“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare famously pointed out in his play Romeo and Juliet. And, indeed, one of the most famous defining attributes of roses—along with the beautiful color and elegant shape of their bloom—is their rich and fragrant aromas. These rich scents are produced by the flower as a means for attracting bees and other pollinators who can carry their pollen to other flowers and so spread their genetic material. Flowers like roses have therefore evolved to produce strong smells in order to survive: roses scented more powerfully will be more attractive to pollinators.
Bees and other pollinators are not the only creatures who have been attracted by the smell of the rose. Throughout history, humans have celebrated and cultivated the rose for its rich smells. They have been admired for their smell since at least the times of ancient Rome when the Damask and Gallica varieties were used to add fragrance to rooms and freshen water for bathing. According to legend, Cleopatra wooed Marc Antony by filling a room with more than a foot deep of rose petals to scent the air. And around the 10th century AD, the Persians introduced the practice of distilling scented oil from the flower—a process that involves extracting oil from the petals with alcohol or another distillation method and requiring 250 pounds of petals to produce just one ounce of oil.
Beyond its fragrant qualities, rose oil—typically derived from the English Gertrude Jekyll rose—has proven a popular homeopathic remedy and medicinal compound in cultures from China to Turkey and Morocco to Bulgaria and is still widely used around the world today for moisturizing dry skin, as an antidepressant and mild sedative, and for stress relief, and there is even some evidence that can aid in strengthening memory. In addition, because it is high in vitamins A, C, and P, rose oil tea can help with digestion, gastrointestinal ailments, and sore throats.
But what, exactly, are roses scented like?
Aromachologists, or scientists who study smell, classify rose scent into seven broad families: apple, clove, damask (the most common and familiar smell associated with roses), lemon, nasturtium, orris, and violet. In addition to these categories, scientists have identified a further 26 lesser categories of scent, which include banana, chrysanthemum, green tea, honey, honeysuckle, parsley, peppers, pine, marigold, moss, nutmeg, raspberry, wine, and spices such as anise, basil, lavender, ginger, and fennel. All of these aromas are the result of varied combinations of over 300 different chemical compounds. There is one particular rose scent, however, that is produced by the rose’s stamens, rather than its petals: the sweet and spicy scent of musk carries particularly far from the flowers that produce it, such as Rose Moschata, Rose Multiflora, Pax, and Daphne and Vanity.
While the different varieties of rose produce different scents, a few general trends are clear: the most attractive and pronounced odors are produced by flowers with dark colors and more, thicker, and velvety petals. The sweeter categories of odor, such as honey and honeysuckle, are generally produced by red blooms. Lemon, nasturtium, and violet can be detected from most yellow, pink, and white blooms, such as Yves Piaget, Meilland, and Delbar Chartreuse de Parme. Orange blooms tend to produce the smells of clove, fruits, nasturtium, or violet. Older varieties, such as the Bourbon rose, produce a truly rich bouquet of sweet, fruity smells that blend lemon, orange, berry, melon, and banana (some people even make syrups and jams by cooking their petals).
But when you actually smell the rose, the scent you pick up will gradually change as you inhale. This is because the odor-producing chemical compounds are volatile and evaporate at different rates. The chemicals that produce the scent of citrus, for example, will evaporate 36 times faster than the chemicals that produce the scent of clove; thus, if you detect citrus when you first smell a rose, that odor may soon fade and you could detect the smell of clove instead.
Also complicating the accurate description of a rose’s smell is the fact that odors change over the course of a day and the season. Like all flowers, the rose produces most of the oils that emit odors early in the morning and early in the summer. They also tend to release most of their odor, and the most pronounced form of it, when they are just about halfway open—the earliest moment when they can attract a pollinator (the sooner a pollinator lands on the flower, the more likely it is to spread its pollen).
So it may be true, as Shakespeare said, that a rose would smell as sweet by any name, but not every rose will smell the same.