The Chemistry of Rose Scent

I created a painting about the chemistry of the scent of roses.

Chemist, Dr Ray Burks was my science advisor on this project and one of the main points she expressed to me is that the volatile aroma chemicals in flowers, the stuff that we smell, is very complex. Something that we think of as a simple scent, such as rose is actually made up of multiple compounds that are often layered upon one another that then give us the familiar experience of what we recognize as “rose.”

Some of these aroma chemicals are present in very small amounts and some in large amounts but it is almost never one single chemical that gives us that recognizable scent in flowers.

Another interesting fact about roses is that they have been cultivated by humans and have evolved in the wild in such a way that one rose will smell very, very different from another. And some roses will have no discernible scent at all! So the the famous quote by Shakespeare, “…a rose by any other name will smell as sweet.” is not even remotely true from a scientific view. Depending on how many, and what aroma compounds are present, will make a rose smell very sweet, or maybe more like citrus or maybe more musky or maybe it just won’t smell at all.

This new knowledge of the scent of roses can open you up to a greater appreciation of all the wonderful varieties of roses out there. Some roses have been bred for qualities such as color and some more for their scent. When you find one that smells in a way that pleases you, take note of the type of rose that is. The next rose you encounter may indeed be very, very different.

rose for post

For this project I referenced the website Compound Interest and used the aroma chemicals in my painting that they represented in this beautiful chart linked here to hopefully hint at the complexity of volatile aroma compounds in my piece of art.

The most notable being (-)-cis-rose oxide which has 4 isomers and is most recognizable (in extremely small amounts) to our nose as “rose.”

The other aroma chemicals I included in the painting by the petals are beta-damascenone and beta-ionone but as I mentioned there are many other compounds that can be present and that can vary widely amongst different rose species.

My science advisor made a wonderful 4 minute video that explains the way the scent of roses works and explains how many roses evolved, often with the help of humans, from the traditional Damask rose. I highly recommend you watch it to learn more! Here is that video:

The painting is 18″x24″ and acrylic on canvas.

Thanks to all my patrons who have supported this project. If you like art that is inspired by science, please consider pledging to my Patreon.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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