Rose is a popular perfume ingredient and floral fragrance note. It’s also the household name for more than 150 species of the woody perennial flowering plants in the Rosaceae family and the thousands of hybrids between them.
The quintessential scent of rose, which many associate with the rose color, belongs to the Damask rose, a highly aromatic rose variety with a feminine and fruity fragrance with hints of nasturtium, violet, and clove.
Contrary to popular belief, not all roses are created equal, and they unquestionably don’t smell the same.
Instead, there’s an entire rainbow of rosy notes out there that, depending on the rose variety that they’re concocted from, can range from candy-sweet to crime-thriller dark and Sin-City musty.
Scientists and perfumers agree that rose scents can generally be classified into seven categories: quintessential rose (the Damask rose), nasturtium, orris, violet, apple, clove, and lemon (the fruit, not the blossoms).
Other, subtler elements of rosy notes can include hints of honey, honeysuckle, red wine, rosé wine, forest fruit, and hyacinth. In some cases, they can even be musky and woody but always captivatingly, stop-and-smell-the-roses intense.
Rose fossils discovered at one of the richest fossil deposits in the world—the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in the U.S. state of Colorado—indicate that the rose is 35 million years old.
For comparison, the first humans are estimated to have appeared approximately 2-3 million years ago. Clearly, the rose has been around for much longer than humanity has been able to flirt with it.
Some of the most prominent figures in history have had a special relationship with roses.
For example, to charm Roman general Marc Anthony, who had just killed Caesar’s assassins and become emperor of Rome, the legendary Queen of Egypt Cleopatra is said to have filled a room foot-deep with rose petals.
Tenth-century Persians were the first to extract rose oil from rose petals, which they then introduced to the rest of the Middle East and Europe through the silk-road trade route.
Roses bloom from mid-spring to fall. Their flowers are tender and delicate: to be harvested for rose oil, they must be hand-picked in the morning before the harsh heat of the sun evaporates their sweet and rosy charm.
Nowadays, roses are grown mainly in Bulgaria, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, and, increasingly in recent years, China. These countries also happen to be the biggest producers and exporters of rose oil.
The essential oil extracted from rose petals through steam distillation is called rose otto or attar of roses. The viscous liquid with a rich and potent fragrance obtained through solvent extraction is called rose absolute.
Though traditional and natural, steam distillation is seven times less efficient at extracting rose oil as solvent extraction. The former yields 1 pound of oil per 10,000 pounds of petals; the latter 7 pounds.
Rose absolute is less expensive to source than rose otto. It also has a more concentrated scent, which is why it’s the more common ingredient of the two in perfume formulations.