Old Garden Roses are Usually More Fragrant than Modern Garden Roses: Photo Copyright Sharon Falsetto, All Rights Reserved
Old Garden Roses are Usually More Fragrant than Modern Garden Roses: Photo Copyright Sharon Falsetto, All Rights Reserved

Rose has always enjoyed popularity, both as a flower and as a perfume. It has been coveted by many throughout the centuries especially for its aphrodisiac properties; Cleopatra seduced Mark Anthony with the scent of rose, and the Romans threw lavish parties and banquets in honor of the rose.

However, the rose of the past is not necessarily the rose of the future, as the species has been “perfected” and “fine tuned” along the way in search of the “best possible” rose. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many of today’s rose species losing their heady fragrance, or it has significantly reduced it. Perfectionism in flower color and shape has resulted in lack of perfectionism in scent. If you are looking for scented roses for your aromatherapy garden – and even wish to distill or macerate the petals for oils – here’s some of the rose species you might prefer to invest in.

The Roots of Traditional Garden Roses

Traditional, or old garden roses as they are commonly known as, are some of the most fragrant species of roses and were popular in European cottage country gardens before the introduction and development of modern garden roses and David Austin (English) roses. The botany of an old garden rose is also different to other species of roses.

Old garden rose species are deemed to be those rose species and cultivars which were introduced prior to 1867 and the advent of the modern rose species. Old garden roses were either of European or Mediterranean origin or of East Asian origin, commonly known as China and Tea roses. China and Tea roses were introduced to Europe around 1800 which led to new classifications and the introduction of new rose cultivars.

Old garden rose species are usually more hardy and disease resistant than most of the modern rose species – and old garden roses are also extremely fragrant. Most rose species have five petals (which are then divided into lobes). Old garden roses have smaller blooms than modern garden roses, which are often described as “cabbage-like.” Modern garden roses tend to be “double-headed” — it’s all about size and showmanship more than scent. Old garden rose species are available in many different colors including pastels of pink, yellow, purple, red and white; modern garden roses are usually more vivid in color.

Old Garden Roses for a Scented Garden

European old garden rose species have traditionally been the most fragrant, although not the most vibrant in color, of garden roses. This makes them preferable for aromatherapy purposes! Many bloom just once (unlike modern garden rose species) so timing is everything to collect plant material for distilling and maceration.

The following species are recognizable in the aromatherapy world as plant material for oil:

  • Rosa alba – usually white or pale pink in color with a light scent; known as the “White Rose of Shakespeare.”

  • Rosa x damascena (damask) – an ancient Syrian rose which is believed to have arrived in Europe in the latter part of the thirteenth century; blooms in shades from white to pink.

  • Rosa centifolia – a cross of damask and alba roses, of Dutch origin, and often known as “cabbage rose”; available in shades of pink and lavender.

  • Rosa gallica (Gallic) – blooms in shades of red and purple; popular in the herb gardens of Medieval monasteries.

  • Rosa rugosa (Chinese) – native to eastern Asia, parts of China, and Japan. It blooms in shades of dark pink or white. It is commonly used to extract rosehip oil, but there is also an essential oil steam distilled from the petals for perfumery purposes.

Other Types of Fragrant Old Garden Roses

China roses arrived in Europe in the late eighteenth century and formed the basis of today’s modern hybrid garden roses. Traditional China roses had less fragrance than traditional European old garden roses, had smaller blooms, and were not as hardy – but they did bloom repeatedly during summer and fall months, unlike many European old garden roses.

Tea roses arrived in Europe around the beginning of the nineteenth century, also from the Orient. Tea roses were similar to China roses as they flowered repeatedly, possessed similar fragrances and were less hardy than traditional European old garden roses. However, Tea roses were often more desirable than China roses because of the botanic make-up of their flower heads.

Tea roses were crossed with Bourbon and Noisette roses to produce yet more desirable rose hybrids. Bourbon roses were the result of a cross between damask and China roses and appeared in the island of Bourbon (Reunion) in the nineteenth century. Bourbon roses were popular in France and were very fragrant. They had a range of blooms of white, pink, and red. Noisette roses were introduced to France by Philippe Noisette in the early nineteenth century. Noisette roses originally had small blooms but later rose hybrids resulted in larger flowers.

Roses for Aromatherapy Use

This introduction to fragrant roses for an aromatherapy garden demonstrates that not only are there several traditional, scented rose species, but each rose species produces a different essential oil, hydrosol, or macerated oil. Check the description for each product before purchasing (or extracting) for its aromatic uses – and the preferred rose fragrance!

Learn More About Aromatherapy with Sedona Aromatics

If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to learn more about plants and how they are used in aromatherapy, take a look at the Sedona Aromatics Certificate in Holistic Aromatherapy.


  • University of Illinois Extension Our Rose Garden web site,Different Kinds of Roses, accessed June 20, 2016

  • University of Illinois Extension Our Rose Garden web site, The History of Roses, accessed June 20, 2016

  • Author is a UK-certified aromatherapist, published author in aromatherapy, an approved education provider for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an aromatherapy business owner, and Chief Editor for the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal.

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