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A Rose Is a Rose, but Does It Smell the Same?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“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 sometimes for weeks. Along the way, they also have 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.

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“It wasn’t intentional,” said 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 even have 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 dramatically 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,” said 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. Non-fragrant flowers employ 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,” said 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.”

In much the same way that tomatoes lost flavor during the quest for redness, roundness and long 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 hearty enough to be cut and packaged in such flower-producing nations as Ecuador and arrive in this college town, about 2,900 miles north, looking as if they had just come from the university’s 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.

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, the vast majority of flowers are given--not as air-fresheners--but as gifts or gestures.

So although it is nice to send a fragrant bouquet on Mother’s Day, florists say, it is the act, the giving, and the initial appearance of the gift that are paramount.

The popularity of the phoned-in flower orders and, more recently, online orders, have further separated the buyer from more subtle properties like scent.

“Many people who call in assume that, because they are flowers, they’re going to have scent,” said a floral designer named Cherie at Baumgarten Krueger Florists in Milwaukee. “Wrong.”

The question of what to do about the lost aromas is just now being addressed.

Mark Bridgen, a horticulture professor at the University of Connecticut, recently managed to breed an alstroemeria that has both a long shelf life and strong fragrance. Using a fragrant but ugly little flower from Brazil for the father and an attractive but scentless Chilean varietal for the mother, Bridgen produced a cross called Sweet Laura that he said should sell half a million stems this year.

The commercial success of an extremely fragrant new red rose in Europe, meanwhile, has piqued the interest of U.S. nurseries. Pricey and with a short shelf life, the German-bred Extase rose nonetheless has become a hit in upscale flower boutiques.

Large breeders, including Bear Creek Gardens in Ventura County, where Zary oversees research, have initiated small programs aimed at reintroducing fragrance. But creating a rose for the popular American market takes considerable time and money.

Of 200,000 seedlings, Bear Creek breeders may pick 1,000 for further study, said Zary. They will then choose perhaps 100 of those to be test-grown in various climates around the world. From that group of 100, just three or four will be introduced in the marketplace. The process may take five or six years.

While breeders are quietly seeking to reverse the process that they suspect led to the decline of fragrance, researchers are trying to figure out just how flowers produce scent in the first place, with an eye toward genetically engineering flowers of the future.

The chemical makeup of most common floral fragrances is no secret. Perfume makers for years have been brewing lilac, rose and other essences in the laboratory. But no one is quite sure how the genes for scent are passed along or why the Brazilian alstroemerias produce scent and the Chilean ones don’t.

In many cases, the scent gene appears to be present but inactive in non-fragrant varietals, said Pichersky, who has spent the last decade tracking the evolution of scent in one species of clarkia, a tiny, lavender-colored wildflower from California’s coastal range.

Understanding the chemical pathways of fragrance, researchers believe, could improve pollination rates, allow flowers to flourish with fewer pesticides and increase the dollar value of cut flowers.

The research may one day even lead to a more egalitarian snapdragon, said Purdue horticulturist Natalia Dudareva, who studies the genetic makeup of the spicy-smelling flower.

Snapdragons emit nearly all their scent during the day, making them perfect cut flowers for those leading lives of leisure, folks who can relax at home and inhale deeply during the maximum-fragrance hours.


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