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MARK AND BEN CULLEN: No one knows noses

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Fragrant roses divided into five scent categories

Growing up, Ben and his three siblings had a handicap: their mother. More to the point, her uncanny ability to smell. Mary’s sense of scent is so acute that when one of the kids came in the front door from a “party” she could pick up on the scent of tobacco smoke (or any other kind of smoke) in an instant from the second floor of the house. Really. Not that the kids had to be smoking themselves for her to notice, they merely had to be in the company of people who did.

This is rose month: the best month of the year to have a keen sense of smell. If there is one person who is better at this than Mary Cullen it is Robert Calkin, a native of the U.K. who has hired himself out to the fragrance trade for four decades to help them develop the next great smelling eau de toilette. Or whatever.

Mr. Calkin was also employed by the late David Austin, the most famous rose breeder in a generation, to help him create some of the most compelling scents in the rose garden. Each June, he would visit Austin’s famous rose gardens at Albrighton in the West Midlands of England. He would wander around the gardens, from plant to plant, for up to three weeks each season, smelling roses to develop his scent-smelling skills and building up his ‘odour memory’ (his words).

According to a recent article in Gardens Illustrated (U.K.) magazine, Calkin has achieved a great deal in partnership with Austin (who died in 2018). He boiled the complex scents of the rose world into five categories: fruity, tea (as in the rose by the same name), old rose, myrrh (as in the herb Myrrhis odorata, not the Biblical Gold and Frankincense myrrh which was derived from the sap of a thorny tree), and musk, a scent that originally was derived from the scent gland of a small deer native to the Himalayas and east Asian. It’s amazing the stuff we put on our bodies to make us smell attractive, but we digress.

The good news for Canadian gardeners, with a desire to design fragrance into their garden scheme, is that you can do that in June quite nicely. And roses are a good place to start. Here is a short list of our favourite, heavily scented roses:

Double Delight. Hybrid Tea.

A great cutting rose, which is important if you want to bring individual blooms indoors. This is the top of our list for a good reason: bend over and inhale Double Delight and you might get knocked backwards (kidding). One single stem rose bud brings a room to life. Red/white. 100 cm.

Touch of Class. Hybrid Tea, soft pink. Soft scent too. The All-American Rose Society rates this rose 8.9 on a scale of 10. This is the highest ranking of the 40 hybrid teas listed in the Sheridan Nurseries catalogue. 80 cm.

Coral Dawn. Climber.

Rose-pink clusters of blossoms. Aggressive growth through the season, bearing blossoms all summer, into early autumn. Sweetly scented.

Austin Roses.

There are many David Austin roses to choose from and all of them feature fragrance as this was his mantra during his long rose-breeding career. In addition, Austin roses are generally more disease resistant than older rose varieties. His greatest accomplishment was to create roses that have the look and fragrance of many old-fashioned varieties while resisting disease and insects to a greater degree than ever before.

Indeed, David Austin’s legacy is his dedication to his craft, which has created a whole new category of plants in the world of gardening. We would be smart not to think of them as roses at all, but as flowering plants with attributes that set them apart from every other plant in the garden.

Hiring Robert Calkin “one of the world’s great scent experts” to assist him in his life-mission proves how insightful and forward-thinking Austin really was.

Plant roses now, enjoy the scent for years to come.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.

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