A Glimpse Into the Garden: September 2013

A monthly gardening update by OSV staff horticulturist Roberta McQuaid

This behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Village gardens will explore a range of topics including what’s growing in our gardens and the culture and history of specific heirloom plants. We hope that you will find this monthly online feature informative and perhaps it will enrich your next visit to the museum - maybe even adding to your own gardening adventures at home.

A “Beautiful Lady” in the Parsonage Dooryard


“What cottage exists without its roses twined around the doorway or blooming up its pathway?  What is sentiment without roses?  What other flower illustrates the beauty and excellence of a loved one?”

- Louisa Johnson, Every Lady Her Own Flower Gardener.  New Haven, 1844

Old Sturbridge Village staff members are dedicating a ‘Bella Donna’ rose in the Parsonage dooryard garden to Rebecca Robinson (pictured), former Museum Program horticulture lead, who passed away one year ago. Rebecca was an amazing woman who inspired many people with her skill, talent, courage and passion for the Village. She loved the Parsonage garden in particular and we felt that a rose whose name is translated to “beautiful lady” personified her both inside and out.

The Parsonage dooryard garden is adorned with two heirloom roses, both known to us as the cultivar ‘Bella Donna.’ According to The Rose Amateur’s Guide, written in 1843 by T. Rivers, “Bella Donna is a true Damask Rose, bearing a profusion of pink or bright rose-coloured flowers.” Typical of most old garden roses, this cultivar blooms over a three week period but once a year, usually early June here in the north.

Gathering roses In the 19th century, just as today, roses were prized not only for their beauty, but also their scent. Damasks are intensely fragrant, and have large, double blossoms.  Here petals are being gathered from the roses in the Parsonage dooryard for use within the home.  Advice manuals reveal the many ways that the rose’s aroma could be preserved for future use.

S.B. Parsons, in The Rose: It’s History, Poetry, Culture, and Classification (1856) writes about the common day uses of dried petals:

“As the petals of the rose preserve their fragrance for a long time after being dried, many are in the habit of making annually little bags filled with them. These, being placed in a drawer or wardrobe, impart an agreeable perfume to the linen or clothing in which they may come in contact.”

It was recommended that rose petals be gathered as soon as the flower fully expanded and in advance of its color fading. If the weather was warm and dry, the petals could be dried outside in the shade on a platform elevated two or three feet from the ground. In humid weather, drying by the heat of a fireplace or wood stove was recommended. Drying quickly was thought to retain more fragrance.

Roses were also preserved for culinary use. Mrs. Cornelius in The Young Housekeeper’s Friend (1848) writes of two such methods:

“Conserve of Roses. Gather each morning the roses which blossomed the day before, and after picking out the insects, stems, and calixes, throw the leaves(petals) into a jar with layers of powdered loaf or crushed sugar; do this while the roses last, crowd the jar full, and cover it very close. A very nice article is thus made to put into cakes, puddings, etc.”

Rose Butter. Gather the leaves (petals) as directed in the preceding recipe, and put them in a stone jar in alternate layers with fine salt. Lay a pound of butter in the jar for making cake. When this is used, lay in another. This is a better way of obtaining the flavor of roses for cake than to use rose-water, because rose-water often makes it heavy.”

Rose water is a common topic of conversation in Village kitchens. In the 1830’s, vanilla was not yet an available flavoring. Rosewater appears commonly in recipes where today one might expect to find vanilla. Here is advice on the process of making rosewater:

“Gather fragrant, full blown roses, on a dry day—pick off the leaves, and to each peck of them put a quart of water. Put the whole in a cold still, and set the still on a moderate fire—the slower they are distilled, the better will be the rosewater. Bottle the water as soon as distilled.” By a Housewife, The Kitchen Directory (1841).

Damasks are the source of “attar of roses,” a substance of significant historical and modern-day importance in the perfume industry. Jonas Thatcher in The American New Dispensary (1810) wrote of “ottar”:

“It is doubtless the most elegant perfume in vegetable nature; as a single drop imparts its fragrance throughout the room or dwelling, and suppresses other less agreeable odours.”

Sources indicate that the 17th-century discovery of an oily substance floating on the top of rose water happened quite by accident. It was interesting to learn that huge quantities of roses are necessary to make a small amount of attar. According to Graham Stuart Thomas, author of Shrub Roses of Today (1962), about 1,200,000 blooms, or three tons of flowers, are necessary to produce two and a half pounds of attar- this equates to approximately 4-5 acres of Damask Rose plants! The Kazanlik Valley in Bulgaria devotes some 7,500 acres to growing the crop. The “Valley of Roses” must be s sensory delight in late May and June, when the harvest is in full swing. Roses are picked complete - the oil is found in most flower parts, although, as expected, the petals contain a greater amount. They are harvested in the early morning hours and steam distilled the very same day so as not to lose the oil to evaporation.

Advice for growing roses differs very little today from 19th-century sources. Parsons also expounds on this subject:

“The most suitable soil is a strong rich loam, or vegetable mould mixed with about one quarter its bulk of well-decomposed stable manure…Nothing is more injurious to the Rose than a wet, retentive subsoil; and where expense and trouble are no object, this perfect draining is much the best calculated to insure a thrifty growth and perfect bloom…While, however, the Rose requires a cool, airy location, it should by no means be placed entirely in the shade; a portion of the sun’s rays is always necessary to ensure a good bloom.”

As you tour the heirloom gardens at Old Sturbridge Village, know that Rebecca’s handiwork lives on in all of the flowers and plants she nurtured, and that a special rose is hers alone.

Special thanks to Amy Murray and Christie Higginbottom for their assistance with this article.