It is the second last day of summer when we visit The Flower Barn in Kumeu, Auckland. We are in pursuit of the last roses of the season, and The Flower Barn is pretty much the only nursery to welcome us and our cameras in at this time of year as most nurseries in the region are pruning and grafting during the December to February months.
Angelique oversees a greenhouse filled with various blooms, ranging from spray roses to grandiflora and whose business advertises ‘spray-free’ roses which are bee-friendly. We enter the polytunnel to see rows and rows of flowers, and are immediately hit by the most overwhelming scent of roses which are growing in abundance. Nothing can compare with the sensory experience of walking through blooming fields of flowers, let it be lavender, jasmine, or roses, at harvest time.
Not to mention the heat however, which is stifling – the Auckland sun has been consistently shining on a daily basis for the past six months, and we feel as though we are entering a large oven when walking through. New Zealand is used to seeing rose bushes at the ends of vineyards that are scattered across the North and South Islands, however the growth of them in abundance for commercial purposes is rare due to the harsh sun that New Zealand experiences. Still, roses are always seen from the spring to late summer seasons at garden shops, and many residents with green thumbs have stunning roses that line their front gardens during the summer months.
This particular week we are here to photograph roses and also learn about the cultivation of them, as we have been sourcing spray-free New Zealand Damask Rose Hydrosol to formulate our Rose Moisture Boost Sleeping Mask and fragrancing the pink jars of gel-like moisturisers with Damask Rose Oil to ensure the scent lasts.
The reason for our use of rarely-seen New Zealand Damask Roses is not just due to its aroma and skin benefits, but also because of the stories behind this particular breed of rose, which is known to be one of the most ancient and romantic. Rosa Damascena, most commonly known as the Damask rose, is a rose hybrid derived from Rosa Gallica, Rosa Moschata and Rosa Fedtschenkoana. The flowers are renowned for their fine fragrance, and are commercially harvested for rose oil (also named "rose otto" or "rose absolute") that is used in perfumery and also to make rose water. Introduced to Europe by the returning Crusaders in the 12th century, Damask roses were commonly used by apothecaries at the time for medicinal purposes, with rose water being seen as a cure for various illnesses. Cleopatra supposedly used Damask roses in her beauty routine, and pure rose oils and rose water are still commonly seen in many Middle Eastern women’s beauty pantries in today’s modern world.
We observe Marie* (*name withheld), who is cutting off the heads of oversized flowers and putting them on to a trolley ready to be wheeled to the back of the greenhouse for composting. It is early afternoon, and the flower heads are all wide open. If going one step further and making a rose concentrate, the freshly harvested rose petals would be blended with solvent hexane in order to capture the rose's precious aromatic materials. The union between petals and hexane generates the "concrete", a brown, semi-solid material. Ethyl alcohol is then added to the concrete in order to separate the wax from the aromatic materials. What then remains is the absolute, a very powerful fragrance. employed in perfumery and seen in the most luxurious scents, such as the most notable and timeless Chanel No 5. The making of that is a story in itself, so very well captured in The New Yorker's article, "The Flowers that Make Chanel No. 5" (link here).
Growing, picking, and distilling flowers is costly. It is a logistical process, handpicking the flowers then carrying kilograms of blooms to sorting sheds where they are then gathered in giant piles and distilled or treated with solvents. The Damask rose harvest has to be handpicked very early in the morning before the sun strikes the petals, while the dew is still on the ground. Harvesting the blooms by hand, a worker could pick about 2,000 blooms per hour.
Today, Bulgaria is the largest harvester of roses, followed by Turkey, between which the two countries produce a harvest of over 9,000 tonnes of roses per annum. Third is France, whose southern French fields see hundreds of flower pickers during May to June when they come to harvest the blooms that go into the bottles of high end French perfumes.
On on the scent bucket list is a visit to Kazanlik, Bulgaria, to see the hundreds of fields in bloom with Damask roses. There, the petals must be harvested between 5am and 10am as much of the valuable oil is lost as soon as the heat of the day commences. There is indeed a science behind the timing of this harvest, as scientific comparison studies have shown a significant difference between substituents of rose oil obtained from dried rose flowers as opposed to freshly picked petals, showing that oil and rose water that is harvested from fresh flowers is what carried the highly beautifying effects that Damask roses are known for. Fresh Damask rose petals possess a tiny quantity of essential oil, taking three tonnes of rose petals to produce just over 1kg of rose oil (Baser, 1992), making it truly one of the rarest and most expensive essential oils to procure.
David Austin himself acknowledges the role of the Damask Rose in providing perfume for his modern day "English Roses." Other characteristics are subtle, soft grey/green foliage, very thorny shoots and summer flowers in varying shades of pink on short stalks. Many varieties will cope with poor soil and a little light shade. Add a little history to your planting scheme with these sensuous classic beauties.
Getting scents into a bottle involves a combination of magic, luck, and skill, but we have to say the most crucial part is to raise a crop of flowers the right way and ensure that the ingredients are grown in a clean environment and are harvested and distilled as freshly as possible. The heady fragrance of the roses lives on in my loft four days after our visit to The Flower Barn; such is the power of fresh roses that have not had to traverse the globe to reach us.
The 30-petalled Damask flower derives great ancestral stories and has withstood the cross-breeding over time, and its precise essence has been captured in various perfumes and skincare, most lately our very own New Zealand-grown Rose Sleeping Mask. There is an old saying, “If you love yourself, then buy yourself roses”; well, with the end of rose growing season nigh, now might be the best time to do so!
Special thanks to Angelique at The Flower Barn.
Shop Lissom's Rose Moisture Boost Sleeping Mask here (RRP $68).