Brief History of Rosa Damascena and its Origins
Rosa Damascena (or Damask Rose) has a long history with origins as far as Ancient Persia. In the old times, rose oil was produced through a simple, single distillation process which gave minuscule amounts of rose oil – the most desired scent in ancient times. The modern production of high quality rose oil (or rose otto) by using a double distillation method began in the 17th century.
Since the 17th century, Rosa Damascena oil has impacted the livelihood, culture, and traditions of Bulgarians living in the southern sub-mountain region of the Balkan Mountains that the valley is now known across the globe as The Valley of Roses.
What literature sources say about the Valley of Roses
Throughout the 18th, 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, various western, Russian and Bulgarian explorers, writers and revolutionaries have mentioned the development and importance of the rose production in Bulgaria.
In his third letter to the National geographic institute in Paris in 1859, S. Paye points out:
“The Kazanlak valley was called by the Turks – ‘Tele’ – the richest and most fertile land in European Turkey.”
When visiting the Kazanlak Valley on the 21st of May, 1837, Helmuth von Moltke wrote in his itinerary “In the land of roses”:
“The air is filled with aroma and I do not only mean it figuratively, as it is usually said in poetic descriptions, I mean it literally. Kazanlak is the Cashmere of Europe, a Turkish Gullestan*.”
*Gullestan from Turkish means ‘rose valley‘ or ‘land of roses‘
According to Gabrielle Turgut, 1680 was the year when rose distillation began in Bulgaria – in the beautiful Rose Valley.
I have to agree with those foreign visitors of my homeland, the Valley has its unique charm. When Spring comes, there is some kind of magic in the air, the birds sing, people smile and the scent of flowers brightens your mind! You can almost feel the reason why the ancient Thracian tribes have decided to place their valley of Thracian kings inside the Valley of Roses, but let us not get distracted, I will write more about our Thracian heritage in another article!
Climate characteristics of the Rose Valley and How it Affects the quality of the Rose Oil
The Bulgarian Rosa Damascena has over 280 components thanks to the special climate and soil it is grown in, which makes its aroma, longevity and intricacy extremely precious and desired by the most famous perfume brands in the world.
The Valley is surrounded by mountains which protect it from unfavourable winds, there is a river or a spring flowing through each little village, providing enough water not only for the growth of Rosa Damascena but for a variety of other flowers used in perfumery as well.
High amounts of rain in May and June are crucial for the successful growth of the Damask Rose, with an average of 100mm per square meter of rainfall. The predominant soil in the region is cinnamon-forest soil which is always mixed with sand and rubble, with some formed alluvial soil types and subtypes created by the accumulation of river mineralization.
The winters in the Rose Valley are mild and combined with the airy soils and heavy Spring rains they form the perfect conditions for growing our dear Rosa Damascena which has an unsurpassed fragrance.
The Rise of Rose Oil Production in Bulgaria
The favourable climate for growing Damask Rose has marked the development of the processing and perfume industries in Bulgaria, which later lead to the international denomination of Bulgaria as the Rose Country.
Before growing and trading with Rosa Damascena products, Bulgarians living in the Kazanlak and Karlovo valleys would grow various types of fruits and vegetables, craft different tools, and cloth, herd cattle and trade with neighbour regions.
In the early 20th century, out of 479 farmers, 427 grew Rosa Damascena in addition to the usual crops. Seems like everyone wanted to test their entrepreneurial spirit or simply ensure their homes smell like roses throughout the year!
Interesting facts about the rose production in the early 20th century
- A 1000 square meters of land with Rosa Damascena plants cost between 60-200 levs.
- In order to produce 1 kilogram of rose oil, you need 3000-3500 kilograms of the Kazanlak White rose or 4000-5000 kilograms of the Red oil-bearing rose.
- The average growth of lands planted with roses was between 2 and 5 thousand square meters a year.
- The overall cost of having a 2000 square meter of rose plantation maintained costed 45 levs. Planting, hoeing, earing, rose picking, transportation, taxes and even a 5% interest.
- Each village in the rose Valley had their special method of maintaining, planting and processing the rose petals. There is a long list of various tools used in each of these processes, some of which you can see in the Institute of Rose in Kazanlak and their museum.
- Sadly, the huge increase of rose plantations in the early 20th century was reduced to 23% after the end of World War II.
- In order to find out if any rose plants were frostbitten, the locals would pick a number of branches, stick them in potatoes and leave them behind their stoves for a few days, the ratio between fresh and dry branches would show whether they should hire more or fewer rose pickers.
- Out of 1 kilogram of rose petals, you can produce 1 kilogram of rose water.
The Rose Picking Frenzy in Mid-May – Early-June
This time of the year is the happiest and most dynamic for the rose farmers, as it marks the time where they reap the fruits of their labour that they’ve put in throughout the year.
Two weeks before the actual rose picking, the local farmers frantically fix the barrels for rose boiling, preparing a fireplace made of ‘red’ clay, buying rose oil bottles and flasks, digging ditches where cold water will flow from the local rivers in order to cool the hot steam of the rose processing. Everything is checked and double-checked because when the rose processing begins it goes on 24/7 and there is no time for any extra work.
Rose farmers who have 2 to 3 thousand square meters of rose plantation gather their families and prepare to pick up roses by themselves while those with more roses to pick hire rose pickers and pay them per kilogram of roses picked. The annual average of hired rose pickers was over 3000.
Following an old tradition, the rose pickers put the first rose petal in the hair behind their ears.
The rose picking begins at 4 o’clock in the morning and usually ends at 10 AM because the rose petals picked in the afternoon have 50% less rose oil concentrate in them. Experienced rose pickers say that roses give most rose oil when there is high humidity. Rainy weather prolongs the rose-picking process and therefore eases the labour of the rose pickers as the rose petals bloom gradually.
If the weather is sunny and dry, the rose-picking could go on for more than 10 hours each day and the rose petals are stored under shelters where they are sprayed with water as the farmers can not keep up with the rose boiling.
The rose pickers pick the rose petals in special, willow branch baskets as the willow does not soak the dew of the rose petals. Afterwards, the rose petals are put in big baskets made of willow branches again and are transported to the rose processing plant.
The rose picking period begins and lasts differently for the different regions. In Kazanlak it begins on the 5th of May and ends on the 20th of June, in Karlovo it begins on the 7th of May and ends on the 19th of June, in Nova Zagora, it begins on the 8th of May and ends on the 25th of June. This difference is due to the height of each valley and its temperature and humidity.
The amount of rose oil produced from the oil-bearing roses depends on the type of rose. The most common roses grown for their rose otto in the Valley of Roses are:
How to Pick a Rose Bud Properly?
The way you pick a rosebud properly is using your thumb, index and middle fingers. Hold the rosebud and break it by pressing it upwards with your thumb. Now when you go on a rose picking event in the valley, the locals will be amazed and will say: “Wow, how did you know how to pick roses? Bravo!” And don’t forget to wear old clothes as the rose thorns will be all over you.
Did you know: a kilogram of rose petals in 1900 cost 0.15 levs, in 1919 – 0.6 levs and i the 1930s – 20-25 levs.
The Steaming Process of Rose Oil Production
Back in the day, rose producers would experiment with various techniques in order to produce higher quality rose otto. For example, a typical Bulgarian method would be to have a metal tube which is put in an 80×80 cm. wooden barrel filled with cold water which is used to cool the hot steam of the rose boiling barrel. This tube was called бурия (buria).
The Bulgarian rose producers were pretty good at finding ingenious ways to increase the quality of the rose oil, and as the local producers would say: the quality and quantity you can produce depends on 1. the quality of the rose petals and 2. the experience of the one who makes the rose oil. For example, compared to the Turkish rose oil producers, Bulgarian producers make 40 to 86 vials to the 14 to 53 Vials of their Turkish neighbours. One of their secrets to success was to take off the boiling cauldron off the hot fire and afterwards continue boiling it on low heat fire. Another important trick is to not let any steam out which would decrease the amount of oil produced.
The Trading of Rose Essential Oils
As the rose oil production season comes each year, the so-called комисионери (commissioners) or in Turkish колджии (koldjyy) – traders would start visiting each rose producer and would ask what is this year’s production. On the other hand, the locals would ask what are the prices of the rose oil and would search for the commissioner who offers the best price.
The traders would have relations with various companies from the perfume industry in the USA, France, Germany, UK etc. The notebooks of the old trading companies in the Rose Valley show that the commission taken would vary from 20 to 100%.
Did you know: the small vials where rose oil is stored, ready for sale, is called мускал (muskal) and it comes in 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 grams variations. The famous rose trader Ganyo Somov from Enina village would put rose vials in his belt and would travel to international fairs and exhibitions, trying to find the best price he can get. In 1893, Aleko Konstantinov, one of the most famous Bulgarian authors met Ganyo in the Chicago fair in the US and would later use him as the prototype of the infamous character bai Ganyo (бай Ганьо).
In order to find out what the quality of the rose oil is, an expert would check its temperature. There are 3 quality types, the highest quality freezes at -20-21 degrees Celsius, second quality freezes at -18-19 degrees and the third – -16-17.
Did you know: In 1886, the renown rose trading house “Kancho Shipkov” bought 92 984 vials of rose oil from various towns and villages across the Valley.
There were many who tried to produce fake rose oil in order to reap higher profits by diluting the rose oil with geranium oil, the percentage of which could go up to 30-40 as in some cases, everyone along the trading line would try to increase the amount of rose oil they possess. There are various notes of local producers who have met various traders abroad who tried to sell them fake rose oil for half the price.
Did you know: Bulgaria produces close to half of the world’s rose oil and the ‘Bulgarian Rose Oil’ was patented in 1994.
Geranium oil would be imported in Kazanlak from Spain, Italy, and even African countries in order to be mixed with real rose oil. The local producers would need years of experience in order to distinguish the original from the fake. In 1860, British scientists would conduct chemical tests in order to separate the real rose oil from the fakes.
In fact, trading with fake rose oil dates back to ancient times, seems everyone wanted to get their hands on this golden elixir.
During the early 20th century, the price for a vial of rose otto was between 5 and 10 levs and increased gradually up to 300 levs for a vial in 1925. Pretty expensive, huh?
And So, Rosa Damascena Changed the Life of the Local Population Forever
There were many social, economic and cultural changes due to the vast development of rose oil production.
- Clothing changed to city fashion even in the villages
- The development of coppersmithing, tinkering, barrel making, basketry
- The rose oil industry partially changed gold trading, iconography, woodcraft, architecture etc.
- Creation of various songs, poetry, and novels connected with the Rosa Damascena.
- The international relations of the bigger rose oil trading and producing companies would introduce new etiquette and cultural trends taken from other countries.
- Other local crafts such as carpet-making were changed by the rose and a new style of carpet and blanket weaving designs were created, called: alishta (алища) with the rose ornaments being at the core of the designs.
- The famous gyulova rakya (alcohol beverage) became popular both across the country and abroad. Gyulova rakia is made from the rose marks leftover from the rose extraction process.
- Another famous food inspired by the roses is rose jam – made from rose petals and sugar, boiled together until the right consistency is achieved.
The list goes on and I am sure you will see how Rosa Damascena has changed the shape of Kazanlak and the Rose Valley when you visit it yourself. If you still don’t know what this year’s festival holds – explore our detailed guide about it.
If there is anything else you want to know about the history of rose oil production in Bulgaria, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer as soon as I can.