Nose for the rose

Scent expert shares a few tips on fragrances

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Not many people get paid to sniff flowers. But that's just one of the duties that Michael Marriott handles as technical director and head rosarian for David Austin Roses.

Two or three times a year, he and fellow scent expert Robert Calkin explore David Austin's 2-acre show garden, stopping to smell the roses. The purpose is to oversee the company's official description of each variety's fragrance, putting smells into words.

There are no rules for what they do; there are no restrictions. Breathe deeply and enjoy.

WHAT’S THAT SMELL?

There are five English rose fragrances, according to David Austin Roses. A summary: Myrrh: An aromatic, aniselike scent; among roses it’s found almost exclusively in English roses. Fruity: Because the rose is related to apricots, pears, apples, strawberries and others, fruity notes often surface. Musk: A romantic scent, it often comes from the flower’s stamens. People are especially sensitive to the scent. Old rose: The classic rose fragrance, it’s found almost exclusively in pink and red roses. Tea rose: A strong scent — like that of fresh tea — that often dominates a flower. Other fragrances can become evident over time.

"You sort of think about wine tasting and tea tasting, and they have to abide by a very strict routine," says Marriott, who has been with David Austin Roses (davidaustinroses.com), located in Shropshire, England, for 27 years. "Especially the wine industry. They have some very silly descriptions that people can't relate to. I've been sniffing roses for many years, and there's no special technique. Just be open to it."

That means there's no problems if he and Calkin come away with two different impressions after sniffing the same rose. One might detect a hint of bananas. The other might smell apples. Even roses on the same bush can vary.

"You might smell one on a bush, and it might smell like nothing," Marriott says. "The next one might have a wonderful fragrance. And the next one might smell like something else. If you smell a rose and smell nothing, don't be put off. Just move on."

AN EXPERT’S FAVORITES

Michael Marriott has chosen his top David Austin roses, based largely on their scent. His list:

Gertrude Jekyll: Marriott says this is considered the quintessential old rose fragrance: strong, rich, complex and well-balanced. (USDA Zones 4-8)

Munstead Wood: Also a strong old rose scent, it features notes of blackberry, blueberry and damson plum. (Zones 5-9)

Lady Emma Hamilton: A strong, fruity fragrance (pear, grape and citrus) that complements its orange and yellow coloring. (Zones 5-9)

Scepter’d Isle: With a strong myrrh fragrance, this variety has won the Royal National Rose Society’s award for fragrance. (Zones 5-10)

Harlow Carr: Another old rose floral scent that complements a classic old rose form. (Zones 5-9)

A rose's scent can change from hour to hour. It depends on the weather (current and recent), the stage the flower is in (younger flowers are better than older ones) and the type of fragrance associated with the rose.

A fragrance can get stronger or weaker or leave a totally different impression over time — say, going from a tea fragrance to a fruity one as the rose matures.

Marriott had some suggestions for gardeners wishing to get the most out of their roses.

Don't give it a quick, tentative sniff. Sniff it, think about it, sniff it again and see if you can identify what is there. "It doesn't matter if you can't; you're just appreciating the fragrance," he says.

Go beyond your initial impression. It might seem to be one fragrance, but a second sniff might detect more subtle notes. He says he'll often pick a rose and get one scent, then take it into the house and get something else.

Take it for a ride. "Pick it and put it on the car seat as you drive home," Marriott says. "As you drive, you can pick up that fragrance on the ride. It could be the enclosed atmosphere. Maybe the humidity goes higher. I don't know."

With so many new varieties of roses coming on the market, fragrance may be getting nudged out of the way by looks and hardiness. Marriott repeats the notion that a rose is only half a rose without fragrance.

"You are given a rose or find a rose in your garden, and the first thing you do is put it to your nose," he says. "If there's nothing there, it's boring, really. As beautiful as it might be, you're really losing out if there's no fragrance.

"Most of ours have at least a very good fragrance. Some breeders end up with very healthy roses but they have this very hard look about them, and no fragrance. They're missing the point."