1997) Essential Oil Crops. Wallingford: CAB International.

Written by Jennifer Rhind

5 thoughts on “The ancestry, symbolism and scent of the rose

  1. Pingback: Scent Science Blog | yangchencgt512

  2. Pingback: rose white and red | free wallpapers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s