Like an Old Rose
This spindly rose bush lives near my studio. I have visited it for 15 years. Planted on the north side of a very tall Victorian, it doesn't get much sun and its soil doesn't seem to drain very well. Nevertheless, every Spring it puts out a very few blossoms whose scent has the all the marvelous character and complexity that is typical of Old Roses. For those who aren't gardeners, I'm not referring to rose bushes of a certain age, but but to Antique or Heritage roses; cultivars that were introduced prior to 1867 which is when hybrid tea roses first appeared. Old Roses often have the voluptuous "cupped" bloom with heavy round buds, and their foliage can quite varied. They are well known for being tough and hardy—which is why this particular rose bush continues to hang in there despite dreary circumstances.
Hybrid Tea Roses are the classic florist's rose. They are more common in gardens because their blossoms are more vividly colorful and they bloom several times per year (Old Roses tend to bloom only once per year). Smell a Hybrid Tea Rose and you might get a distant whiff of apricot or faint rose water—and oftentimes nothing at all. Smell an Old Rose and you're in another league altogether: rich, perfumed, intense. I still recall the first time I smelled one. I couldn't believe that the scent was coming out of an actual living flower and not from a bottle of perfume. This is what the poets were talking about!
Rose continues to be one of my favorite flower scents, though it's a complicated note to work with in perfumery, in part because it can smell so "perfumey." Although, again, when you encounter an Old Rose, what's striking is that the "perfumey" odor is totally natural and not a perfumed contrivance.
But what does an actual rose smell like? Every time I pass the rose pictured above, I lean in and inhale deeply, receiving the scent and thinking about it. One thing that is interesting about rose is how very different it is from other flowers. There is nothing indolic about it (for indolic think jasmine, orange flower and narcissus). Different cultivars of Old Roses have a great variety of odors: some smell lemony; others sweet like candy...or else sweet like honey; some smell spicy with an animalic undertone of warm skin (very different from the animalic note of indolic flowers); some are soapy and clean with a "fresh" quality; some smell fruity like peach...others fruity like raspberry. This particular rose is on the fresh soapy side, with a splash of clove. Every Spring I'm grateful to see and smell that it's still there and that it hasn't been torn out to make way for a more "successful" plant.