The Fragrance of Desire

Roses are not fragrant: Myth or Reality?

Anyone who has read the entertaining book “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan will be familiar with the popularly held belief that modern roses have no fragrance[1]. Is this true, or is it a myth perpetuated by those who use it to sell books of doom and gloom? If it is true, why is it true? Is it a shift in consumer preferences, or has it always been true? Among older roses, were they all fragrant? Or to quote Bruce Springsteen, is it a case of “Glory Days.”

An article by Steve Jones, master rosarian of the Santa Clara rose society in California confirms that as far back as the early 1900s, people were complaining about the loss of fragrance in roses, and that the loss of scent has been repeatedly bemoaned by authors ever since[2]. For example, N.F. Miller in the 1947 American Rose Society Annual wrote:

"There is no use kidding ourselves, most modern varieties furnish but faint traces of the glorious perfumes that used to permeate old time gardens".

But go to any good garden center and you will see that consumers still have plenty of choices to purchase fragrant roses. They can still buy most of the fragrant classics such as Mr. Lincoln or the Peace rose. Or if they choose, they can purchase any of the modern varieties with vastly improved disease resistance but often with little or no fragrance.  It’s curious though, that despite the writings of Mr. Pollan, consumers tend to choose disease resistance and low maintenance over the rather problematic, yet fragrant roses of old. Why is this?  Well, perhaps because modern roses such as The Knock Out® Rose look great, flower repeatedly and require minimal care! Many consumers simply don’t have the time or desire to spend hours spraying their roses to protect them from the ravages of black spot, rust or powdery mildew.

But can you have the best of both worlds? Are there modern disease resistant roses that look good and smell good? Yes indeed there are - if you know what to look for. A great example is the Peter Mayle® rose, bred by the House of Meilland in the 1990’s in Provence, France. This rose is both disease resistant and very fragrant. If you want something that will really stand out in your garden then try a modern disease resistant yellow rose such as Julia Child which was bred by Tom Carruth and introduced by Weeks in 2004. More recently, our breeding partners in the USA and France have given us even more disease resistance and fragrance.  In 2011 we introduced the Milwaukee’s Calatrava™ rose, bred by Will Radler, creator of The Knock Out® Rose.  In 2013 we introduced the Francis Meilland™ rose bred by the House of Meilland. Both of which are amazingly fragrant!

Fragrant Roses

So yes, modern roses are indeed fragrant. You just need to know what you are looking for. So next time you are at your local garden center, take time to smell the roses, and perhaps you can have the best of both worlds!

Closer to home, I am excited by NovaFlora’s recent progress in the breeding and development of fragrant disease resistant roses. NovaFlora is the in-house breeding company of Star® Roses and Plants. We are working hard to introduce the fragrance from some of the classic roses into The Knock Out® Family of Roses. Rose breeding being what it is, however, it will be several years until these hit the market. Meanwhile, here’s a more comprehensive list of other disease resistant and fragrant roses from Star® Roses and Plants:

Dee-Lish® ‘Meiclusif’ - Meilland International, 2014
Francis Meilland™ 'Meitroni' PP#19970 - Meilland International, 2013
Bolero™ 'Meidelweis' PP#17841 - Meilland International, 2005
Liv Tyler™ 'Meibacus' PP#13860 - Meilland International, 2000
Elle® 'Meibderos' PPAF - Meilland International, 2005
Eternal Flame™ 'Meifacul' PP#18918 - Meilland International, 2007
Milwaukee's Calatrava™ 'Radfragwhite' PP#22988 - Will Radler, 2011
The Sunny Knock Out® Rose 'Radsunny' PP#18562 - Will Radler, 2008

Mike Dobres, Ph.D is Managing Director of NovaFlora LLC, the in-house breeding company of Star® Roses and Plants. In addition to breeding roses, NovaFlora breeds a broad range of perennials and flowering shrubs, many of which will be available at retailers in 2014.

[1] Michael Pollan The Botany of Desire (2001) Random House, hardcover: ISBN 0-375-50129-0, 2002 paperback: ISBN 0-375-76039-3


Star® Roses and Plants employees share their unique horticultural perspectives.

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