Economic, climate crises threaten 'national plant'
You have already seen it: in Bulgaria's official logo, on fridge magnets, boxes of Turkish delight, cosmetics, Facebook and Instagram posts, and any tourism promotion material imaginable. The oil-bearing rose is one of Bulgaria's most recognisable national symbols, a fragrant and humble flower that thrives in one particular region and powers a global luxury market.
A whole system of symbols revolves around the Bulgarian oil-bearing rose. The beautiful, modest Bulgarian girls in traditional attire who pick roses helped by robust young men have been integral to Bulgaria's public image since the 1870s, when an Austro-Hungarian traveller, Felix Kanitz, made the first known engraving of a rose harvest. Since then Bulgaria has experienced several changes of political system, but the image of the beautiful rose-picker has stayed the same, a symbol of Bulgarian grace, joie de vivre and industriousness.
When we lift the scented veil of publicity, however, another picture emerges.
Rose-picking is a back-breaking and badly paid work
The oil-bearing rose has a strong connection to the Bulgarian national identity, yet it arrived fairly recently in the Bulgarian lands. Rosa damascena is the variety that produces the precious attar, a fundamental ingredient in cosmetics and perfumery. It was introduced to the Bulgarian lands as late as the 18th century, while the region was still under Ottoman rule. As the plant's name suggests, it came from the Near East, yet it found the perfect place to thrive in a narrow strip of Bulgaria – the valley locked between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges, around the towns of Kazanlak and Karlovo. The area's unique combination of soil and climate makes it the best spot in the world to grow oil-bearing roses and it is deservedly known as the Valley of Roses. As you travel around, you will see field after field of rose bushes. In May and June, the rose picking season, the blooming plants fill the air with a heavy, sweet aroma.
Within decades of the oil-bearing rose taking root in the Valley of Roses, it had become a pillar of the local economy. The earliest records of Bulgarian rose attar at international markets date back to 1820.
Rose farming and attar production were one of the few traditional businesses that survived the economic changes after the restoration of Bulgaria's independence in 1878. While other local industries, such as the production of woollen cloth, struggled to survive both the loss of the vast Ottoman markets and the influx of cheap Western imports, Bulgarian rose attar had no competition. It was still the best in the world and international cosmetics producers were hungry for it. In the early 20th century rose attar production in Bulgaria surged and in the 1930s the country became the world leader with 75 percent of global rose attar production.
You need 2-3 tonnes of rose petals to make just one kilogram of rose attar
Soon after the Communists took over, in 1944, the rose fields were collectivised and attar distilleries were nationalised. A state company took over attar production and had a monopoly on exports. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the Institute for Roses, Essential and Medical Cultures, which was established in Kazanlak in 1907, successfully selected new oil-bearing rose varieties with improved resistance to cold. Bulgaria remained the leader in the global market until 1983, when attar of lesser quality, but in larger quantities became available from other countries.
The collapse of Communism, in 1989, proved almost fatal to rose attar production. Rose fields and factories were returned to their previous owners and their heirs. Few of them knew how to – or were eager to – tend the fields, distil rose attar and sell it abroad. Dozens of acres were abandoned or uprooted and replaced with less capricious plants. Factories were abandoned and fell into ruin.
Meanwhile, international competition from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and China was getting stronger. Rose attar production in Bulgaria seemed on the brink of extinction.
Production began to revive in the 2000s, powered, as in pre-Communist times, by family businesses plus the much needed EU funding. In 2008, the oil-bearing rose was chosen as one of the country's symbols in a widely popularised campaign. Later, Bulgarian rose attar became a protected designation of origin. The Rose Festival in Karlovo and Kazanlak began to attract local and foreign tourists with events such as a Rose Queen beauty pageant and demonstrations of rose picking. The Institute for Roses, Essential and Medical Cultures now works on developing white rose varieties and testing new oil-bearing types, including some imported from England. In 2020, a much needed Oil-Bearing Rose Act was adopted to regulate production and secure sustainable product quality. Almost 100% of the produce is exported to established markets like France, Germany and Switzerland, and emerging ones like the United States and Australia. Companies such as Chanel, Nina Ricci and Christian Dior purchase Bulgarian rose attar.
Rose picking: the tourist propaganda
Current Bulgarian attar production, however, is not all sun and roses.
The deregulation of the 1990s-2010s resulted in a total loss of control over the varieties farmers grew, and the quality of their rose attar. Profits remain highly dependent on the annual harvest. In 2021, rose producers from the Kazanlak area uprooted dozens of acres of rose bushes and pledged to not pick any flowers at all. Why? After an abundant 2020 harvest and plummeting perfume sales due to the Covid-19 pandemic travelling restrictions (a significant portion of luxury cosmetics are sold in dutyfree zones), they still had unsold rose attar. Pushed by the market's invisible hand, the price of rose petals dropped from over 3 leva per kilogram in 2018 to a mere 1.6 leva in 2021, while the cost of producing a kilogram of rose petals exceeded 2 leva.
The economics are of course important but they are not everything. The heavily promoted image of smiling Bulgarian beauties picking roses under the balmy early summer sun could not be further from reality. Picking roses is a tough job that can only be done by hand between 5 am and noon, when the flowers are heavy with morning dew and are at their most fragrant. Real-life rose-picking means getting up very early, dressing for the cold, and braving mud, thorns and humidity. You also need to work quickly, as you are paid by the kilogram.
Rose picking: the reality
This means that only the poorest of the poor, which usually means Gypsies from the surrounding villages, toil in the rose fields in May and June, including children. Their payment is meagre, but people are generally happy as few have any sustainable income besides social benefits. Dickensian? In the world of Bulgarian roses very much so.
In recent years, rose farmers have begun to complain about the difficulty of recruiting pickers. Skilled workers, they say, now go after better paid seasonal jobs in Western Europe during the strawberry, cherry and asparagus harvest. Those who are left behind may not be hard or enthusiastic workers as they are afraid of jeopardising their social welfare benefits through earning too much money from rose picking. The size of the farms is also a factor. The larger the field, the larger the need to find and pay pickers. Smaller, family owned businesses manage to pick their roses by themselves.
Will Bulgarian rose attar production survive these challenges? It is hard to say as there is yet another factor that could affect the centuries-old tradition beyond recognition: climate change. The question still has no clear answer and in 2018 there was some talk that new, more resilient varieties with a longer harvesting season should be selected. Meanwhile, in 2020, about 40 acres of oil-bearing rose were successfully harvested in Dobrudzha, in Bulgaria's northeast, far from the Valley of Roses. This might remain an outlier but could signify a change of unseen proportions since the 18th century when the oil-bearing rose arrived in Bulgaria.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners