“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.