A nose for a ROSE

The perfumed punch of our most popular flower is difficult to beat – so get yours off to a flying start

Martyn Cox



dmg media (UK)



IN THE GARDEN IHAVE a peculiar habit that’s evident only in summer, when I step foot in a garden renowned for its roses. First, I sniff the air like a Bisto kid and then head straight to the nearest plant that’s in full flight. After checking for bees, I stoop over, bury my nose in the centre of the flower and breathe in, slowly and deeply. There is a sense of great contentment when I encounter a delicious fragrance. After uttering an audible ‘ahh’, I dive back in, nosefirst, for a second hit. However, I feel utter disappointment if the bloom offers up little scent. Unfortunately, there are quite a few roses that are not worth a sniff (some originate from the cut-flower industry where they were bred for durability). These are fine in a large garden but when space is tight it’s important to grow one that looks good and packs a perfumed punch. Late autumn is the perfect time to think ahead to summer and plant a rose with a big fragrance. This time is the start of the bare-root season, a close to five-month-long period when roses are dug up while dormant at specialist nurseries and supplied as leafless specimens with no soil around their roots. They might look like a bunch of sticks with a few roots on the end, but bare-root roses will establish readily in moist soil and are good value. Many roses are available in this form: bush roses, shrub types, climbers and ramblers. The scent of roses is complex. Some varieties have a fruity fragrance or a myrrh-like quality; others smell of fresh tea or musk. Ask a perfumier with a trained nose and they will also detect almond, pear drops, nutmeg or other things. It’s estimated that 75 per cent of women’s perfumes feature roses. The scent has beguiled people since antiquity, with the Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans all being fans. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra covered the floor of her boudoir with a calf-high layer of fragrant petals to seduce Mark Antony. At its best, first thing in the morning, the scent of roses has inspired countless poets and writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Keats. In Sonnet 54, William Shakespeare writes: ‘The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem, For that sweet odour which doth in it live.’ There’s no shortage of roses that will turn both heads and noses. Among my favourite bush types are ‘Fragrant Delight’, ‘St Ethelburga’ and ‘Belle de Jour’ – named rose of the year in 2021. ‘Brother Cadfael’ is a cracking English shrub rose with 5in-wide pink flowers with an old rose fragrance. If you’re looking for roses with a head for heights, try ‘Claire Austin’, ‘Compassion’ or ‘Wollerton Old Hall’. A wonderful climber is ‘Constance Spry’, which has a myrrh fragrance. Of the ramblers, ‘Kew Rambler’ boasts white-centred, pink blooms with a musk scent. In my opinion, there’s no point plonking a fragrant rose in a far corner. Place them close to paths, doors or seating areas. Compact forms are ideal grown in large pots on a patio. Climbers and ramblers can cover arches and structures in much-used parts of the garden. Prepare bare-root plants by putting them into a bucket of water for a few hours, ensuring roots are fully hydrated. Then trim any broken roots or damaged shoots. They should be planted at the same depth they grew at before being lifted from the ground – a helpful ‘tide mark’ of soil can be found on the stem. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the root system and deep enough to line up the mark on the stem with the surface. Prick around the hole with a fork. Set the plant in the centre and gradually fill with excavated soil, gently bouncing the plant up and down to ensure soil fills the gaps between the roots. When full, firm the surface with your heel and give the ground a good water. Finish by mulching with a 2in layer of wellrotted manure or garden compost. When planting container-grown roses, give them a good drink before digging holes that are twice as wide as the pots but no deeper. Place in the centre and backfill with the excavated earth. Once finished, the top of the rootball of compost should be level with the surface. Stockists include David Austin (davidaustinroses.co.uk), Harkness Roses (roses.co.uk) and Peter Beales (classicroses.co.uk).