Most Fragrant Rose reveals deeper truth about smell

Portland, OR – In a mall in Northeast Portland sits an indoor ice rink about the size of a basketball court. When I walked in there was no ice but instead dozens of long tables draped in white cloth supporting what I’d journeyed to see: roses. Specifically, there were over 4,000 roses whose growers, mainly members of the Portland Rose Society, were vying for bragging rights that comes with winning “Queen”, the top honor awarded each festival to the best bloom.

I headed straight for the table marked “Most Fragrant Rose Class 43” – the only competition within the expo voted for by the public and not a panel of expert growers. Standing in front of an enchanting collection of scents, I met an older man, Richard Parke, whose gnarled hands and tanned skin by Northwest standards hinted at his passion for gardening. He later told me that his yard is filled with over 500 varieties of roses. Parke was filling a small green water pitcher and used it top up the water in the vases of the cut roses on display.

“The fragrance doesn’t last unless you feed them, and there is still a few more hours to go before voting closes,” Parke explained.

Parke and his wife, Janis, entered three roses into this year’s Most Fragrant competition: Marie Shriver, a stunning white bloom that swept last year’s honor; Fragrant Cloud, a resonant, joyful fuschia bloom whose notes sung like a chapel choir; and Nocturne, a seductive red bloom and 1948 American Award winner that seemed like sure thing.

Portland’s Rose Festival is the longest-running celebration of roses in the country, spanning a full three weeks. The Rose Expo competition is just one of hundreds of events held city wide, culminating with the Rose Parade. The festival is so huge that Richard Jarvis, public relations manage of the Portland Rose Festival Foundation, started planning it 18 months ago.

I sniffed around the table at the other entrants. Poetic names identified each rose’s variety: Aromatherapy,  New Day, Secret, Sentimental and Distant Drum. A couple approached the table and started to sniff Distant Drum, a striped pink and white bloom. “Pepperoni!” shouted the man wearing a green polo shirt and nerdy-chic glasses. His wife wife bobbed blond air and capri pants leaned in, sniffed and mumbled, “Hm, more like smoky clouds.” I took a whiff and got draft rootbeer without the frosty mug.

I was baffled. I asked more visitors to sniff Distant Drum and report what it smelled like. Noses flared and answers varied widely: hot licorice, sweet peppers, a campfire. I learned that this total lack of agreement is what makes the Class 43 competition unique and challenging: people perceive aromas and then attach different values to what they smell. Olfactory recall varies widely in people and correlates with mental training, akin to interior designers learning to distinguish between 50 shades of blue.

“With Queen, you know what the judges are looking for, there’s a set of strict criteria, but with Most Fragrant it’s a total crap shoot. You have to guess what the public likes and that changes every year,” sighed Parke.

Later that day his bloom Fragrant Cloud took first place in class 43. It wasn’t what he expected; he thought for sure that Nocturne would take the prize. Shaking his head, Parke went back to tending the roses. I took one more sniff for the road.




Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Kelly Davidson says:

    I thought for sure it was Nocturne too. It was deep, complex, and took me on a intensely wonderful journey.

  2. Linda Campbell is another one of those roses that is hard to photograph accurately for colour. Her rich, red blooms come out in generous clusters. Although she is a rugosa hybrid, she has no fragrance but she has definitely bright, true red blooms. I just repurchased this rose from Baldwin’s Nurseries in Falmouth .

  3. ooh that’s pretty! I love orange. I have a little rose bush that I bought in a pot from a local supermarket. The blooms are only about 2 inches across, but they are the brightest orange. It does a lot better than the tea rose. Do you know about green roses (aka lokelau)? They are really popular here and mine is growing like a weed. It actually looks a little like weed :D It has a peppery spice smell.