My grandfather was a talented gardener and though I remember plenty of marigolds planted in his yard, I don't think he grew any roses. Still, he always had catalogs from nurseries and rose growers laying around. I have always been a bit of a reference material freak, and for me, these catalogs were portals of imagination.
All the varieties were organized by type and then by color and each offering was accompanied by a picture and a description. Sometimes, but not always, a picture of that variety's bud would be included. The description would usually go something like: "Queen Elizabeth -- Bud pointed; Flower MEDIUM PINK COLOR, double flower (38 petals), high-centered to cupped, large (4 inch) blooms borne singly and in clusters; Fragrant; Foliage dark, glossy, leathery; Growth very vigorous, upright and bushy. All American Rose Society Award, 1955." (This description is courtesy of Texas A&M.)
I read the descriptions as if they were secret incantations. I memorized the descriptions several varieties and checked up on them from year to year. I was intrigued by the scent descriptions (pungent, spicy and sweet - how could you get all that in a one rose?) But my favorite factoid was the shape of the rosebud (which, remember, was not always pictured). The regal Queen Elizabeth noted above sports a pointed bud, Golden Medal's is ovoid, and Pristine's bud is described as long. Just long. To me, these descriptors always seemed pretty vague. But there is the elusive, and to my imagination, the most perfect shape of all buds: the urn.
The problem was, none of the buds pictured as "urn-shaped" looked really and truly "urn-shaped" to me. (The two most popular roses with certified "urn-shaped" buds are Double Delight and Mister Lincoln.) I have the same issue with rose perfumes. Rose is not a rose. Or, it is, but it isn't that specifically beautiful imaginary real rose.
Not unlike my childhood search for the perfect urn-shaped rosebud, I have been looking for many years for that perfect rosy fragrance that really, truly, smells like fresh garden roses. My current yardstick is the rosebush growing at my sister's house; it's reminiscent of pink pepper, almost an Indian-food scent, with touches of sugary sweetness but none of the pungent industrial-strength bathroom freshener rose that seems to invade much of mass market perfumery. My grandmother, on occasion, wore Jean Patou Joy, which is chock full of Bulgarian rose. Though I associate that smell with childhood, it still doesn't smell like roses to me; it smells like perfume. Joy is beautiful in its own right but it's no rose I'd wear in my hair, were I the kind of person to wear a rose in my hair.
And so, I announce that at this moment, the closest I have come to owning a perfume that reminds me of real roses without making me sick is the perfume oil blend called Psyche, made by Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. The lab lists bulgar rose, Chinese white musk, lavender, orchid, and frankincense as ingredients. And while I'm not a big fan of any of those ingredients, this specific blend is magic. It is a dewy, green, lush but uncomplicated scent and reminds me of wild roses growing over the trellis of a tiny seaside cafe in Provence just after a rain shower. Yes I know, that's a really dorky description but there it is. That's what it smells like. It's a childhood rose, a play-in-the-dirt kind of rose. It has an almost soapy, innocent quality but is bound to earth by the frankincense. It may not be everyone's rose, but it is certainly mine.
I have a tiny little vial of the stuff, an "imp" in Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab parlance. It was sent to me as a freebie with another order over a year ago. I loved it when I first tried it but I didn't trust it. After going back through my samples and decants today, I realized that I need not be discouraged that the "big" rose scents don't work for me. This tiny little one is very, very urn-shaped.
And to celebrate, from Rainer Maria Rilke "Les Roses XVIII" originally in French and translated by the (oft maligned) A. Poulin. Rilke adored roses, and wrote many poems about them. I think this one is among the most simple and beautiful.
Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t'arrive, nous l'ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lier toutes tes pages.
Il y en a d'entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j'aime les roses épistolaires.
You're touched by all that touches us.
But whatever happens to you we ignore.
We'd have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all those pages of yours.
Some of you are like dictionaries;
people who are their collectors
have an urge to re-read all the entries.
I love roses that are letters.
Image: "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" by John Singer Sargent via Artmagick.com
Poem: "Les Roses XVIII" by R. M. Rilke, trans. A. Poulin. The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Graywolf Press: St. Paul, 1986. pp. 16-17.
Alternate Translation: Alfred Booth