Musk comes from the scent gland of a small deer native to the Himalayas and east Asia and has been used as a perfume from antiquity, first in China and subsequently in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the deer is now nearing extinction and is a protected species. Robert, one of the few people to have smelled the original, says modern chemical imitations are “like the sound of a plastic violin compared with a Stradivarius”, but is happy to search out hints of the scent in his own musk roses.
In musk roses, the fragrances are produced by the stamens rather than the petals and are characterised by a prominent clove character similar to that in dianthus and carnation. Another type of musk fragrance is that of the wild field rose, thought to be the ‘musk rose’ beloved of Shakespeare. Here, Robert says, the fragrance is “almost pungent, or aldehydic, as in orange peel”.
In many roses, a musk fragrance coming from the stamens mingles with the fragrance coming from the petals, as, for example, in the hybrid musk, ‘Buff Beauty’, which Robert says smells of musk, old rose, tea and violets. “It’s a complex but very beautiful fragrance and would be a candidate for my desert island selection.”