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Orrington, MAINE USA

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Valleys—Where Rose Oil is Born

Bulgaria’s big rose festival begins today; work is hard and “conditions” are ideal.


At Karlovo’s rose festival

Photo: Balkany

Kazanlashka roza—the Kazanluk rose of Bulgaria—receives its due over the next several days. Bulgaria’s rose festival comes at harvest time, when this special breed of flower is at peak bloom and ripe with precious attar.

While the Bulgarians admit their roses are descended from those of Iran, they point out how over four centuries, they’ve made huge improvements, thanks to humid nature and intensive nurture. They call the time-honored techniques of cultivation kesme, a laborious method that involves trenching, the careful relayering of “upper” and “lower” soils, overlapping healthy cuttings, periodic hoeing and shoveling in of “lower” earth, “scarifying the stamped soil” after the harvest, and mounding dirt around the bases of each plant for winter.

The seasoned rose growers here have noticed, “Every five to seven years there occurs a sudden warming during the harvesting time, which hampers gathering, storing and distillation. To avoid the adverse effect of the winds on the rose bushes, (the shrubs) were always planted in hedge-rows,” oriented north/south or northeast/southwest. Formerly, hedges of white roses were planted at the extremities of the field, to protect the more richly scented pinks inside.

imageRose harvesting

Image: BPG

To all this human care and industry, Nature contributes genius too. The climate here is, in rose-ese, perfect. “The rainfalls in the Rose Valley are heaviest in the spring, with a peak in June. Daily rainfalls are not abundant, yet the rainy days are many. This kind of weather prolongs the flowering period, suppresses oil evaporation,  at the same time increasing the yield of oil and its quality. The mean monthly precipitation in May and June is usually between 80 and 100 litres per square meter. The absence of intensive sunshine prevents undesired liberation of the volatile aromatic ingredients from the flowers.” 

Warm and humid without baking sun, temperate and airy without stinging winds. According to one source, flowers of the Striama and Toundzha river valleys (and their human assistants) produce 80% of the world’s rose oil, used in perfumes, to be sure, but also in cooking and cosmetics.

Here’s a general run-down of the festival events, which include dancing, lots of costumes, demonstrations, ritual picking, and the crowing of rose royalty. “The first rose festival in Kazanlak took place in 1903” and Karlovo began its own celebration soon after.  Here are more specifics and photos from Karlovo, where the ritual picking this year will take place June 3. This excellent site offers lots more information about the history of the industry. It notes, for example, that under Communism, rose production “was declared a monopoly of the state.”

While Bulgarian tourism calls the rose festival “a tribute to beauty,” we can’t help but remember what our Bulgarian friend Stela told us—that as a high school student, she and all her classmates were bussed into the rose valley before dawn and forced to pick flowers each morning throughout harvest season.

We’d call the rose festival “a tribute to labor and nature”—with beauty, and sore fingers, its result.

Posted by Julie on 05/30 at 11:52 AM
Cut-Flower TradeGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink