In rose-picking season, travel to Valley of Roses is a must
A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP. Thanks to countless magnets, posters and rose-scented soaps all Bulgarians and visiting foreigners are aware of it, yet the plant grows exclusively in a narrow band of land between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain range, the romantically named Valley of Roses.
Nobody is certain why the oil bearing rose became associated with Bulgaria. The idealised, and highly alluring, image of happy girls in traditional clothes picking roses has probably something to do with it. An additional factor could be the beauty of the Valley of Roses itself. It spreads under one of the most spectacular parts of the Stara Planina mountain range that in its self is considered a symbol of Bulgarian identity and history. The valley embodies the idea of a civilised landscape: a carpet of lush greenery, fertile fields, picturesque groves and white rivers dotted with the houses and industries of bigger and smaller towns like Kazanlak and Karlovo, Shipka and Kalofer, plus a handful of villages.
Westerners became aware of the beauty of this place and the value of its roses in the 19th century thanks to the inspired accounts of foreign visitors, notably the future Prussian War Minister Helmuth von Moltke and the Austrian-Hungarian researcher Felix Kanitz. By this time, the oil bearing rose had already taken root in the region and increasingly became a significant source of income. Local producers supplied attar to clients all over Europe – from Britain to France to Russia.
Remains of former rose oil producing facility in Karnare
No one is certain how and when the oil bearing rose arrived in the Bulgarian lands. Different accounts suggest the 18th century and legends claim that it was brought from Tunisia or Asia Minor by some Ottoman gardener or judge.
The plant belongs to the Rosa damascena species, but with a strong local twist. The local variety, the Kazanlak rose, is perfectly adapted to survive colder winters thanks, some speculate, to crossbreeding with the Bulgarian rosehip. The Valley of Roses is the perfect spot for the oil bearing rose thanks to a combination of mild winters, fertile soils that are not too heavy, soft water with low calcium content and an abundance of sunny places with eastern exposure. This is why, local producers claim, Bulgarian attar is one of the best in the world.
Rose picking between the idealised image...
Production of rose attar expanded after Bulgaria restored its independence in 1878, and boomed in the early 20th century. In 1907 the government established a research organisation dedicated to improving local oil bearing roses and their attar. By the beginning of the First World War, oil bearing roses covered over 9,000 hectares, and in the 1930s, Bulgaria became the world leader with 75 percent of global rose attar production.
At this time, the plant was already seen as being rare and unique for Bulgaria, a veritable symbol of the country and its people. This perception has not changed since then.
... and the grim reality
In their enthusiasm to promote the country as a blossoming rose, Bulgarians seem to have forgotten that two of their finest 19th century writers associated the plant and its attar with darker traits of the national character. The unravelling of the good-for-nothing protagonist of Lyuben Karavelov's short novel Mamino Detentse, or Mommy's Boy, is shown through his addiction to aniseed and rose liqueur; both were popular beverages in the Valley of Roses back in the day. Bay Ganyo, the infamous entrepreneurial brute created by satirist Aleko Konstantinov, goes to Europe to sell rose attar. When he returns, as a well-to-do merchant, he enters the darkest part of local politics.
Under Communism, rose production changed dramatically. The rose oil factories were nationalised, production was modernised and fields expanded. The research organisation grew into an institute dedicated to all essential oil plants grown in Bulgaria – from lavender to mint. It still exists, its scientists have 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.
During the Rose Festival, tourists are taken on organised rose picking
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. Making rose attar is hard work – it is distilled in a special way from petals that should be as fresh and oil-heavy as possible. You need between two and three tons of petals to make just a kilogram attar. The total attar distilled in Bulgaria in a year does not exceed 2 tonnes.
Consequently, dozens of acres were abandoned or uprooted and replaced with less demanding plants. Factories were abandoned and fell into disrepair – you will still see them when travelling through the Valley of Roses. International competition from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and China also got stronger.
Production began to revive in the 2000s, powered by ambitious family businesses and EU funding. In 2008, the oil-bearing rose was chosen as one of the country's symbols in a widely popularised campaign, and in 2014, Bulgarian rose attar became a protected designation of origin.
Today, special events aim to advertise rose attar production in particular and the Valley of Roses in general to Bulgarian and foreign tourists. The Rose Festival in Karlovo and Kazanlak is best known for its organised rose picking sessions and beauty pageant. A state museum and a private amusement site are vying for visitor's attention.
Almost 100 percent of the produce is exported to established markets in France, Germany and Switzerland, and emerging ones like the United States and Australia. Client companies include Chanel, Nina Ricci and Christian Dior. However, the much needed Oil-Bearing Rose Act was adopted to regulate production and secure sustainable product quality as late as 2020.
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, some producers uprooted dozens of acres of rose bushes. After an abundant 2020 harvest and plummeting perfume sales due to the Covid-19 pandemic travelling restrictions, they were left with unsold rose attar.
And there is the social price. 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.
This is why only the poorest of the poor, which usually means Gipsies from the villages, toil in the rose fields, including children. Their payment is meagre, but people are generally happy as few have any sustainable income besides social benefits.
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.
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.
And there is climate change. In 2018 there was already some talk that new, more resilient varieties with a longer harvesting season should be selected. Two years later, about 40 acres of oil-bearing roses were successfully harvested in Bulgaria's northeast, far from the Valley of Roses. This could signify a change of unseen proportions since the 18th century when the oil-bearing rose arrived in Bulgaria.
In 2023, however, the biggest "foe" of the Bulgarian oil bearing rose became... the EU. According to rumours, which incited the already strong anti-European sentiments among Bulgarians, new regulations would ban Bulgarian attar as poisonous – another strike of the collective West to Bulgarians' identity and pride. The rumour – like any other rumour – had little substance to it. It just misinterpreted a proposed, and rather loosely worded, change in labelling of chemical ingredients in products.
Yet, some Bulgarians were outraged. As outraged as after similar rumours claimed the EU's Green Deal would ban Bulgarian musaka for... its carbon footprint.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine and realised by the Free Speech Foundation, 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 opinions expressed herein are solely those of the FSI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the America for Bulgaria Foundation or its affiliates.
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