Planted in early spring to allow their buds to grow before bursting into bloom come the summer, the roses planted in Ovid’s Garden, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia, will soon be filling the air with their sweet, musky scent. Both are ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals.
From ancient times, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia have been two of the most highly prized flowers because of their fragrant essential oil, used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. Ovid describes the famous ‘gardens of sunny Paestum where roses abound’ (Metamorphoses 15.708) where both Pliny (HN. 21.20) and Virgil (Georgics 4.119) claim the roses would bloom twice a year, accounts which identify the Paestum rose as the twice-blooming Rosa damascena.
The vocabulary used in these descriptions (rosaria, ‘fields of roses’) and the emphasis on productivity indicates rose cultivation on a grand scale and a perfumery uncovered at Paestum, which was equipped to produce perfume on a near industrial level, bears further testament to this. These gardens (or fields) of roses would have not only been a remarkable sight, but the smell in summer would have been phenomenal, when one considers that 10,000 pounds of roses were required to make 1 pound of essential oil and approximately 5,000 rose bushes could fit into one acre of land: their perfume would have been strong enough to scent the air for miles around!
In excavations from Pompeii, carbonized remains of roses were found in the garden of the House of the Chaste Lovers, and roses featuring on numerous frescoes at Pompeii, such as the one from the House of the Golden Bracelet.
They also have numerous culinary uses: distilled rose water is used to flavour and perfume dishes, petals can be dried, crystalized, caramelized or simply left fresh to produce delicate flavourings and create floral decorations; even the rosehips can be made into jelly.
In Renaissance Italy the use of roses in cooking was prolific and Scappi has over a hundred recipes which incorporate roses in their various forms (see Flavouring the Garden for some of these). As yet, I have been using a bought rose oil for these recipes, but once my roses are in bloom I intend to make my own rosewater from the petals harvested in the summer, so watch this space!