Because of its rich fragrance and beneficial properties, rose is cultivated for many different products, including cosmetics, body care, and perfumes, as well as rose essential oil, rose absolute and rose extracts. Today, the top countries for rose cultivation in essential oil production are Bulgaria, Turkey, and Iran, although several other countries also maintain commercial rose plantations for essential oil on a smaller scale such as Morocco, Egypt, India, France, China and Russia. Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Iran cultivate mainly Rosa damscena. Morocco, Egypt, and France mainly cultivate Rosa centifolia (International Trade Centre [ITC], source).
Many of these plantations, particularly in Bulgaria, also maintain a very small amount (often just a few rows) of Rosa alba for essential oil production; however, this species contains considerably less rose essential oil, and is used primarily as a screen planting to protect Rosa damascena or Rosa centifolia against excessive wind damage (ARS, source, 1995). Saudi Arabia is also known for its cultivation of the rare Taif Rose, a subspecies of Rosa damascena (Rosa x Damascena trigintipetala) for rose oil and rose water (Fragrantica, source, 2013).
Discussion over exactly which civilization first began cultivating roses varies greatly. Many believe that the first rose bushes were cultivated in China approximately 5000 years ago. Confucius (551-479 BC) was reported to have several books in his library on how to care for roses (Santa Barbara Rose Society, source, 2014). Other evidence suggests that Romans perfected the cultivation—including grafting, budding, and pruning—of roses, and soon this skill spread across the Roman Empire, as well as many regions beyond. Many early roses, such as Rosa moschata and Rosa gallica, were planted and nurtured throughout the Roman Empire (International Herb Association, source, 2014.) Ancient Roman patricians tended rose gardens at their homes, and Roman citizens enjoyed public rose gardens as a common way to pass a summer afternoon. Some records reveal that Rome had approximately two thousand public gardens before the city’s fall in 476 AD. The poet and satirist Horace complained about the shortsightedness of the Roman government in allowing rose gardens to be planted where the land should have been used for wheat fields and orchards (Herbs2000, source, 2014).
Most species of rose grow best in deep, fertile, moist but well-drained soils with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, in a location with full sun and good air circulation to reduce disease and harmful insects. The exact optimum location, soil type, spacing of plants and other cultivation details vary from species to species (International Herb Association, source, 2014).
The main rose essential oil producing countries are Bulgaria, Turkey, and Iran, with Morocco, France, Syria, Egypt, and Russia also producing rose oil to a lesser extent. China, India, Morocco and other countries in northern Africa mainly produce rose water and a small portion of the rose oil used by the perfumery industry (Kole, Wild Crop Relatives [Google eBook], 2011). Iran is also currently a top producer of rose water (Iran English Radio, source, 2013). Below is a more detailed summary of rose cultivation in the top three rose oil-producing countries, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Iran, with the hectares of rose plantations maintained in each region, as well as rose cultivation in France and Saudi Arabia.
For over 400 years, the Bulgarian Rose Valley has been considered one of the world’s centers for rose oil production, mainly cultivating Rosa damascena. According to a recent news report, as of 2009, Bulgaria maintains around 3,600 hectares (8,895 acres) of rose plantations, 2,500 (6,177 acres) hectares of which were planted after 2001 (Jerusalem Post, source, 2009).
The plantations are almost entirely located in Bulgaria’s Valley of the Roses, or Rose Valley, which is said to be the birthplace of the first rose plantations. These original rose plantations appeared around the town of Kazanlak, Bulgaria in the 16th century—the area’s humidity, cloudiness, precipitation, and soil conditions have proven to be one of the most favorable in the world for rose cultivation. This region surrounding Kazanlak, enclosed by the Balkan and Sredna Gora mountain ranges, soon became known as the Valley of Roses as its rose plantations grew and spread.
Many of Bulgaria’s largest rose oil producers, including Alteya and the French-owned Biolandes, maintain plantations situated in the Bulgarian Rose Valley (Alteya, source, 2008). Biolandes maintains approximately 250 acres of Rosa damascena on its plantations in this region (Biolandes, source, 2014). A few rows of the intensely fragrant Rosa alba, the white rose, are also included on these plantations, but Biolandes states that it no longer uses this species for rose essential oil distillation as the Rosa alba petals yield half the oil content of Rosa damascena (Biolandes, source, 2014).
Turkey is also one of the world’s top producers of rose essential oil. Rose cultivation of Rosa damascena began in 1888 in Isparta, the “City of Roses,” and today this industry remains a major part of Turkey’s culture. The Isparta region maintains almost the entirety of Turkey’s rose plantations; in 2009, this region had around 1600 hectares (3953 acres) of Rosa damascena planted for rose oil production (Giray & Kart, source, 2012).
Rose cultivation and the supply of flowers to distilleries is almost exclusively the activity of village families in gardens of less than one hectare (1-2 acres) with only a few larger scale commercial plantations also contributing (International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades [IFEAT], source, 2012). Around 10,000 families in Turkey, approximately 8,700 of which live in the Isparta region, are in the rose oil production business (Giray & Kart, http://www.agrojournal.org/18/05-03-12.pdf, 2012).
The main producer of rose oil in Turkey is Gulbirlik—a union of six cooperatives, with 8,000 members, four rose oil distilleries and two extraction units for production of concrete, with a daily total processing capacity of around three metric tonnes (3.3 US tons) of flowers. Basmakci cooperative in Afyon, Turkey is another major producer of rose essential oil, with 3,000 members (ITC, source).
Production of rose essential oil and rose water from Rosa damascena, known in Iran as the Mohammadi rose, dates back to over 2,500 years ago; commercial distilleries of this species existed in Shiraz in 1612. Rosa damascena is extremely resistant to drought and thus grows both in the wild and in gardens or plantations all over the country. However, this rose is mainly cultivated in Kashan, Fars, and Azerbaijan (Haghighi, Tehranifar, Nikbakht & Kafi, source, 2008).
In 2013 Iran maintained approximately 13,000 to 15,000 hectares of Rosa damascena plantations for rose oil and rose waterproduction. In a recent news article, Iranian agricultural official Mostafa Qamsari states that “Despite the amount of land under Damascus rose cultivation in Iran, the country has not been successful in producing essential oil.” He explains that Iran’s lack of success, despite its many plantations, is why Bulgaria, who only maintains around 3,600 hectares of rose plantations, is the leading rose oil producer in the world (Iran Daily, source, 2013).
In the late 18th century, the city of Grasse in southeastern France became known as the capital of the perfume industry with its abundant fields for cultivating flowers, which included rose plantations. In particular, this area became known for cultivating Rosa centifolia, known in the region as Rose de Mai, the May rose. According to legends, Catherine de Medici, Queen of France during this time, was inspired to encourage the essential oil industry in Grasse while visiting the region (France Monthly, source, 2006).
Today the rose plantations are relatively small and mostly operated by individual farmers and their families. These plantations are mainly located near Grasse, Pegomas, Mougin, and Montauroux. A typical plantation of Rosa centifolia consists of approximately 1,000 rose bushes per acre, planted 90 cm (3 ft) apart in rows of the same distance (Ryman, source.) As of 2009, there were between 30 and 35 producers of Rosa centifolia essential oil or absolute in Grasse (Office de Tourisme de Grasse, source, 2009). The largest rose plantations in the region are the Mul family plantations, partnered exclusively with Chanel, in Le Petit Champ de Dieu valley near Grasse, with seven hectares (17 acres) ofRosa centifolia producing 50 metric tonnes (55 US tons) of roses each year (Cusano, source, 2010).
In Saudi Arabia, roses are synonymous with the city of Taif, named after the Taif rose (Rosa x Damascena trigintipetala) which grows in abundant plantations all over the city. The city of Taif is internationally famous for agriculture, particularly the cultivation and production of roses, dating back to 100 years ago; each spring, Taif’s fields are said to be seas of beautiful pink as the Taif rose blooms. Due to its close resemblance to the Kazanlik rose of Bulgaria, many think that the Taif rose was brought to Taif from the Balkans by Turks, who occupied this area in the 14th century (Fragrantica, source, 2013).
Rashid Al-Qurashi, the owner of several rose plantations and producer of rose oil in Saudi Arabia, asserts that “There is no other rose like the Taif rose because of its strong, delicious fragrance.” As of 2012, Taif has around 750 rose plantations, which produce around 233 million roses. Taif also has approximately 34 factories that produce 19,000 bottles of rose oil each year (Arab News, source, 2012).
Recently, many producers of rose essential oil have begun to maintain their rose plantations under certified organic practices, without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or any other harmful additives, in order to produce organic rose oil. Bulgaria’s main organic rose oil producer, Alteya, is especially renowned around the world for its production of certified organic rose essential oil, harvested from their rose plantations in Bulgaria’s Valley of the Roses (Alteya, source, 2008).