Roses' smell no longer as sweet


Scent: Flowers, long bred for durability and visual appeal, have lost much of their fragrance along the way.

September 18, 1999|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- "Oh, thank you" she exclaims, clutching the bouquet of roses. "They're beautiful." And then she holds them out for you to smell.

This is the problem, the smelling. This is the genesis of the uncomfortable little lie. Because, sniff as you will, you cannot smell a thing -- certainly nothing more florally fragrant than your weed-filled yard. And you didn't pay $79 for the weeds. So you fib.

"Mmmmm," you nod. "Smells nice."

In an effort to satisfy the American taste for things bigger, brighter and longer-lasting, breeders of cut flowers have produced specimens with perfectly giant buds, eye-searing colors and the ability to survive in a vase for weeks.

Along the way, they have also bred out much of the fragrance, according to many horticulturists and an emerging body of scientific evidence. Many mass-produced roses and other favorites have no detectable scent at all.

"It wasn't intentional," says Professor Eran Pichersky of the University of Michigan, who is studying the genetics of floral scent. "They were just paying attention to other things, and the scent began to be bred out. I don't blame the breeders for breeding redder and redder flowers without scent. I blame consumers for buying them."

Others are a bit more forgiving of the American flower buyer's preferences, saying that the quest for longer shelf-life, for example, is as valid and old a gardening pursuit as the search for a sweeter, darker perfume in a damask rose.

After years of buying visually flawless but scentless flowers, though, consumers may be starting to pine for a bit of fragrance. Some folks have even taken to spritzing their bouquets of roses with artificially scented rose perfume. And the popularity of so-called heirloom flowers and other fragrant varieties has grown sharply in recent years.

At the same time, major breeders and growers are beginning to view scent as perhaps the next commercial frontier in the $7 billion-a-year business of cut flowers.

"Competition in the floral industry has become so fierce that you constantly need a new angle," says rose breeder Keith Zary, whose recent credits include the miniature blush-colored Barbie Rose and Diana, Princess of Wales, released after Diana's death. "The new angle might well be fragrance."

No one knows for sure just where floral scent went. Not all flowers had it to begin with, of course, with fragrant varieties producing scent in their petals to attract pollinators such as bees, ward off pests and communicate with other plants, and nonfragrant flowers employing color, shape and other characteristics to perform those functions.

But no one doubts that, in many once-aromatic cut flowers, scent now is missing.

"The old sweet peas smell like a freshly opened beehive," says Tovah Martin, garden editor for Victoria magazine. "The new ones just smell pathetic. You can find some of the old varieties of many flowers and place them next to new ones, and the difference is completely obvious."

Victim of genetic neglect

In much the same way that tomatoes lost flavor during the quest for redness, roundness and shelf life, floral scent probably fell victim to a sort of genetic neglect. Color and fragrance are not mutually exclusive traits, researchers say. But repeated breeding for color alone probably allowed scent simply to fall by the wayside.

Although breeding flowers to enhance or limit specific characteristics dates back thousands of years, the practice began in earnest in the United States after World War II. Breeders not only selected for popular taste (in the 1970s, gold and avocado were favorite colors for flowers as well as kitchen appliances) but for efficiency of production, seeking hybrids that grew quickly with little care and took up the least amount of space in the greenhouse or field.

Flowers also had to be hardy enough to be cut and packaged in flower-producing nations such as Ecuador and arrive thousands of miles away, looking as if they had just come from the greenhouse.

Soon, commercial breeders were tinkering with virtually every characteristic -- from thorniness to the straightness of the stem -- with the exception of scent.

Considering Americans' peculiar relationship with flowers, horticulturists say, the concentration on other characteristics made commercial sense.

In many other countries, especially the flower-growing nations of Western Europe, buying flowers is a weekly event, a regular ritual meant both to beautify and freshen a house. For many, it is also an indulgent treat, not unlike a Sunday night snifter of brandy or a twice-yearly massage.

A different breed of buyer

In the United States, though, flowers are not so much a part of daily life as they are markers of special occasions. The four main reasons for buying cut flowers -- holidays, funerals, hospital stays and birthdays or anniversaries -- account for two-thirds of all sales.

At the same time, most flowers are given not as air-fresheners but as gifts or gestures.

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