I grew up not far away from the Rose Valley, a region in Bulgaria known for growing Rosa Damascena. I remember the road to our village house would curve between vast fields of rose bushes, and in spring you could see it all covered in pink flowers. Those beautifully scented flowers to me mean home, but they also are used to produce one of the most expensive oils in the world.
I asked Damascena, the first private rose oil distillery in Bulgaria, to tell me more about this specific rose variety…
The birthplace of the cultivated rose is considered to be Northern Persia, the Persian Gulf. It’s become a symbol of Persia (modern Iran). Roses decorated the shields of the soldiers, whilst rose water was sprinkled on guests to welcome them. People used to make rosewater as a drink, spiced up with cinnamon and sugar, or even to add it to many dishes. Rose of Persia spreads through Mesopotamia to Palestine and across Asia Minor to Greece and Italy.
Egyptians used a lot of rose oil in their secular and religious ceremonies, and for mummification. Traces of roses have been found in Egyptian tombs. Cleopatra used to sleep on a pillow filled with rose petals and bathed with rosewater. Her amorous conquests were aided by aromatic essences. She seduced Mark Antony by soaking the sails of her ship with rose oil and covering her room with a thick carpet of pink flowers.
The first roses were brought in Thrace by the returning soldiers of Alexander of Macedonia. Turkish geographer and explorer Haji Khalifa wrote about the rose gardens he saw around Edirne in 1652 – at that time Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. It is assumed that the cultivation of roses was introduced to the Rose Valley by a Turkish judge who had huge gardens with fragrant roses, and in 1593 Sultan Murad III ordered roses to be harvested for the needs of his palace.
Bulgarian rose oil
The climatic conditions of the Kazanlak region proved to be much more favorable than the country of its origin. The original technology for planting roses was so good that roses were exported to the Russian and Ottoman Empires. The humidity and rainfall in the area combined together help producing a rose with a high content of essential oil. Over time, people began to apply double and multiple distillation, similar to making rakia (a local alcohol drink). Improved distillation methods and a new technique for cooling made it possible to extract rose oil rather than just rosewater. For the first time rose oil became the main product of the distillation, and the result was oil with quality never seen before.
The new product – Bulgarian rose oil – soon became known around the world. It was very well received by the new perfume and cosmetic industries flourishing in Europe at the time, while the Orient were still mostly using rosewater. Until this day Bulgaria exports more than a ton of rose oil annually to Europe and US.
From rose to oil
With 350-years of tradition, Bulgarian rose oil is recognised as the highest quality. It is almost eternal!
The demand for Bulgarian rose oil is still greater than its supply. 30 roses are needed to produce 1 drop of oil; and for 1 litre of oil it takes 3000-4000 kg of rose petals. This explains why the rose oil is 50 times more expensive than other essential oils. Due to its high price it is not often purchased by end customers, but is being mostly used for aromatherapy, cosmetics and the perfume industry.
The flower buds begin to form in March, develop in April and usually open around the 10th to 15th of May, until mid June. Picking is done by hand, starting at 5 am and finishing before 10 am, unless the day is cloudy. If the sun catches them at it’s height, 70% of the essential oil would evaporate from the flower. The rose harvest lasts 20-25 days and more than 2,000 people are engaged to pick roses every year. An experienced rose worker can harvest up to 50 kg per day, which would produce about 10 ml of the precious oil, but the collected flowers have to be processed within 24 hours. After the distillation process, the remains from the flower buds can be used to prepare laxatives, fertilizers for the rose fields or for feed.
Come and visit
The beauty of the Rose Valley can be truly felt during the Festival of Roses in early June. It originates from the celebrations held in the early harvest season and first started in 1903. The celebration begins with the election of the Rose Queen and her coronation. All guests can take part in the street processions, accompanied by traditional songs, dances and many delicacies.
The next time I will tell you about the healing abilities of Rosa Damascena and some beauty tricks with its oil and rose water.
Meanwhile, take a look at the Ethnographic museum at the family run complex Damascena. A traditional old distillery from 340 years ago has been recreated next to the new one, so that visitors can experience the tradition of picking roses, and compare the old distilling process to the modern technologies used today.
Photo credits: Damascena Ltd