Roses – Part I
In the early summer of 2007 I had the honor of being invited out to a rose breeding program in Yamhill, Oregon to harvest petals for distillation. I wasn’t quite sure what the botanical scene would look like but raced out early on a sunny morning to see what I could collect. I was astounded to find an enormous plot of roses, the size of a football field, blooming in every color of the rainbow. These roses, bred for color, fragrance, and disease resistance were each their own variety. They offered the added bonus of being chemical-free. No two roses were alike. There were roses with joyfully out-flung branches and flounced, layered skirts of white petals. Roses that looked like zinnias on straight sturdy stems shouting out in crimson and flaming orange. Strange, Seussian roses with exaggerated faces and giant thorns. Roses of purple composition splattered with green rain and roses with fringed petals tattered like lace. Rugosas and teas and some things I will never be able to aptly describe. I was left in the field with my pillowcases and my newly blown mind.
As I walked the field harvesting, some things became readily apparent. The red and pink roses had a spicy, peppery scent. The paler pink, yellow, and white roses had lemon notes. Some of the white roses smelled of musk, sweetly animalic in old-fashioned form. The rarer purple and lavender roses exuded a fragrance so intense and complex that I could have spent weeks smelling them. The textures of the petals varied greatly – some of the older, 5-petal species roses had such silky texture as to bruise upon contact with my fingers. The classic deep red teas had thicker almost leathery petals. Crab spiders took on the color of the roses they hid in, morphing into crazy shades of sunset and shell pink. After a while I realized that the bees would lead me to the most fragrant flowers. So I began to follow in a rhythm of steady picking, creeping under thorny arches, wishing someone was with me to join in the awe.
I filled the back of my Subaru and drove home to my copper still in a state of ridiculous excitement. This was to be my first hydrodistillation (petals right in the water as opposed to in a basket above it) and I could not wait to see what it would yield. I would later learn that distilling roses in a large still is not particularly easy, that distillers spend years figuring out the tricks of the trade. But on this day I filled my still with cold water, put in a couple of pillow cases of roses and gently fired her up. It took a long time for the still to heat up. As my young, toddler of a son came out to witness I couldn’t help but take a few shots of him in the small mountain of petals. He wandered the garden as I continued distilling and reveling in the exquisite rose water/hydrosol that was emerging from my condenser. It smelled just like a fresh garden tea rose – so crisp and clear – so true to form. I splashed my face with the water and grinned.
I put on a hot pink dress covered in roses and distilled late into the night. At one point I noticed a turquoise wax clinging to the sides of the glass separator – I smelled it and was stunned at the intensity of the bitterness. Just the odor made my mouth water metallic. Later I would find, when I was collected the tiny, tiny yield of oil (let’s say maybe 10-15 drops/5 gallons of compressed petals) that if I did not include this wax in the oil it was completely lifeless. This was one of my most important lessons regarding fragrance and perfume – without that dark, acrid aspect hiding within, the juice is flat.
Roses – Part II
The next morning I dropped my son of at his play school and returned to the field. The harvest was much the same as the day before, but I was later in my picking and the flowers were open wider. Ideally, roses are picked closer to dawn for a sweeter fragrance, but I was happy just to be back in the field. Intoxicated by the harvest, I left late and then got lost, and then got stuck in traffic. In the midst of this extended journey, the earwigs and spiders that had come along with their host flowers started to crawl all over my car and me. I arrived to pick up my son late ( FAIL) and then raced home to load the still. By this point I was incredibly tired from the previous late night and more than a little drunk on rose bouquet.
I filled the still higher than I had the day before and added more roses, hoping to complete my distillations earlier. Lacking the necessary patience, I cranked the burner up much higher than I ever should have. The still started to rock and rumble and scorching hot rose water started shooting out of the condenser (FAIL). I burnt myself several times (FAIL) and then had to wait for the still to cool before I could try and correct the situation. I removed some of the water, but after resuming the distillation, the petals formed a mass on the bottom of the overloaded still and started to scorch to the bottom. I felt deep shame in realizing I had just ruined an entire batch of petals (FAIL, FAIL, FAIL). The next batch was not much better, I decided to distill the roses in their pillow cases to prevent the petals from sinking and scorching, but the pillow case tore on the basket stand inside the still and the whole disaster was repeated. Any sense of self-awesomeness was spilled with the ruined distillate. This final lesson was the most important: there is no room for ego or entrenched expectations in this aromatic work. You either humble yourself or you get burned. This day I realized that the roses were not going to work for me, I was going to have to listen carefully and work for them.