I came across a second copy of the book Roses, A Celebration, edited by Wayne Winterrowd with botanical paintings of roses by Pamela Stagg, so I’ll be donating it to the garden club library but I thought that I’d excerpt a small piece of it first.

The book consists of 33 short replies from a wide range of gardening heavyweights to the question “What is your favourite rose?”  I’ve chosen one by Fergus Garrett, formerly Christopher Lloyd’s head gardener at Great Dixter, who celebrates his Turkish heritage by extolling the wonders of Rosa gallica officinalis, the ancient Apothecary’s Rose, and, in the process, clears up some of the confusion related to its origins, as well as that of R. damascena and some of its brethren.

Roses have been used in cooking for many centuries, nowhere more so than in Turkey, and Garrett explains how the essential oils of the rose are extracted for further processing for use in perfumes and in cooking. He finishes with a few rose recipes handed down from his mother that would make for an interesting culinary experiment if you can round up a pound or two of rose petals.

Jim Thorleifson

Fergus Garrett

Rosa gallica officinalis

The Turkish Rose

Roses, A Celebration – Edited by Wayne Winterrowd

North Point Press 2003

Original paintings by Pamela Stagg

IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, the rose is featured in many of the wonderful stories associated with love and romance in Turkish history, lore, and myth, relayed over the centuries by poets and historians. The rose is the essence of purity, sweetness, and femininity. An admiring lover will often affix the word gul (meaning “rose”) to his sweetheart’s name as a term of affection. He may describe her complexion as being as fair as a rose, or her skin as being soft as a rose petal. Dreaming of roses signifies an improvement in one’s love life, health, and general well-being. Rose petals were stuffed into silken mattresses for the ultimate seductive experience. But love never comes without a price, and romance and tragedy often go hand in hand in Turkish lore. One old saying particularly comes to mind: “You cannot pluck roses without the fear of thorns, nor enjoy a fair wife without the danger of horns.”

Along with the carnation and the tulip, the rose is an important flower in Turkish art and culture. Rose motifs are found on the garments of the sultans, on Iznik pottery, on carpets, and on copperware. Roses also feature prominently in Turkey’s rich and varied cuisine. For centuries the rose’s delightful scent has been captured by infusing petals in water, oil, honey, and sugar to flavor drinks, puddings, and sweets. The tradition lives on today, most notably in the rose flavoring of Turkish Delight.

Turkey, rich in plants generally, has over twenty native species of rose. This includes Rosa gallica, the ancestor of many beautiful garden hybrids, as well as culinary roses such as the damasks that are so popular in Turkish kitchens. Rosa gallica was named by Linnaeus, who assumed that it had originated in Roman Gaul. In fact, the species stretches from Central to Southern Europe through to Iraq. It is found throughout Turkey in dry meadows and maquis, in dunes, and sometimes on pure sand. A low shrub growing up to three feet with stiff, upright, densely prickled stems, and dull, bluish-green leaves, Rosa gallica bears masses of strongly scented, deep-pink, solitary flowers followed by scarlet-orange hips. Naturally occurring hybrids of this rose are distributed throughout Europe and Western Asia.

Although Rosa gallica has a fainter scent than the damask roses, its petals possess the amazing virtue of retaining fragrance even after they wither. This means that they can be dried and made into scented powder, and then used in salves, oils, and rose-scented waters. Thought to possess many medicinal properties, rose potions are frequently referred to in ancient texts. Military doctors took Rosa gallica on campaigns, planting it whenever possible. With the ability to produce copious amounts of seed, sucker underground, and tolerate extremes of heat and cold in different habitats, the highly fertile gallica thrived in military outposts, monasteries, and gardens, spreading throughout the East and Europe. Selection and breeding gave rise to many variants. A highly fragrant, semi-double form of the species was selected and became the favored rose of apothecaries. This rose of legendary medicinal properties is known today as Rosa gallica officinalis, the Apothecary’s Rose. Its quality was so superior that it initiated an entire industry dedicated to its medicinal and confectionary uses.

Rosa damascena, whose origin has been subject to much debate, is thought to be a hybrid of R. gallica and R. phoenicia. R. phoenicia is found in southern and western Turkey in scrubby, moist places. It is a stoutly prickled climbing shrub growing up to fifteen feet high, with white to pale-pink flowers borne on dense corymbs and possessed of a musky scent. Crossing this rose with Rosa gallica resulted in a very floriferous shrubby plant with an irresistibly rich scent. The pale-pink flowers borne in clusters carry a mixture of essential oils from both parents, giving them an unmistakable strong fragrance that lasts through processing. These qualities have made the summer-flowering damask rose R. damascena, also known as the Isparta Rose, world-renowned for the production of rose oil and rose water. A variant, R. damascena ‘Trigintipetala; the “thirty-petaled” or Kazanlik rose, has the semi-double Rosa gallica officinalis as one of its parents. The resulting hybrid has such an abundance of petals, and such a delicious rich scent, that it has become the favored rose of growers in Turkey.

Rose oil, produced by steam-distilling freshly picked flowers, is called “attar” of roses, the name derived from an Arabic word meaning “fragrant.” The distilling process is thought to have originated in Mogul India, where a means of separating the water and the essential oil was accidentally discovered at a banquet given by the Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627). His rosewater-filled pools underwent a natural distillation in the heat of the sun, which left a thin film of oil floating on the surface that was found to have a lasting perfume. The Ottoman Turks developed the distillation process, and with the spread of their empire, which was to last for more than five hundred years, introduced it to many provinces. Today, Turkey and the once Ottoman-occupied Bulgaria are the most important producers of attar of roses. The two main centers of cultivation are in Kazanluk (from the Turkish kazan, meaning “still”), in Bulgaria, and the Isparta district of Turkey, in south-western Anatolia.

Over 60 percent of the world’s production of the highest-quality oil takes place in Turkey. Most of the roses are grown in small, family-owned farms. Picking starts at sunrise and is completed in the morning. The harvest is then rushed to the stills, and the distillation is done on the same day. The process involves passing steam over the petals and then condensing the steam into large bottles, which yields mainly fragrant rose water, but also a thin layer of rose oil. It takes more than four tons of flowers to produce a kilo of oil, which is worth literally its weight in gold. The first and second distillations are blended before being packed in wax-sealed copper canisters and exported all over the world, including the famous perfumeries of Grasse, in southern France.

Go to any decent Turkish garden today and you’ll see pink roses grown for the kitchen. More than likely, the species will be the Isparta Rose, Rosa damascena, or a close relative such as the Kazanlik, or possibly Rosa centifolia, the cabbage rose, known in Turkey as the Okka gulu. Whatever the species, it will be highly scented, and rich in essential oils. My mother swears by her Isparta roses tucked on either side of the main gate of our house in the coastal resort of Yalova, across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul. The roses came with us from our last house in Istanbul, and probably from the house before that, cherished and preserved like a valuable piece of furniture. My great-grandmother used them, followed by my late grandmother, and now they are in the possession of my mother, who will then pass them on to me, and I on to my children. And, believe me, they are the real thing, for I have tasted the rose-petal jam that my mother lovingly produces from them year after year, following an old family recipe. This is a delicate breakfast jam to be eaten on fresh bread or toast.

Nebahat Hanim’s Rose Petal Jam

1 1/2 pounds (650 grams) fresh rose petals

9 1/2 cups (1950 grams) superfine sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

2 1/2 cups (750 ml) fresh spring water

1 egg white

Wash the rose petals, and snip off and reserve their white bases. Alternately layer the petals and half of the sugar in a bowl, then pour the lemon juice over, reserving 2 teaspoons. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set aside.

Place the white tips of the rose petals into a separate bowl, boil the water, and pour 2 1/2 cups boiling water on top. Cover with a damp cloth, and set aside. Let both bowls rest at cool room temperature for two days.

After two days, gently stir the sugar-and-rose-petal mixture. Cover again. Drain the liquid from the white petal tips into a saucepan. Add the remaining sugar and the egg white, and bring to a boil. Simmer, skimming off the froth, until you are left with a clear syrup.

Add the sugared rose petals and return to a simmer, again spooning off the froth. When the mixture starts to darken, add the remaining 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, then remove from heat. Let the jam cool for a few minutes, then put it into sterilized jars and seal.

This essay would not be complete without mentioning asure (pronounced “ash-ur-ey”), a legendary sweet flavored with rose water and also known as Noah’s Pudding. It contains a list of ingredients as long as your arm and looks like fruits and nuts preserved in aspic. Legend has it that Noah found himself running extremely short of supplies on the ark and ordered that all the remaining food be cooked together. The result turned out to be delicious. In Ottoman times the sweet was consumed in “Asure month.” Modern Turks still make and eat it, but unfortunately the dish is less popular in the kitchens of the young, as it’s quite an effort to put together. My mother still makes it, and sends bowls of it to all the neighbors, who return the bowls full of figs, plums, or shortbread cakes. It’s a tradition that I will carry on.


1/3 cup (50 grams) dried white beans

1/3  cup (50 grams) dried white lima beans

1/3 cup (50 grams) long-grain rice

2/3 cup (100 grams) wheat or bran flakes

1 1/2 cups (450 milliliters) milk

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) sugar

2/3 cup (100 grams) chopped pitted dates

1/2 cup (75 grams) blanched whole almonds

1/2 cup (125 milliliters) rose water

Seeds of 1 pomegranate

1/3 cup (50 grams) currants

2/3 cup (100 grams) raisins

1/3 cup (50 grams) chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons (25 grams) pine nuts

Additional raisins, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds for garnish

Soak the dried white beans and dried white lima beans overnight. Boil them in separate saucepans until tender, about I hour. Drain them, and allow them to cool.

Boil the rice and wheat or bran flakes in separate saucepans in plenty of water, until they are tender. Strain them, reserving the water in which they were cooked. Chop coarsely.

Place a little more than one quart (1.2 liters) of the water used for cooking the rice and wheat in a saucepan. Add milk and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved. Boil until the mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon, then add all the other ingredients except garnishes. Boil for 2 or 3 minutes more and remove from heat. Pour into individual cups and allow to cool.

Serve cold in individual cups decorated with raisins, walnut halves, and pomegranate seeds.