Rose oil- part 1 of a 3 part series- the harvest and the distillation

June 3, 2014

Last weekend I had the good fortune of being able to go to the rose district of Turkey, Isparta, for two days and directly see and experience rose picking and the distillation of the precious rose oil. I was even able to stay with a rose picking family who have their own rose gardens outside their house. This is the first part of a series of 3 articles. This article is about my experience with the rose harvest and the distillation, and the other two will be about the history of rose and the uses of rose oil.

Rose essential oil is one of the world’s most expensive essential oils. In Turkey, in 2013, 1 kg of rose oil cost 7000 Euro, which means that 100g cost 700 Euro and just a tiny 10grams cost 70 Euro. Remember here that we are talking about cost price from the distillery here, without any middle men, without any transportation, bottling or retail mark up costs. So of course, by the time the oil gets to the consumer, we are talking quite an expensive oil. But, despite its price, it is a widely sought after oil. It is used mostly in perfumery (often the absolute instead of the essential oil) but also in aromatherapy. So far, this year, there has been no apparent setback to the rose industry, so probably the price will be much similar to that of 2013.

 

Isparta, is the rose district of Turkey. Although the rose is not actually a Turkish native plant, Turkey has become the main centre for growing and commercially distilling Rosa damascena (both the essential oil and the absolute), also known as rose otto or Damask rose.  It is claimed that Iran (ancient Mesopotamia) is the native home of rosa damascena and it was Iran which was the major producer of rose oil until the spread of the Ottoman Empire. However, some sources say that the native home of the rose is Syria and thus the name of Damask rose, from Damascus. During the Ottoman Empire, the rose was brought to Bulgaria, which became the main commercial rose centre. Towards the end of the 19th century, rose cuttings were brought from Bulgaria to Turkey by EthnicTurkish immigrants from Bulgaria. At the time, the reigning Sultan of the Ottoman empire, Sultan Abdulhamit, encouraged rose plantations by providing stills and saplings to farmers.  Roses were first planted in Bursa, although not successfully, so the rose plantations were moved to Isparta, where the climate is mild, humid and very kind to roses. Roses grow here very easily, needing little care and very little extra water. The rose bush has a life of around 50 years but it stops being economic after around 25 years. It takes a rose bush around 3 years to start producing a viable amount of roses and rose oil. One hectare of rose bushes can produce around 5-8 kilograms of roses.

Like many people involved in agriculture, a rose grower’s day starts early. Depending on the weather conditions and the quantity of roses, it can start as early as 4am in the morning, but more commonly around 5am. The roses in the fields need to be picked early before the heat of the sun causes the flower’s volatile oils to evaporate. The collectors go out into the fields with bags or baskets tied around their waste. They take the flower, careful to avoid the myriad thorns everywhere, turn it over and the stem snaps just under the seed pod of the flower. Depending on the time of the season and the size of their garden, the collectors maybe picking for many hours. As soon as possible after collecting the roses, they are taken to the distillery. They will take the roses to the factory themselves by foot, donkey, tractor or car, or the factory may come and collect them. For others there maybe a middle man involved who works on a commission basis to pick up the roses for a factory, but in this case the farmers will get less for their work. The family that I stayed with, started picking at around 5.30am depending on the weather. They have a few small rose gardens where the bushes are around 25-30 years old. For the month of the rose harvesting season, all those involved work hard, saving the money that will help them get through the rest of the year. For every kilogram of roses picked they will get around 1.75 Euro.

Like many people involved in agriculture, a rose grower’s day starts early. Depending on the weather conditions and the quantity of roses, it can start as early as 4am in the morning, but more commonly around 5am. The roses in the fields need to be picked early before the heat of the sun causes the flower’s volatile oils to evaporate. The collectors go out into the fields with bags or baskets tied around their waste. They take the flower, careful to avoid the myriad thorns everywhere, turn it over and the stem snaps just under the seed pod of the flower. Depending on the time of the season and the size of their garden, the collectors maybe picking for many hours. As soon as possible after collecting the roses, they are taken to the distillery. They will take the roses to the factory themselves by foot, donkey, tractor or car, or the factory may come and collect them. For others there maybe a middle man involved who works on a commission basis to pick up the roses for a factory, but in this case the farmers will get less for their work. The family that I stayed with, started picking at around 5.30am depending on the weather. They have a few small rose gardens where the bushes are around 25-30 years old. For the month of the rose harvesting season, all those involved work hard, saving the money that will help them get through the rest of the year. For every kilogram of roses picked they will get around 1.75 Euro.

In earlier times, copper stills (alembic) were heated by fire, and might be seen being used in the village, but the more modern industrial stills use steam only to heat the water and the roses. In contrast to most other plants which are distilled by steam only and not in boiling water, roses are too delicate for steam and have to be boiled in water. This property is also shared by orange blossom flowers.

 

Roses produce a yellow to greenish essential oil which solidifies when the temperature is under 15 degrees. Roses are not very high in their oil yield, which is the most significant factor in their high price. On average to produce 1 gram of oil, 4-5 kgs of roses are required. The cooler and rainier the weather, the higher the yield. İn contrast, hot weather reduces the yield as it causes the valuable volatile oils to evaporate. It is also said that the fullness of the moon gives a better yield. Once the roses are picked and left lying around, they also start to lose their volatile oils. They can also start to ferment, ruining the aroma. This is why there is a literal rush to get the picked roses to the distillery. The delicate rose needs to be treated well to impart her precious oil!

In my two day experience, I was able to participate in the collection of the roses as well as see every step involved in the distillation of the roses and over two days. It was incredible. The moment I walked into the ‘Gulhane’ (which translates as place of the roses), otherwise known as the distillery,  I was struck by the smell of roses. Although I got there at the end of the day after everything had finished at least 2 hours before, the smell of the rose was everywhere and even penetrates the walls. The workers said that even in the winter when there is no distillation of roses (these stills are only used for roses), that everything still smells of rose. It is even amazing that just before the first trickle of rose water is ready to come, there is a most exquisite waft of rose. And then it is like being in heaven as the rose water trickles out for the next hour or so. Of course, at the beginning the best of the oil comes out, as the oil is volatile is evaporates rather quickly, and that is when the most exquisite smell wafts through the air. I am extremely grateful to the owner of Nu-Ka (Defne Essencia) Nuri Kalay, for allowing me to come and be in his factory for 2 days, watching every part of the process, taking photos and asking endless questions. I also got to see his new organic plantation of genuine lavender which he plans to distill, and also organic rosemary. I was also lucky enough to go to see his new large plot of land which is being turned into an large organic rose garden. Nuri Kalay is one of the few producers of organic rose oil (although he also produces conventional rose oil) in Turkey.

Source- Nuri Kalay (2014) Nu-Ka Defne Essencia Ltd.

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