Symbolic Meaning of Fragrances in Roses

Essence Notes and Meanings
apple Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell describe the Sweetbrier: "Rosa Eglanteria is still one of the first to scent the air in spring. Just as hyacinths are passing and narcissus are coming in, the infant leaves fill the air with an out-of season aroma of apple, for they bristle with oil-laden glands beneath and around the edges. It is the bouquet of applesauce before sweetening, a pungent goodness unlike that of any other fruit or rose. The pleasing scent is diffused whenever the atmosphere is cool and moist in early morning or evening, but most pervasively after a shower when it can be detected yards away. In summer drought, leaves must be bruised to release the scent." Some of the flowers of the Wichurana hybrids also have the scent of apples. N. F. Miller listed 'Zephirine Drouhin' as smelling like apples, cloves and rose. Gertrude Jekyll liked to grow 'The Garland' up into an apple tree. The apple signifies preference as Eve chose to taste it rather than to not. Apples are an ancient symbol of fertility. The golden apples of the Hesperides gave immortality: a prevalent idea in Indo-European mythologies. In mythology the golden apple was given to Aphrodite by Paris in a divine beauty contest, which led indirectly to the Trojan War.
balsam The work of Ivon Flamment has noted similar chemical properties in a group of roses including Rosa rugosa rubra, Rosa muscosa purpurea, 'Rose à parfum de L'Haÿ', Rosa gallica, and Rosa damascena, basically OGRs, which exhibit a spectrum of fragrances from honey to balsamic to lemon to resinous. (Tommy Cairns writes on this in The Rose Reporter of June 1999). Balsam is midstream on the spectrum and is associated with old world charm. A favorite rose of the Victorian gardeners was the Moss rose, whose calyx and flower stalks are covered with soft spines that are scented of balsam. The scent is released and mixes with the rose's own perfumes when rubbed with the fingers. Most Gallicas, Centifolias, Mosses, and Damasks have the balsam fragrance in their leaves. The scent of balsam is particularly noted in the leaves of the Balsam Poplar and in the Balm or Balsam of Gilead. In A Modern Herbal Mrs. M. Grieve notes that The Balm (Balsam) of Gilead was taken from Arabia to Judea by the Queen of Sheba as a present to Solomon. The properties of the balm or balsam were highly praised in the Bible, the works of Bruce, Theophrastes, Galen and Dioscorides. Balsam was highly prized, guarded, and reserved for royalty.
bay N. F. Miller noted the scent of bay in 'Radiance' and 'Red Radiance'. Bay is the noble laurel, the leaves were suited to wreaths and crowns which were worn as medals. Bay was believed to ward off lightening and evil magic, to protect emperors and warriors, and to destroy harmful bacteria. The Roman emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath during electrical storms. It has been associated with immortality, physical and moral cleansing. It also has been noted to have narcotic properties. Bay was eaten by the Pythian priestess before taking her seat in the sacred shrine at the Oracle of Delphi. She would be asked a question and her utterances would be reduced to verse and edited by the prophets and holy men. This is not sci-fi; this was ancient Greece.
clove Graham Thomas notes Rugosas like 'Souvenir de St. Anne's' and 'Fritz Nobis' smell like cloves. Many Rugosas are a heavenly blend of damask and clove. N. F. Miller finds 'Chrysler Imperial', 'Crimson Glory', Hansa', and 'Rouge Meilland' are scented of rose and clove. Cloves, and clove pinks are often mixed with roses in potpourri. A concoction of roses, mint, and cloves can be inhaled to relieve melancholia and to help sleep. Clove scented pinks often adorn roses in English cottage gardens. 'Inchmery', 'Mrs. Siskins', and 'Rose du Mai' are some favorites from the early eighteenth century. Cloves are reminiscent of old world spice, the clove-scented pinks warm up the garden and act as a perfect partner for the old world roses. Crystallized clove-scented pinks are a beautiful addition to a dessert party including roses and candied violets.
clover Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell wrote: "The Memorial Rose, Rosa wichuraiana, is ideally a creeper, the limber canes rooting where they touch the ground weaving a close mat of small gleaming leaves that in July or August are calicoed with 1-inch white stars. They have a light, pleasing fragrance somewhat like white clover and usually called 'wild rose'. However, scents of native 'wild roses' are quite different." The scent of clover is found in some Hybrid Teas. N. F. Miller associates it with orange roses. Because clover is a vigorous grower, it is seen as a sign of vitality. The Celts saw the clover as a sacred, magical plant. In the Middle Ages it was seen as the symbol of the trinity because it had three leaflets. It is sometimes referred to Mary. The 4-leafed clover is a sign of good luck. The 5-leafed clover is seen as a token of good marriage, although clovers with more than 4 leaflets are seen as un-favorable in other instances. The clover is thought to say, think of me or be mine.
damask Damask is the true rose essence, the hypnotic potion of the roses, the scent used to measure a rose's perfume. In the manufacture of attar of roses, the Damask rose 'Kazanlik' is used in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Iran as it is the most giving of its oil. Generally speaking, the Damasks, Centifolias, Albas, and Gallicas have a prevalence of damask. The Moss roses have damask combined with a resinous scent of the moss, which can be described as balsamic or even piney at times. The Rugosas like 'Rose à parfum de L'Haÿ' or Rosa rugosa rubra also have a good dose of damask which is often times accompanied by a scent of spices or cloves. Each rose has its own blueprint of scent, yet certain similarities exist within each class. The damask scent is not free on the air and is held inside the petals, each class does this to different degrees. The softly colored Albas yield less oil, which has a slight hint of lemon, than the Damasks or Centifolias. Roy Shepherd noted that the Albas are scented of the fragrant white hyacinths. Dr Hurst believed that true damask was the result of Rosa gallica and Rosa phoenicia, which Graham Thomas classifies with the Musk roses. Rosa sancta is thought to be an early example of a cross between a Gallica and Rosa phoenicia; it could be one of our earliest Damasks. This rose was found in the Egyptian tomb found by Petrie dated c.170 A.D. Some prefer the oil of the Centifolias to that of the Damasks. Centifolias have been used in France to produce rose oil, which has a voluptuous, somewhat fruity tone. I can't put a name on the kind of fruit. Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell wrote that it has a note of olive oil to the fragrance. It is not economical to distill the oil from Gallicas, which are the most likely to hold the oil in their petals and are suited to potpourri, or to flavor syrups, jams, sugars, wines, or even a vanilla sauce ('Charles de Mills' and 'Conditorum' are lovely. The Portland Damask 'Comte de Chambord' is also recommended). Red roses with a good degree of damask scent, (traditionally Rosa gallica 'Officinalis') were used medicinally for a number of ailments. Several Hybrid Perpetuals and Hybrid Teas are also used as herbals in the home and successfully as flavorings. Some deep red ones are noted: 'Ulrich Brunner', 'Eugene Fürst', 'General Jacqueminot', 'Hugh Dickson', 'Richmond', and 'Liberty'. 'Chrysler Imperial' is beautiful in bouquets. Experiment and find your favorites, keeping in mind to only use unsprayed varieties. As a class the Bourbons can be scented like damask but with a good degree of raspberry or nectarine, due to their China blood. Damask is the fragrance of love, and the stuff of love potions. An old love potion is made from red and white rose petals (Gallicas and Albas) and 'forget-me-nots'. Cleopatra probably seduced Mark Anthony with damask scented petals when she carpeted the floor to a depth of two feet. The roses that Botticelli painted flowing from Flora (Chloris) in La Primavera or Spring were Rosa gallica, suggesting the relationship between the hypnotic damask scented roses, love, and Spring. (To see a close up of Botticelli's La Primavera link here: (La Primavera) According to E. A.Bunyard, Botticelli painted 'Alba Maxima' and 'Maiden's Blush' in The Birth of Venus. (To see a picture of The Birth of Venus and to read some interesting commentary link here: The Birth of Venus) The Botticelli paintings conjure thoughts of an alchemical relationship between damask scented roses and the Goddess of Love (Venus) herself. According to Tommy Cairns, the work of Ivon Flamment uncovered a fact that modern roses do not have damask as their principal ingredient. Some roses like 'Tiffany' and 'Papa Meilland' are reminiscent of damask; but, because of their complex hybridization have other principal ingredients. *Please refer to The Rose Reporter, The Tinseltown Society's Newsletter for more information.
fruit Fruit adds character to a rose and can make a rose seem enticingly edible. 'Jaune Desprez' is like an ornamental confection. I have found that the rose has more than a hint of strawberry to its petals, with shades of vanilla. Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell describe it as, a mango blend of orange, pineapple, and banana found in magnolias and some Hybrid Teas, but unexpected in an older rose. Many Old European Roses have shades of lemon combined with damask. Graham Thomas wrote that the group of musk roses, also old roses, have almost imperceptible fine fruity aromas including orange and lemon which blend with the scent of musk. Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell trace fruitiness, other than orange or lemon, to hybridizations with the Chinas and Austrian briars. The Bourbons are scented of raspberries or nectarines from the introduction of China blood. Wilson and Bell believed that the Austrian briers, Rosa foetida and 'Persian Yellow' gave rise to incredible exotic fruity bouquets when blended with Hybrid Perpetuals and early Hybrid Teas. She noted that sometimes raspberry, melon or banana can be identified but when the term fruitlike is used it refers to a melange of apricot, peach, European plum, and most of all the perfumed nectarine. The Hybrid Teas have a bouquet of fruity tones with innumerable variations. The modern English roses can also have fruity overtones. 'Jude the Obscure' reminds me of candied clementines, honey, vanilla, and even guavas. One rose can intoxicate a whole room with its fragrance. I would like to try shades of it in a dessert wine, but would become drunk from its vapors. Fruity tones suggest whimsy, good nature, good health and spirit.
lemon: The scent of lemon can be found in many Old Garden Roses as well as in modern varieties. Some nice variations are lemon verbena and lemon geranium. Lemons symbolize maturity, and have been used ceremonially in rites of passage. They were placed in graves, used in baptism, marriage, confirmation, and communion. In Judaism lemons are a symbol of the heart. During the Middle Ages the lemon was the symbol of life and protection against evil forces.
orange: Graham Thomas notes that 'The Garland' and ''Polyantha Grandiflora' are scented of orange. Oranges symbolize youth, and are generally sweet. Orange blossoms may scent a whole yard with their lovely fragrance. They attract bees and flavor honey. During the Italian Renaissance the orange blossom was preferred to the apple blossom and flowering orange trees were painted in La Primavera of Botticelli. The orange blossom represents purity and was used in marriage crowns alone, never in a bouquet. Oranges are a fertility symbol as they have many seeds.
nectarine: Although the apricot has been historically linked to insensitivity of the heart by certain authors, the nectarine does not seem to share those characteristics. The nectarine is much closer to the peach botanically. The nectarine has been known for at least 2000 years and is the interesting cross between the peach and the apricot. The nectarine is like a smooth skinned peach, with a firmer flesh, and a more pronounced aroma. I think it represents curiosity.
peach: The peach is captivating, sensual, intoxicating, and also youthful. Helen van Pelt Wilson and thinks the fragrance of peach was introduced to roses by Austrian brier genes. In China the peach is linked to marriage, immortality amd longevity. Shou-lao, the god of long life, is often portrayed as emerging from, or holding a peach from the trees that bear fruit once every 3,000 years in the gardens of Paradise
raspberry: 'Mme. Isaac Pereire', 'Adam Messerich' and roses with Bourbon blood, via the Chinas, have a raspberry fragrance. Raspberries are lively, full-bodied, seductive, and intellectual. The form of the raspberry is mathematically complex.
honey Many roses are scented of honey. Rosa moschata has a fragrance that has been described as an exotic honey scent by Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell, while she finds Rosa multiflora to be reminiscent of a hot-honeyed scent. (See musk roses for more information) There are many varieties of honey. When blended with roses many new varieties of scented honey can be conjured. Honey represents a condition of heavenly bliss (Nirvana), as well as the highest condition of earthly or heavenly good. In China honey was always included among the foods of the emperor as it's properties were highly esteemed. The Herder's Dictionary of Symbols states that, Honey symbolized spiritual insight, knowledge, and dedication, as well as calmness and peace. It has also been thought to be a mystical substance because of the elaborate and mysterious processes of the bees. Honey has been used in initiatory rites to wash hands, for its cleansing actions.
jasmine Graham Thomas finds 'White Success' to be scented of jasmine. Jasmine symbolizes grace, elegance, and sensuality. It is amiable, and joyful. Italian brides have been known to wear jasmine for luck and success.
lavender I find hints of lavender and violets in 'Stanwell Perpetual'. Lavender and roses are wonderful companions. Some favorites are 'Lavender Lady', 'Hidcote', 'Munstead', 'Provence', 'Grosso', and there are many white varieties that are elegant and dramatic when planted with roses. Spanish lavender adds character to the rose bed, with it's mauve bracts. Lavender is aromatic, evocative, nostalgic, romantic, soothing, and healing. In Victorian times it meant distrust. I think it means to proceed with caution, rather than to be distrustful. It is best used in smaller quantities for medicinal purposes; too much can be overwhelming. That doesn't mean that I do not dream of lavender fields in Provence, or love walking through roses with masses of lavenders as hedges.
musk Graham Thomas lists several roses under the title of Musk Roses including Rosa Moschata, Rosa multiflora, Rosa phoenecia, 'Nastarana', Rosa mulliganii, Rosa sempervirens and Rosa arvensis. He believes that Rosa arvensis is the English Musk Rose of the Poets:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

-Shakespeare, A Midsummer's Night's Dream

According to Parkinson, it is the filaments or threads of the flowers, not the petals, which are responsible for the dispersement of scent which is free on the air. Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell note that: It is a perfume shed by pollen, a breath of mead or some exotic honey that spreads over great area even during the cool evening. Graham Thomas describes the fragrance as an almost imperceptible fine fruity aroma, including orange and lemon, which blends masterfully with the scent of musk. Several of the Hybrid Musks have the free flowing musk fragrance which perfumes the air. 'Pax', 'Felicia', 'Buff Beauty', 'Cornelia', 'Daphne', and 'Vanity' have wonderful fragrances of tea and musk which will parade through the garden. 'Bishop Darlington' is also a lovely addition. Other roses like 'The Garland', 'Aimée Vibert', and 'Blush Noisette' come in wonderful clusters and add refinement to the garden. Musk is ethereal and deeply haunting. Some say it is the scent of the deer, whether the rose really relates to this is unclear.
myrrh David Austin notes that hybridization with 'Ayrshire Splendens' is probably responsible for his myrrh scented roses. Some favorite David Austin's in my garden are 'Chaucer', 'St. Cecilia', 'Fair Bianca', and 'Troilus'. Myrrh is sweet and spicy and reminiscent of anise. A french chef once told me that his 98 year old grandmother used to make anisettecookies for their aphrodisiacal properties. Wonderful with a spot of tea. Myrrh has been associated with birth and death. In historical terms, myrrh was supposed to have been given by the Magi to Jesus. Myrrh was also offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23). Myrrh was prominently used in the rites of Adonis. Adonis' virgin mother was named Myrrha (myrrh tree); Jesus' virgin mother, Mary, was called Myrrh of the sea by the early Christians. The Egyptians used myrrh resin in their mummificationprocesses, and the Israelites used it in their holy anointing oil.
pepper A Peppery scent seems to be passed from the China roses. Helen van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell stated the 'Old Blush' gave a pepper smell to some roses. The 'Green Rose', a curious China without petals, is scented of pepper. The Bourbons 'Maggie', and 'La Reine des Violettes' are both scented of pepper. Pepper has heating, stimulating, aphrodisiacal, and cleansing properties.
tea Tea is an acquired scent, taste, with many aromas suited to a connoisseur. Subtle fruity tones vary and can be quite hidden deep inside the petals of a rose. Roses and tea both contain geraniol, which might be why some roses smell like tea. Tea may also be reminiscent of muscatel. Musk roses were given an old French name, Muscadelles, to suggest the scent was like muscat wine in the making. Several of the Hybrid Musks have the quality blending aromas of tea and muscatel. In my garden 'Gloire de Dijon', 'Safrano', 'Lady Hillingdon', 'Jayne Austin', 'White Maman Cochet, climbing', 'Souvenir de Mme Boullet', 'Maréchal Niel', 'Rêve d'Or' and 'Devoniensis' are some roses that are scented of tea. There seems to be a correlation between tea and yellow or ivory colored roses. Tea is a world within roses; there are many variations of fruit, spice, and flowers (including nasturtium). Each tea scented rose (or any rose) has its own signature and mood, which is discovered in its blend of scents.
vanilla I have found that 'Jardins de Bagatelle' and 'Jude the Obscure' have tones of vanilla. These are some of my favorite roses, probably because vanilla is sensual, intoxicating, exotic, mysterious, deep and perplexing.
violet 'Royal Four Seasons' and 'Stanwell Perpetual' are sweetly scented of violets. N. F. Miller thought 'Souvenir de Mme Bouché' smelled like violets. I can't detect that smell in the rose, but I love the rose just the same. Violets are lovely when planted with roses; however they are not easy to control.They will easily reseed. I have some beautiful parma violets from the 1800's in pots around the garden. The french crystallize them and use them to decorate cakes. They are elegant and give flair to rose gatherings. They symbolize modesty, and love.
wine Because of its color and the fact that it comes from the vital sap of the grapevine, wine has been associated with the blood of life. It is regarded as an elixir of life and a potion for immortality. Wine has been regarded as a means of acquiring esoteric knowledge. The Sufis imagined the soul was surrounded by the wine of immortality before the creation of the world. It was forbidden to offer wine to the gods of the underworld in Greece, as it was reserved for the living. As I mentioned previously, Tea or the Musk roses can be scented of muscatel; some of the Hybrid Musks blending the scents of both tea and musk. Some of the deep purpley-red Gallicas like Tuscany also seem to be scented of wine.

©2000-2005 Daphne Filiberti