Roses are red, but where's the sweet smell of success?

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The Independent Online

If Shakespeare were alive today, he might not have written of a rose's "perfumed tincture" nor might he have praised its "sweet odour". For modern roses have no scent, a legacy of the genetic race to breed hardy flowers that can be imported from thousands of miles away and last for more than a week in a vase.

They bloom vibrantly, they last for ages, but the sweet smell which delighted women and poets for generations has been lost.

Despite this, people instinctively try to smell roses and the £35bn global flower industry has begun to realise that scent is a missing weapon in its armoury. Breeders are now looking for a long-lasting rose that can engage our olfactory senses as well as our eyes.

Britain's biggest grower of garden roses, David Austin, is experimenting with roses with more than a week's "vase life" in Britain while giving off the perfume gardeners remember so fondly from their youth. On the other side of the Atlantic, academics are exploring ways of injecting genes from other plants to ensure roses regain their traditional waft.

Roses have lost their scent because fragrance is often a recessive gene that is bred out, almost by accident, as breeders seek to exaggerate other traits. Putting it back is problematic because the chemical ethylene, which rots flowers, lurks in the scent.

Modern flowers are flown to Britain from countries on the Equator, where they benefit from the ideal climate of year-round daytime sunshine and cool nights. Oserian, owner of one of the biggest flower farms in Kenya, is keenly watching developments because its customers, including Sainsbury's, would like their flowers to have sweetness as well as longevity.

Amy Stewart, author of the book Flower Confidential, believes that the industry is "finally waking up" to the fact that people want their roses sweet-smelling.

"One peculiarity of this business is that the breeders and growers are quite distant from the customer. Many growers I met had no idea where their flowers were eventually sold, or who the typical customer for their product might be," she said. "So in the greenhouse, they focus on the roses that perform best for them – fewest pests and diseases, most roses per plant, and so forth – and not what the customer wants."

At Mr Austin's headquarters in Shropshire, 20 workers are seeking to develop a long-lasting scented rose. His company imports three million lightly perfumed rose stems a year from Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador. They have a vase life of 12 days but three to five days are lost in transit.

Mr Austin said that although his company had been breeding cut roses for 15 years, producing a scented rose to compete on vase life would be a struggle. Nevertheless, he is steadfast in his belief in his mission. He said: " Everybody who picks up a rose, the first thing they do is put it to their nose and they're always disappointed. These are plants; they're not plastic. They need to have character bred back into them."

At the University of Florida, academics David Clark and Harry Klee are genetically modifying roses, by injecting them with genes from tomatoes and petunias and hope to license the resulting technology.

Five flowers that will scent a room

By Katherine Soper

* STARGAZER LILIES

So fragrant that one bouquet can perfume an entire room. Its unique and exotic appearance (pink is the most popular colour) makes it the most sought-after variety of lily.

* HYACINTHS

In the 18th century, more than 2,000 different cultivars were developed, resulting in the great variety of colours we know today. The prophet Mohamed is reported to have said: "If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one and buy hyacinths, for they feed my soul."

* PEONIES

The peony originates in China, where it is prized most highly in delicate pink and white and features on many Chinese silk designs.

* GARDENIAS

Not the easiest flowers to grow, gardenias have a strong scent and delicate appearance. Originating in South Africa, they prefer a humid climate.

* FREESIAS

Freesia is one of the most commonly used scents in toiletries such as soaps and hand washes. Over 110 million freesia stems are sold in the UK every year, particularly the strongest-smelling – the red and pink varieties.

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