The entrancingly sweet fragrance of the panneer roja jogs my memories of my beloved aunt accessorising my plait with enchanting blooms from her suburban rose garden. Honey bees love them too: why else do they swoon into the languorous curls in the panneer rose heaps and not in other fancy coloured pouters?

Our flower vendor Manju said assertively, “Ithu thaan original [This is the original one]”. And so, I embark on a delightful journey with the panneer/Thanjavur rose or the Rose Edouard, a topper on India’s “heritage scents” list.

A semi-double, continuous flowering rose, the panneer rose has been recorded as having been grown in several hundreds of hectares around the temple town of Thanjavur. The plant was also grown from the delta of the Cauvery river in the extreme south up to the foothills of the Himalayas – spanning the entire length of the country, at some point.

Girija Viraraghavan (the granddaughter of the venerable Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the former President of India) and retired bureaucrat MS Viraraghavan, both rosarians, share, “There are various theories about the origin of what we know in South India as the panneer roja. Formally known as the Rose Edouard or Edward, most experts believe that this variety arose in the French island of Réunion, also known as Isle de Bourbon.”

Girija Viraraghavan and MS Viraraghavan in their rose garden. Photo credit: Special arrangement

Most Indians believe that roses came to India during the 10th century, with the advent of the Muslims. It is also recorded that in the 17th century when the British ships from China carrying merchandise to England would stop for refuelling at the port and the then capital city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), nearly every ship would carry live plants (including roses) sought out in England and France.

Then, in the Botanical Gardens of Howrah on the banks of the Ganges, they would recover before continuing their journey. Some plants from each batch would be also planted in a garden, initiated by the Scottish surgeon and botanist Sir William Roxburgh in 1793.

Hybrid of roses?

As for Rose Edouard, many stories of its origin have been recorded. It is believed that roses from China and Persia – supposedly Rosa chinensis or Old Blush and Rosa damascena or Autumn Damask – were planted in the 18th century by the farming islanders of the Réunion Islands in two parallel rows, to form an impenetrable double-hedge.

One day, a Monsieur Edouard Perichon detected a seedling in his hedges that looked different. He believed it was a hybrid of the two hedge roses and replanted the new variety in his garden. There the rose was discovered around 1820 by a French botanist, the then Superintendent of the botanic garden in Réunion, M Bréon, who sent these seeds to France. Edouard Perichon’s rose was renamed Rose de Ile Bourbon and gave rise to a new class of roses, the Bourbons. This new rose came to be known as Rose Edouard.

One school believes this to be a rose of the Indian region since it was cultivated on such a large scale soon after the hybrid from Réunion was identified. Could it have travelled from India to Réunion? Would it have been possible that this rose began to be widely cultivated in the Cauvery area of southern India quite early on and then spread all over the country?

German dendrologist and author Gerd Krüssman’s The Complete Book of Roses is doubtful of the story of its origin in Réunion as there was a rose called Rose Edwards that had been growing for many years in the Botanic Garden, Calcutta.

In 1887, R Barton West, in the book Roses And How To Grow Them In India, states that Rose Edouard, besides being used as stock in India, is a “grand old rose in itself”. He also warns of that during the cold season it almost invariably refuses to expand its blooms. Rose researcher Behcet Ciragan, in his 2014 lecture Tulips, Traders and Roses, revealed that the Périchon family was not only to be found at Réunion; its members had moved between the islands of Ile de Bourbon (Réunion), Ile de France (Mauritius) and the French colony in India, Pondicherry, thereby establishing a new connection to India again.

Versatility of rose

Ancient Sanskrit texts mention rose water distillation and a famous Buddhist monk, Nagarjuna, who lived in the 8th/9th century has given details on how rose water is to be distilled. Around the same time the Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun also described the process.

Rose attar is Rose oil, also called Ruh Gulab, where one kg of oil is obtained from 4,000 kgs of petals. Naturally, 10 gms of rose attar is equivalent in price to 10 gms of gold, elucidating the value of rose attar. Attar is a Persian word meaning perfume and is made from steam distillation of rose flowers plucked very early in the morning. The first product is rose water and from the water, over a period of days, rose oil in minute quantities is collected.

Gulkand is a kind of preserve made by mixing equal quantities of rose petals of R Edward or R damascena and white sugar and kept in the sun till they coalesce together. This is used as a tonic and a laxative.

Gul roghan is a hair oil made by maceration of rose flowers with warm sesame seed oil. Rose essence, rose syrup, rose sherbet, rose wine, rose liquor, rose honey are also used in Indian cuisine. Potpourris and sachets for “perfuming” rooms and closets are common too.

Panneer rose is used in making garlands and is sold outside temple complexes and flower markets, along with other flowers. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

Another heritage rose is again widely used for making garlands, the “Kakinada Red”, Kakinada being the name of a port town on the eastern coast between Calcutta and Chennai. This is again a Bourbon, with a very sweet fruity fragrance with hints of apple, quite different from the damask fragrance of R Edward.

Area under cultivation

Whatever the stories of its origin, there is certainly less area under cultivation of these original old heritage roses, currently, with the flower markets flooded with the rejects of the “cut flower” roses that do not have any fragrance and are sprayed on with some scent and used in garlands.

“This panneer rose is the most popular rose for use in garland making and in worship and is grown commercially in the south of the country, but the cultivation of this variety also extends up to the northern plains, where apart from its use in the temples and garland making, it is used for the extraction of rose oil,” Girija Viraraghavan explained. “In North India, Rose Edouard is used in cosmetics, medicines and dietary supplements. It is grown commercially where the soil is rich and the water is abundant, like Pushkar in Rajasthan, and parts of Uttar Pradesh.”

Veteran organic farmer Raghavendra Rao, smiled indulgently, and said, “My favourite rose, she is! I recommend her to many people. It used to be grown in large tracts in Andhra, Pushpagiri, and in Padappai. However, now the fields have switched to vegetable growing, since it is more economical. The panneer roses shed petals very quickly, so commercially it becomes a challenge.”

Dayanandam, an agricultural expert opined, “These roses need a lot of attention, so they are less of a commercial success.” Inherent mildew susceptibility will need to be addressed by scientific horticultural techniques.

Sivakaami, who has been selling flowers in a crowded Chennai market for over a decade now, said “About 1 kg with around 80 flowers costs Rs 120. But these days lesser quantities are available, even though its very popular for its sweet smell.”

Meanwhile, Pune-based entrepreneur Jayashree Yadav, who began with a rose-based home enterprise, set up her own company in 2001 scaling up soon after to around 15 tonnes of yearly production of gulkand, rose sherbet and rose water, and also registered a patent for an exclusive rose wine.

Her daughter Kashmira Yadav said, “Ours is made exclusively from roses, unlike the currently available wine produced from the skin of black/green grapes with the rose flavour added to it.”

“The ‘Edward Rose’ or Deshi Gulaab’s medicinal properties, sweet fragrance and unique colour make an exemplary product,” she said. Globally, flower wines, especially from dandelions and elderflowers, are very popular. There is hope that this rose edition from India might help revive the vanishing species.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.