The Gardener's Apprentice

The Incense Rose

Rose lovers owe a lot to English breeder, David Austin, who over the past several decades has led a movement among breeders that has re-introduced fragrance into the world of garden roses.  For several decades after World War II, rose growers focused on other traits, especially the long stems and large, high-centered blooms that characterized the hybrid tea roses dominating the retail market.  Some varieties, like the red and white stalwart, ‘Double Delight’, had pronounced fragrance, but many commercially available hybrid teas had aromas so light as to be almost undetectable.  The quantities of pesticides that many rose gardeners used on those lovely plants also helped knock out the fragrances.

But starting in roughly 1980, fragrance came back into style.  Major rose hybridizers followed Austin’s lead in breeding the trait back into shrub roses, groundcover roses and even classic hybrid teas.  All of this has benefitted gardeners everywhere, adding to the sensory delights of large and small landscapes.

But rose blossoms, even those of repeat or near-ever blooming varieties, are ephemeral.  It is part of their charm, but it does limit fragrance.  Foliage, on the other hand, lasts from its first appearance in early spring, through fall’s hard frosts.  Aromatic leaves might well be rose breeders’ next frontier.

Anyone who has sniffed a rose leaf knows that the only sensation that will register with your nose is the occasional aphid inhaled by mistake.  But, unknown to many gardeners, species or wild roses with scented leaves have existed for millennia.  Two varieties stand out: the eglantine or sweet briar rose—Rosa eglanteria—and the incense rose—Rosa primula.

The least known is certainly the incense rose.  It is native to Turkestan, an area in central Asia bounded by Russia, Mongolia and the Caspian Sea.  It is a big rose, about seven feet tall by six feet wide, with graceful arching branches that give rise to “leaves”, which are actually groups of up to 15 individual leaflets.  The five-petaled, single flowers, which bloom fairly early in spring, are primrose yellow and only appear once a season.  The great rosarian, Graham Stuart Thomas, described the bushes as having “a fine effect when loaded with flowers.”  Both the plant’s new growth and its prickles or thorns are reddish brown.

All those traits make the incense rose a thing of beauty, but the plants are distinctive because the leaves, which bear high concentrations of essential oils, have the pronounced sweet, herbal aroma of incense.  Best of all, you don’t have to burn the leaves to release the scent.  It will tickle your nose any time, but especially in breezy, somewhat moisture-laden air.

The eglantine or sweetbriar rose, sometimes also known botanically as Rosa rubiginosa, arrived in this country from its native Europe and western Asia in Colonial times.  The flowers, which at 1.5 inches, are about the same size as those of the incense rose, are clear pink and also bear five petals each.  The shrubs grow between six and 15 feet tall, sprouting arching branches, well armed with hooked prickles and leaves divided into groupings of five leaflets apiece. More than one commentator has noted that sweetbriar planted en masse, makes an excellent boundary or privacy hedge.  However, the distinguishing feature of the eglantine and its hybrids is the pronounced scent of the foliage, which smells like green apples.

For some reason, perhaps having to do with the incense rose’s climate preferences, it has not become popular as a garden plant.  Sweetbriar, on the other hand, has fared better and sometime between Colonial days and now, caught on to the point that garden escapee plants have spread into the wild in some parts of North America.  Sometimes eglantines still grow in old, untended cemeteries.

In the guise of its alter-ego, eglantine, the rose also shows up in literature. Chaucer bestowed the name “Madame Eglantine” on the Prioress in Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare mentions the eglantine rose in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and poets, including Dryden, Keats and John Greenleaf Whittier, planted the fragrant eglantine firmly in their verses.

Breeders have come up with a number of hybrids of Rosa eglanteria, but not, as far as I know, of Rosa primula.  Perhaps it is difficult to hybridize.  In any event, breeding fragrance into rose leaves, might well offer advantages beyond simply adding to the fragrance dimension of home gardens.  Fragrant foliage plants, like those in the mint family, tend to repel deer and other rapacious garden varmints, not to mention some insect pests.  It is possible that scented rose leaves might keep deer from nipping off young shoots and buds, which would be a very good thing.

Most modern gardeners do not have room for roses as big as either the eglantine or the incense rose.  We can wait for the day when hybrids of those roses, complete with aromatic leaves, come in sizes more suitable to home landscapes.