In 1950, I imported Rosa x macrantha from Hillier and Sons in England. This hybrid rose was found near La Fleche, France in 1823, and later found its way into English and European gardens. It is commonly agreed that it shows the strong impress of R. gallica and, to a lesser extent, perhaps the influence of one of the Caninae roses. It is said to be a tetraploid, and this I have verified. Its tetraploidy, however, (barring an irregular meiosis) rules out the possibility that it could be a direct cross between R. gallica and one of the many Caninae roses. This follows from the fact that both male and female gametes of gallica carry 14 chromosomes, and the strange and fascinating fact that, in all the dog roses, male gametes carry only seven chromosomes while female gametes carry 21, 28 or 35 chromosomes depending on the species. The true parentage of this rose may be forever shrouded in mystery.
I also found that, though quite self-sterile, it is widely receptive to foreign pollens. Admiring its rugged health, I began making many crosses, always using macrantha as the seed parent. I was looking mainly for blackspot resistance but did not entirely neglect the flowers. I would walk down the rows in the morning, savouring the freshly-opened blooms, but I was rarely inspired enough to record a note on the fragrance.
One day, however, I came to a young seedling of macrantha x Dickson's Red. Some of you may recall that Dickson's Red, known also as Dr. F.G. Chandler, was chosen as the first AARS rose back in 1940. The perfume of this cross was strong but quite unlike that of any rose I had ever smelled. I thought to myself, here is a rose that does not smell like a rose. In the days that followed I encountered two other crosses, macrantha x Cl. Crimson Glory and macrantha x J.B. Clark, which had the same baffling aroma. I was puzzled and somewhat disappointed. Roses just weren't supposed to smell like that. I even considered consigning all three of them to the bonfire. In the months that followed, however, I finally compromised by saving only macrantha x Dickson's Red because it had the best bush of the three.
In 1962 I made some further crosses, with R. macrantha x Dickson's Red as seed parent. One of these crosses had the parentage (R. macrantha x Dickson's Red) x Prima Ballerina and bears the number 64-457. Prima Ballerina comes from Mathias Tantau and is perhaps his most fragrant rose. But now the exquisite perfumes of the two hybrid teas are completely blotted out and superseded by that strange odour so rare among roses. How should it be described, and why is it so rare?
A visitor one spring day, upon smelling 64-457, shed a gleam of light when she exclaimed, "Oh, this reminds me of aniseand also of licorice!"
This gleam of light was later reinforced while reading the first edition (1955) of The Old Shrub Roses, by Graham Thomas. On page 165 he says, "I have for some years grown a good bushy rose, probably of Damask x Alba parentage, called Belle Amour, but there is no record of this name applying to a rose of this type. There was a Belle Aurore, but this was a blush-tinted rose. My Belle Amour has the distinction of a strong hint of aniseed in its delicious perfume. The stout, prickly stems support good, green leaves, and clusters of cup-shaped, semi-double flowers in rich coral pink, showing yellow stamens. It is unique not only in scent but also in colour."
Six years later, in the fourth impression (Revised) 1961 of his book, Graham Thomas returns to this rose, and I must quote in full his very illuminating remarks on page 211:
"Belle Amour. Referred to on page 165, but I have still found no authority for the name. I was given this rose by Miss Lindsay, who had found it in an old convent at Elboeuf. In 1959 I saw it on the front of a cottage in Norfolk: an old established bush, which must have been there for many years. This is the only rose in the old groups with such a salmon-tone to its pink colouring, and I suspect the influence of Ayrshire Splendens, an old rambler of the R. arvensis group, for not only is it precisely the same colour but has also the scent of myrrh; Ayrshire Splendens was also known as the Myrrh Scented Rose. This theory may seem far-fetched but it has a parallel in that the only other Old Rose with a hint of salmon Belle Isis has been used as a parent by Mr. David Austin and one of the seedlings has a pronounced myrrh scent. This most lovely seedling we had the honour of naming after the late Mrs. Constance Spry. It is, I feel, a fitting tribute to one whose help and influence were so great in re-establishing the Old Roses in popular favour."
Tenuous though this connection may be between the anise fragrance of 64-457 and Belle Amour and the myrrh fragrance of Ayrshire Splendens and Constance Spry, I could not resist the thought that 64-457 and Constance Spry just might have the same fragrancethe perfume of myrrh. I soon acquired Constance Spry for my garden and verified that the two roses do indeed carry the very same perfume of myrrh! This, in turn, presents the suggestion that the perfumes of myrrh, anise and licorice are very similar.
The Ayrshire roses form a small group of R. arvensis hybrids which made their appearance in the early years of the nineteenth century and go by the name of Ayrshire because many of them were produced in southern Scotland. Ayrshire Splendens, or just plain Splendens, may be the oldest myrrh-scented rose in cultivationunless it is antedated by the mystery rose, Belle Amour. Using Constance Spry, David Austin has bred a few other roses having the scent of myrrh.
In his intriguing article on rose fragrance in the 1962 American Rose Annual, Neville F. Miller proposes a list of 25 elemental odours which, in various combinations, he feels will describe the perfumes of a good percentage of all roses. One of these elemental odours is Anise-Licorice, and in a list of 170 roses examined, it occurs in the description of only one rose, Amy Vanderbilt, a rose I have never had.
The only other cultivated rose I know having the fragrance of myrrh is the hybrid tea, Aromatic, which I obtained from Pickering Nurseries a few years ago. The catalog gives its origin as Belgium, 1970, but it is not listed in Modern Roses under this name.
The origin of the myrrh fragrance may be hidden in the parentage of the four roses, Ayrshire Splendens, Belle Amour, R. x macrantha and Belle lsis (the mother of Constance Spry). We note that R. gallica is common to the ancestry of at least three of these roses. To complicate the search, however, the myrrh fragrance may well be the combination of several elemental fragrances, not all present in R. gallica.
Coming back to 64-457, the bush is healthy, once-blooming, very strong and upright to 8 feet. The double flowers are a delicate maiden blush pink with the intense and long-lasting perfume of myrrh. The once-blooming property is its only major shortcoming. But since two ancestors are hybrid teas, using the pollen on other hybrid teas gives a modest percentage of myrrh-scented everbloomers of hybrid tea stature. Hybridizers who are inspired to try their hand may request budsticks when their understocks are ready. In return, I ask only that you pass the rose on to a friend. With it I have produced a dozen or so myrrh-scented everbloomers, none quite good enough to save, but now I must move on to other projects.
As for myrrh itself, this is a gum resin which oozes from a small tree, Commiphora myrrha, which grows in southern Arabia and eastern Africa. The fragrance is due to the essential oil, myrrhol, which is present. Frankincense is similar but derives from trees of the genus Boswellia. There is an excellent article about "Arabia's Frankincense Trail" in the October, 1985 National Geographic Magazine. Camel caravans had been carrying frankincense and myrrh up this trail to Petra (in Jordan) as far back as 1500 BC. It was then shipped abroad to Athens, Rome and Alexandria.
I hope you someday have a myrrh-scented rose in your own garden. And when you bend over to savour the scent, think of the three wise men who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.