BOSTON — Then Romeo lamented to Juliet, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," he wasn't talking about roses delivered from FTD.
In fact, if Shakespeare's young hero were to bring a bouquet to his beloved today, it might not smell at all.
The reason: Modern growers have bred flowers that are rich in color, easy to grow commercially, and last longer after cutting. To achieve this, they emphasized the genes for color and hardiness, but in the process lost the scent.
In recent years, home gardeners have been demanding flowering plants that are not only beautiful, but have the sweet smells they remember from childhood. The increasing interest in so-called heirloom flowers such as sweet pea, antique roses, and old-fashioned varieties of lilac and peony has dovetailed with trends in home fragrance and aromatherapy.
"The public has an important impact on the industry," says Tovah Martin, garden editor for Victoria magazine and author of "Taylor's Guide to Indoor Gardens" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). "And the trend is definitely back to scent."
Plant merchants have taken notice. In the past five years, such companies as Burpee and Shepherd's Garden Seeds have expanded their selections of plants grown for scent. And there are even gardening sites on the Web devoted to fragrant flowers. (See below.)
Ms. Martin says that scented flowers were popular in the 19th century, but in the early 20th, the fashion changed in favor of plants that did not call attention to themselves and thus mixed better in the garden. "Smell was a negative thing and nurseries shied away from it."
In addition, "florists needed flowers with longer stems and a long shelf life," Martin says, "and the genes that produce those traits are not linked to fragrance."
Plants have evolved two ways to attract pollinators: color and scent. Nature set things up so plants that lured bees and butterflies by scent did not need flashy colors, and vice-versa. So as a general rule, fragrant flowers tend toward paler colors and are small in size.
The case of cross-bred roses is a prime example of how scent has taken a back seat to shape and color.
When people think of roses, they think of tightly curled, pointed buds on long, elegant stems. Growers and florists have promoted the fashionable hybrid tea rose to the point that the public thinks of it as the only rose shape. But hybrid teas have only been around since 1867, when the first, La France, was developed.
Old roses date back thousands of years. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Generally, the flowers have a higher number of petals than hybrid teas, giving them a fuller, swirled, medallion shape. A few varieties of old roses never went out of style and are still sold. Others live on in cemeteries and other places where they were planted and forgotten.
Successive inbreeding of hybrid tea roses has produced the plant world's equivalent of a prima donna, flaunting her gaudy colors and demanding a regimen of fertilizer and insecticide. Her come-hither blooms promise more scent than they deliver.
Antique roses, by contrast, are more adaptable to a variety of garden settings and more tolerant of cold. The bushes are fuller and, in many gardeners' opinions, more attractive mingled with other plants. And the scent is truly enchanting - ranging from fruity to spicy.
The antique-rose movement has been around for 25 years or more, although old-fashioned roses have only recently become widely available in commercial nurseries in the United States.
Much of the credit goes to an Englishman named David Austin, who, in the 1950s, became dissatisfied with the blandness of hybrid tea roses. So Mr. Austin crossed true old roses - Gallicas - with modern varieties to get plants with old-rose charm that also bloomed repeatedly like the moderns. He went on to create 150 cultivars - or strains - of roses. To distinguish these "new" roses from hybrid teas or antique varieties, Austin called his creations "English roses."
Austin has parlayed his expertise into a huge international nursery business, and David Austin Roses has become a sought-after brand name.
Michael Marriott is nursery manager at David Austin Roses near Wolverhampton, England. "English roses have much greater character [than hybrid teas]," he says. "Their beauty is revealed over time."
The company's breeding is driven by considerations such as flower shape, disease resistance, and repeat flowering more than fragrance. Fortunately, Mr. Marriott says, scent comes naturally in English roses.
SOURCES AND WEB SITES
Jackson & Perkins
St. Paul, Ore.
100 English Roses for The American Garden
Clair G. Martin
Workman Publishing $16.95
The Inviting Garden
The Fragrant Path
Louise Beebe Wilder
Hartley & Marks