Thursday, 23 June 2016

Romancing the Rose by Jan Kuśmirek

Romancing the Rose is a phrase most of with which us are familiar. It evokes so much in so few words. Roman de la Rose was a song created by the troubadour Guillaume de Lorris in 1237 as an allegory of the art of courtly love. Its evocation has lasted. 

The troubadour period has always been one that has appealed to my heart. The poetic works of the troubadours had as there essence the use of the double entendre, the hidden meanings found in the open word, implied but never stated. Theirs was the language of secret love between man and woman, unrequited love, the ideals of chivalry over ridden by desire. Their words were full of the mystic rose and the nightingale that sings so sweetly for his lover in the night.

The Rose has been the symbol of Love in many countries. There was the Rose cult of Isis and in turn the Rose became the symbol of Aphrodite, Goddess of love. The symbol of the Rose to a great extent summarises more than any other flower the ideas that actually epitomise its uses for aromatherapy. From the simple use of the gallica rose as medicine to the mystic art of alchemy and the equally mysterious art of perfumery, from the profound to the profane rose essential oils weave a magic hard to pin down. I have pursued the Rose in its many guises. How could one not be intrigued by the idea of the Dark Rose, Roisin Dubh,  or wonder who was The Fair Rosamunde, the Rose of the World.

My Quest began far from the gardens of England but in the Rose Castle in Bohemia in the Czech Republic, in the small town of Český Krumlov. I had been invited to speak at the Czech Aromatherapy Association conference and during a break had time to visit the Rosenberg Castle. The Rosenberg family was a significant and influential Bohemian noble family, playing an important role in Czech medieval history and were viewed as very powerful lords of the Kingdom of Bohemia. These Lords of the Rose had several branches each having a different coloured rose as emblem. One ceiling pictured these heraldic symbols alongside a nose. Here I thought was visible testimony to the power of the sense of smell not just colour.

In these early days of Aromatherapy true Rose or Rose Otto was little known. What aromatherapists used was Rose absolute. Absolutes are produced by using a solvent such as hexane a by-product of the oil and gas industry to extract aromatic substances as well as waxes and pigments. The plant material placed in a vat is agitated and left in effect to macerate with little or no heat being required. The process may take only hours or could take days depending on the plant material. The end result is a wax like mass called a concrete. This concrete contains all the odorous material, both volatiles such as essential oils and non-volatile but odorous materials in other words things that also smell.

Perfumery is reliant upon an alcohol (ethanol) and water mix to carry the fragrance compound. Concretes exclude all hydrophilic materials so alcohol is used to wash, evaporate or distill the concrete to produce the Absolute. The resultant fragrant ‘oil’ or absolute is entirely alcohol soluble and suited to the perfume industry. The absolute will typically have 1-5% ethanol remaining in it and mostly a trace of hexane or dimethyl ether an alternative solvent.

350kg of Rose petals will yield 1kg of concrete. Now this word ‘absolute’ suggests a supreme concentration of rose yet in Bulgaria where steam distillation is the most common form of extraction 3 – 4 tonnes of rose petals yield only one kg of rose otto or pure rose oil. This concentration of material explains the huge price differential between the true rose otto and absolute. The word otto is derived from the Persian word attar and atara meaning sweet. 

An absolute is different to the true essential oil in many ways. Rose Absolute is still sold in and used in aromatherapy confusing this solvent extraction with the true steam distilled essential oil or otto. There has long been an argument as to the merit of absolute versus the true otto. One point is clear – they are not one and the same thing and price I believe is the main reason for the popularity of the absolute, not effect. Certainly the absolute has a coarser feel and often a more lemon note from the citronellol content.  

Perhaps this also brings us to a more significant difference in some ways. The plant material used in rose production varies in different countries. French production and its ex colony of Morocco use the Rosa centifolia as the source fragrant rose for oil production. This hybrid rose was developed in the late eighteenth century and became known as the one hundred petal rose, or due to its size and somewhat floppy look, the cabbage rose. More to our point it is also called the Provence rose or Rose de Mai. It has always been extensively grown around Grasse in Provence and the main extraction method is by absolute production using approximately 1 tonne of petals to yield 1 kg of absolute.

Rose farms are often family businesses with quite low production and scale of acreage. For example Chanel takes the entire crop from the 50 acres of the Mul family. Much like the concept of terroir in wine, the provenance of a fine perfume’s ingredients only underscores its appeal. A 30mL bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum contains 1,000 jasmine flowers and 12 Mai roses—all from the fields that Mul inherited from his great-grandfather.  Provenance has always been the point made by Fragrant Earth. There are industrial oils or artisan oils and the land itself will determine much about the quality or taste of the essential oil. One side of a mountain may provide a very different oil to the other side.

Bulgaria has a very different story to France. So in June 2016 I was determined to understand this industry better. I chose the period of the Rose Festival to also see the celebrations surrounding the culture and social implications of the famous Rose valley of Bulgaria.

To start with we have to move from the hybrid R.centifolia to Rosa damscena.  This rose known as Gole Mohammadi or Damask rose is one of the most important species of Rosaceae family flowers. It is believed that the crude distillation of roses for the oil was originated in the late 7th century CE in Persia, now Iran, which was the main producer of rose oil until the 16th century exporting it all around the world.

It is believed that the crude distillation of roses for the oil was originated from in the late 7th century AD, and spread to the provinces of later in 14th century. Iran was the main producer of rose oil until the 16th century and exported it to all around the world.

Traditional medicine has made large use of the Rose both R.damascena and gallica species.  The most therapeutic effects of R. damascena in ancient medicine include treatment of abdominal and chest pain, strengthening the heart, treatment of menstrual bleeding and digestive problems, and reduction of inflammation, especially of the neck. North American Indian tribes used a decoction of the root of R. damascena plant as a cough remedy to ease children’s cough. This plant is also used as a gentle laxative. Rose oil heals depression, grief, nervous stress and tension. It helps in the reduction of thirst, wound healing, and skin health. Vapour therapy of rose oil is helpful for some allergies, headaches, and migraine. It has been a veritable cure all!

Several Pharmacological studies have been performed on R. damascena to evaluate their effects on the central nervous system (CNS). Effects found show definite hypnotic action, analgesic action and  protective effects on neuritic atrophy including beneficial effects on the brain function such as treatment of dementia as well as delaying epileptic fits as an anticonvulsant. It has been shown that R. damascena has wide spectrum antimicrobial activities. Essential oil, absolute and hydrosol are important products that showed these effects. Much research would be needed to look at the traditional usage and whilst the price is so high and the demand taken up by the perfume industry it is unlikely that much headway will be made on a global scale. Studies in Iran will be the most likely source of information.

The rose is a complex mixture of more than 400 different chemical substances, odorous and non-odorous.  Beta-damascenone is considered as the marker for the quality of rose oil by its presence and quantity. Damascenones belong to a family of chemicals known as rose ketones and even though these compounds exist in less than 1% in quantity of rose oil, they make up for slightly more than 90% of the odour content due to their low odour detection thresholds. In fact eighteen compounds represent more than 95% of the total true oil. The major  compounds are; β-citronellol (14.5-47.5%), geraniol (5.5-18%), and nerol and kaempferol contrasted with the small volumes of damascenones. Once again in aromatherapy we should note that chemical componency should not be the dominant feature of treatment but individual effect.

Smell or aroma alone has effect. Bulgarian Damascena true rose oil has distinct sweet, more honey than sugar, intensely fresh, rosy fragrance that is exceptionally long lasting with a soft undertone of citrus. Do not forget that there is more than one step in the distillation of rose essential oil. Often the stills are quite old and made of copper. First the flowers are distilled but one main constituent – phenyl ethyl alcohol – dissolves into the water of the distillation still and does not form part of the essential oil that is extracted. It is now possible to distil from theseperated ‘hydrosol or  floral water’  another rose smelling compound phenylethylalcohol noted particularly as a feature of absolutes. The phenyl ethyl alcohol needs to be distilled from the water in which it dissolved and added back to make a ‘complete oil”. The process is called cohobation. This prompts us to think that there are again differences in quality from first and second distillations and significant differences in quality especially with the Rose water itself

 Returning to absolutes and as noted produced mainly from R.centifolia, absolutes show a significant different balance of compounds phenyl ethylalcohol (78.38%), citrenellol (9.91%), and geraniol (3.71%)with ethanol (0.00-13.43%), nonadecane (4.35%) and heneicosane (solvent residue) as  the major compounds. So let’s not suggest otto’s and absolutes  are one and the same but they do have in common the same or similar starting plant material.

Bulgaria was for 500 years occupied and ruled by the Ottoman Turkish Muslim empire. The demand for Rose water within the Muslim world was extensive and during the mid 17th century centres of production grew in Anatolia in Turkey and in what is now called the rose valley with the town of Kazanluk in Bulgaria at its heart. The climatic conditions of Kazanlak proved to be more favourable for the cultivation of the rose than those in its homeland of Kashan in Persia. This is specifically valid for the rainfalls. The air humidity, cloudiness and rain in May and June contributes to roses yielding high percentage of oil, and oil of superior quality and with less stearoptene or waxes. The absence of intensive sunshine prevents undesired liberation of the volatile aromatic ingredients from the flowers.

There are more than 5000 varieties of roses, yet only a few of them exhibit that marked fragrance that is sought by people. In the course of time R.damascena was developed into a distinct more fragrant variety  now kown as ‘Kazanlik’  R. damascena trigintipetala. Books on the history of the Rose suggest this was cultivated prior to 1612. This leads me to suggest that we are just as likely to be looking for its origins much earlier. The area occupied by Bulgaria was anciently called Thrace and archaeology points to Thrace as a prominent as ancient and rich civilisation. The discoveries of hoards of beautiful gold and silver artefacts in Thracian tombs are breath-taking. The motif of the rose being quite visible in these works of art. Maybe Thracian soldiers in the Macedonian armies of Alexander the Great brought back the rose to what is now Bulgaria. Perhaps this rose had  been there all the time. 

It was the Bulgarians who discovered the idea of cohobation. Striving to obtain rose water of better quality and of higher alcohol content, in the course of time people came to employ double and then multiple distillation which was the way they made the local ‘brandy’ Rakia! Rose water of higher alcohol content was obtained and, what is more important, a new product, rose oil, was produced.  

 After the revolution and re-establishment of the free Bulgarian state and between the World Wars the rose industry flourished with many villages forming cooperatives. Eventually the government took a hand by promoting research and establishing some quality parameters. When the Communists took over in Bulgaria after World War2 the state went a stage further and turned the industry into a state monopoly. Talking with villagers recently many stated that they had been forced into abandoning their own private enterprise, some even stopped from growing roses at all.

Today Rose oil sells for more than 7000euro per kilo. It is a trade for the luxury perfumers of the world and great brand names fit for the wealthy. In 1930, Parisian fashion designer Jean Patou decided to make a cheerful perfume for his American clients in the time of Depression.  Henri Almeras the perfumer for Jean Patou had his creations  turned down till in desperation he presented the most expensive fragrance that was in his laboratory. It was called joy and was then the most expensive perfume in the world. Each bottle of contained a hidden bouquet equal to 330 roses.

Such a far cry from the working conditions I have seen in Bulgaria which the workers and pickers have to endure. Rose picking is not a romantic occupation especially in the rain and muddy fields. It means an early start say around 5.30am each day. Time is money in the valley of the roses and the gang masters keep the pace up s the harvest only lasts a few weeks and every kilo counts. Bulgaria has some 20,00 rose pickers none with social insurance for example. The harvest is paid by weight. A very good experienced picker can pick up to 60 kg of roses a day but an average of 30kg is more realistic. The roses fetch £0.27 per kg so an average wage would be £8 per day or near enough starvation wages in a poor country.  The roses are usually collected in plastic sacks to hold the moisture before dispatching to the distillery within hours of picking. Unsurprisingly The European Commission has defined poverty levels and increasing social unrest in Bulgaria as alarming. As Ovid wrote sharp thorns produce roses!

The Internet advert section and below are laden with advertisements for bargains and cheap rose oil. Sorry people but that is not the case. There is no cheap rose oil. For why should anyone offer it when the demand is so high and the prices rising.

And what of Britain? We too have our rose the Dog-rose R.canina which is a scrambling shrub, found in hedgerows, woodland edges, on sand dunes and grasslands. It is the most abundant of our native, wild roses, with sweet-scented pink or white flowers that appear in June and July. As stated at the outset the rose wherever it is found is linked to tradition and with its five petals is associated with witchcraft.

Britain has a traditional Mummers' dance known as The Rose: five dancers form a five-pointed star of swords over a victim, calledthe Fool, who was symbolically slain and resurrected with a mysterious elixir, the Golden Frosty Drop, or Dewdrop in the Rose. This is just a seminal drop
in the female flower. The dance called The Rose takes us to our pagan ancestors and so vital that it couldn't be suppressed through the ages. The accompanying chant was "ring-around-the-rose-wreath":-   
A pocket full of posies;
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

The "pocket full of posies" in the nursery rhyme probably refers to' the cave of flowers, an old symbol of the underground Fairyland. The final instruction, "All fall down," was the behest of  Mother Death bringing an end to the fertility season. So life and death and the underworld still reaches down to us in the symbolism of the rose our favourite florists flower.

Fragrant Earth offers both true Otto and real Absolute of Rose undiluted. 

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