Roses are exceptional in the plant world, there is no other plant that has such a wide range of completely different fragrance types as the rose. Actually I'm not quite telling the truth, the real winners are the tropical epiphytic orchids but they are far more difficult to grow than roses. So I'll stick with them especially as I've never smelt a rose with an unpleasant smell and I know some orchids are most attractive to flies.
Very broadly speaking there are five main groups Old Rose, Tea, Myrrh, Fruit and Musk although within each group there is huge variation. Fragrance can also change with age of flower, the weather, the season and even from year to year, so that is why it is always important to smell as many roses as often as possible.
You might smell something you will never smell again and anyway smelling roses is very good for you. We all know that saying 'stop and smell the roses', smelling roses encourages you to slow down, to appreciate what is around you. The fragrance of roses has the magical ability to be able to calm you down and at the same time raise your spirits.
The Old Rose fragrance is arguably the most delicious and as might be expected is found most commonly in the Gallicas, Damasks and Albas although each has its own subtle note. It is from the Damask Kazanlik that nearly all rose oil is extracted which is the crucial ingredient in all the best perfumes although strangely it never smells very strongly over here.
Some of the best are Queen of Denmark, Ispahan and Ipsilante. The Old Rose fragrance is also quite commonly found in David Austin's English Roses the classic being Gertrude Jekyll whose truly superb fragrance always reminds me just how wonderful roses can be. The Generous Gardener is superb too although mixed with musk and myrrh. Rather strangely R. rugosa (as it comes from Asia) has this fragrance too.
The Tea fragrance does sometimes actually smell of a freshly opened packet of tea – leaves not tea bags! but can also be quite tarry and earthy and with a strong violet character.
Unsurprisingly it is found in the Tea roses like the well-known Lady Hillingdon as well as the rather tender early Noisettes like Celine Forestier. A number of the English Roses have this fragrance too the best known being Graham Thomas although Port Sunlight is strongly Tea too.
The Myrrh fragrance is divisive; most people like it but others find it unpleasant, reminding them of hospitals. It is reminiscent of sweet anise and in fact has nothing to do with myrrh (as in the three kings) its name coming from the Latin name for the herb Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata.
It is found most commonly in the English Roses and in fact the very first – Constance Spry has a very strong myrrh fragrance as has Gentle Hermione and Boscobel (along with hints of hawthorn, elderflower, pear and almond!). It probably came from the Ayrshire ramblers which are hybrids of R. arvensis, the Field Rose.
Within the fruity fragrance you will find just about every fruit you can buy from your greengrocer from apple, pear, banana, raspberry, strawberry, blackcurrant and all the citrus fruits to the more exotic guava and lychee. Roses with either R. chinensis or wichurana in their background are most likely to exhibit a fruity fragrance.
The ramblers descended from the latter include Francois Juranville and Alberic Barbier and both have a distinct apple note. Roses with R. chinensis in their background combine Old Rose with fruitiness, classic examples being Louise Odier and Mme Pierre Oger.
Some of the best examples of fruity fragrances are found in the English Roses – Lady Emma Hamilton and Jude the Obscure both being extremely strong and delicious and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Other outstanding varieties are Jubilee Celebration which is strongly lemon zest and Benjamin Britten which is reminiscent of pear drops.
All the above fragrance emanate from the petals whereas the musk fragrance comes from the stamens. It wafts in the air with the greatest of ease and smells even more beautiful at a distance while close up it often smells like cloves.
The big ramblers with thousands of small single or semi double flowers are the best source – Rambling Rector, R. filipes Kiftsgate and Paul's Himalayan Musk being particularly delicious.
It is not just the flowers that smell. The mossy growth around the buds of the Moss Roses is sticky and has a delicious resinous scent. Walking past the Sweet Briar, R. rubiginosa on a warm humid evening will be like smelling green apples.
Which is my favourite variety for fragrance? There are two, Gertrude Jekyll which I described above and Buttercup which is impossible to describe specifically, it is just delicious.
Which is my favourite description of a fragrance? That of the rarely grown species R. fedtschenkoana - a little bit of blackberry jam on Hovis bread! But we all smell things differently so smell as many roses as you can and see which your favourites are.
If you would like to know more about all aspects of roses I run a course in MyGardenSchool http://www.my-garden-school.com/course/david-austins-growing-roses which I am sure you will find very interesting and useful.