Roses, Roots and Routes Part II - Saga Damascena


Since I love the Damask rose (Rosa damascena) so much, and since it is the main rose I work with, from production to distillation and perfume creation, I found it interesting to try to understand its history, in the “jungle of roses species" (most botanists estimate around 350 species – not counting the countless cultivars, but some  go to several thousands).

In the pregenetic science days, and until recently, the origins and parentage of the Damask rose has been subject considerable, inconclusive, speculation.

Syria was often said to be the home, hence the botanical name, but this was never proven, nor even that it was where it arrived in Europe from (the rose, when appearing in Europe was also call alexandrina or persica). It was also often thought that its birthplace was in Anatolia, many also thought it was in Persia, which has a long, and still booming today, production of the divine flower.

Damask Rose - Rosa Damascena - History

Recent genetic finally settled the debate and research points to three parents roses, none of which found in the wild: Rosa Gallica (the rose of Ancient Greece and Rome, found in Europe until south west Asia) Rosa moschata  (central Asia), Rosa fedtschenkoana (form Kyrgyzstan to China). So Rosa x damascena is actually a hybrid of (Rosa moschata x Rosa gallica) x Rosa fedtschenkoana. The first two hybridized, and later with the third one.


As those three roses cover the entire territory of the “great cultural history” of roses (pre modern times), I like to say that the Damask Rose, is the quintessential outcome civilisation history.

Original geographical distribution of the three roses
that were hybridized to make Rosa damascena

The question remains as to how, when and where did Rosa fedtschenkoana from China get to breed with Rosa moschata x Rosa gallica of central asia & Europe?

While the "where and when" remains a mystery for now, the "how" is quite clear...

Geological features, notably the Pamir and Himalayan mountain ranges and the South West China glacial configurations did not favour latitudinal hybridisation and in any event, and it seems that plants do not naturally move from the east to the west because the earth’s polarity determines that there is no warmer/cooler climatic incentive to do so. Consequently, the latitudinal transmigration could only have occurred through man’s intervention. You can see the first part of roses, routes and roots, for a general - short - history of roses and humans movement.

All these historical territories are joined since ancient times by the “silk road”, which in fact was also an aromatics road, gem road, precious metals road, etc.

It looks like it has been as much the “rose road”, which unsung heroes of diffusion existed throughout all ages: merchants, travellers, explorers, scholars, priests, pilgrims, botanists scouting for rich patrons... as many men passionate with the flower. 


Also, in addition of the usual image of the large long distance commercial caravans (which of course existed) there was a lot of serial trade over shorter distances, that might have had as much, if not more importance for diffusion.

There was also constant migrations and settlement waves alongside those trade routes, and  a booming local trade economy to meet the needs of the travellers and traders. Some of these migrations were for economic opportunity, others was fleeing political upheaval or religious persecution.

One "when and where" that  seems established is that the Damask rose was finally established in European gardens by the XVIth century, but it was known a bit before that, as medicine since the XIVth century, or at least it was a rose known by a similar name (without certitude it was the same rose botanically speaking).

One common denominator of the religions of most people who migrated and settled since the antiquity is their use of rose-water as an integral essential feature of ritual ceremonies.

The rose of course followed the migrants who were taking their best varieties with them to plant as they resettled. hybridizing them with new beautiful species they encountered.

And this is how this beautiful rose came to being, enriched with the fragrant molecules of the the species it is a descendant from.

Olfactively, more than 400 separate constituents make up the Damascus rose otto / essential oil. Smelt on their own, most wouldn’t be associated with the rose, and many would be regarded as unpleasant, but together they from what I call “the unity of the rose” or “the harmony of the rose” : not only a mixture, but a perfect blend, a full perfume in its own right, that is great worn on its own.



'Canon fuga in dyatessaron': from Magister Sampson’s Motets
, c. 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2v
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