The Roman Emperor Elagabalus once threw a party for some guests, against whom he had a grudge. After they had eaten at a prearranged signal his servants poured vast quantities of rose petals onto them. They suffocated to death.
I should quickly add that this story told about him is almost certainly untrue. I don’t want the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to pick up on it and start going round telling people that products containing rose derivatives are linked to cases of breathing difficulties. But it does show that it was plausible enough to believe that a Roman emperor could lay his hands on large amounts of rose petals if the fancy took him. The Romans, like nearly everyone else, liked roses. But it is another empire that has given us the roses that we use today. Empires rise and fall. The Arab empire is a typical one. The hard lives of the desert nomads gave them the grit and determination to conquer lands from India to Spain. But having won the prize they settled down and acquired a love of luxury that ultimately led to their downfall. The rising and falling bits are good for historians, but it is the period in between that is good for shopping. The Caliphs in Baghdad were big spenders themselves and ruled over a stable and advanced economy where people had money to spend. This led to R and D to come up with new and better products to satisfy the market. One aspect of this was the development of new varieties of rose bred specifically for their fragrance. The most famous of these was the Damask Rose – named after Damascus – but another example was the Cabbage Rose, or Rosa centifolia.
Rosa Centifolia NPD
Cabbage rose isn’t a very inspiring name. The latin name translates as a hundred petals which sounds a bit better. I shall get into trouble with fragrance experts here, but to me cabbage rose oil has a lighter and sweeter smell than the damask rose. Damask rose is usually regarded as the star of the rose family, but in Ayuvedic medicine rosa centifiolia is the preferred form. But it isn’t really a contest, both of them are marvelous. In addition to the development of the roses themselves, and perhaps even more important were improvements in the way the oils were extracted. The first publications on the techniques of rose oil production were published by the Persian philosopher, doctor and general polymath Avicenna. Avicenna was a superstar of the middle ages whose writings on many subjects were avidly read both in the Arab world and in Europe. That somebody of this stature should trouble themselves with the subject of distillation techniques speaks volumes about how important the trade in rose oil was.
Rose Oil Production
Rose does present some particular problems if you want to get a truly great smelling oil. For a start many of the components are highly sensitive to light and heat, so you have to be out picking the petals early in the morning before the sun becomes too bright. The fresh smell of rose is a mixture of different notes which all have very different properties. To capture them you need to gently heat the petals and condense the steam that comes off. You then need to separate the oil and water you have gathered and redistill it to capture the more water soluble components. Some are simply beyond capturing, but still have some of the precious roseness. These aren’t wasted. The water is kept and is sold as rosewater.
The oil produced is called rose otto, or sometimes attar of rose. It is stupendously expensive, reflecting the enormous care and labour that goes into its production and the extremely low yield. It takes thousands of kilograms of rose petals to produce a kilogram of rose otto. So it is not surprising that it is one of the most expensive ingredients in cosmetics. Chemical analysis of Rosa centifolia oil has shown that the major components are geraniol and citronellol. These aren’t particularly uncommon components of essential oils and the real personality of the oil comes from the traces of more unusual molecules with names like Damascenone which are often only found in rose oil. Given the price of rose oil there is a temptation to stretch it with other geraniol rich ois, but this doesn’t fool the nose. There are some very good synthetic rose fragrances around, but there really is nothing that smells quite like the real thing. Reference Journal of Essential Oil Research Chemical Composition of the Essential Oil of Rosa centifolia L. Petals Volume 7, Issue 1, 1995