Why is it that some roses smell so lovely, and others have absolutely no fragrance?
This is a question I often get asked when I speak about roses. And I share the disappointment of leaning in to smell a gorgeous full-blown rose and getting a big awkward hit of nothing at all. It’s like trying to shake hands with someone who won’t extend his.
There are a lot of different rose species occurring in nature, only some of which are scented. The old fashioned European roses are very fragrant, since in Europe the rose was valued more for medicinal and culinary use than ornamental qualities. In a time when spices were expensive and vanilla hadn’t been discovered, the rose provided one of the cheapest and easiest ways to flavor food and disguise unpleasant odors. These powerfully scented roses were in great demand well into the 19th century.
At around the same time, some rose varieties from Asia were making their way West, and rose breeders were quick to see their potential role in creating all kinds of new rose shapes, sizes, and colors. One drawback of these arrivistes was that many of them had no fragrance.
Experienced plant breeders will tell you that unfortunately, scentlessness is a dominant genetic quality- the brown hair and brown eyes of horticulture. And the genes for fragrance are also linked to weak stems, poor color retention, and disease susceptibility, and other undesirable traits that breeders try to remove.
So as roses crossed and recrossed in the hybridizing process, the scent became ever fainter. And even a rose that had some stinky-rose parentage would not necessarily have a great smell.
Fragrance is being bred back into some newer roses, but I always grow a few of the old-fashioned rose bushes, even though they only bloom once and are limited in color. Their beautiful fragrance on a spring evening more than compensates for what they lack in pizazz the rest of the season.