The Bulgarian rose: memories of rose-pickers

“It has been 36 years since I left Kazanlak. But I only need to close my eyes to go back in time and smell the rose scent.”

Didka Vladimirova

Bulgarian rose damascena used to make the highest quality of rose oil

There is some sort of magic in the ritual of picking the roses. It starts around the middle of May and it goes on for three to four weeks. Rose-pickers share memories of fingers freezing from the morning dew and arms itching from torn scratches. Regardless of the pain, they felt content, satisfied with the job well-done. Their stories sound almost like written legends and the pages of the books are soaked in rose fragrance. These tales take you to the Valley of roses where the sun is just peeking above the rows of rose bushes.

“I grew up and studied in Kazanlak. When I was a student I used to go to working camps. The rose picking would start at 5 am, when the blossoms are most fragrant. We finished working no later than 9.30 am. I also have unique memories of that season because my family lived close to the rose distillery. The wind would bring the aroma of roses whenever I went out on the terrace. Oh, the good old times – they’re unforgettable!”

Didka Vladimirova

Green hills on the road to Kazanlak


“Well, we worked until all the roses were picked. In the morning, when the dawn starts, we went in the fields and it didn’t matter if there was dew or it was raining. We picked the blossoms and put them in bags. The birds were singing, there was the smell of roses in the air, the Balkan was dark in the distance, we were still sleepy and trying to make jokes with the mate working in the next row so that laugh could wake us up. Our sleeves were wet, the front of our tracksuits, too. After a while the sun would come up and the clothes would dry up on us. Bees would come to the blossoms and fly between our fingers. Our arms were all scratched up to the shoulders, our legs, too, because we needed to go down and enter the bush in order to pick up all flowers. When we finished each row, we would turn back and see it full of blossom once again.”

Dida Tsoneva

The rose is one of the most ancient flowers. It is often called “the queen of flowers” because people from various cultures and beliefs have always marvelled at its beauty and fragrance.

It was considered a sacred flower even in Babylon.

In Greek mythology it is said that the rose bush sprung up from the sea foam of which Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, was born.

Another legend says that the flower was created by Bacchus, the Thracian god of wine and  jollity, in the name of the most beautiful nymph.

Roses could be found even in the Garden of Eden. They were white and with no thorns. When they noticed the attraction between Adam and Eve, they blushed and turned red. They got their thorns after the first humans were chased out of heaven.

A Persian poem claims that the lotus was the principal flower, but at night he would fall asleep and forget about his responsibilities. Allah chose the white rose to be the new queen for her purity and thorns that could protect all blossoms.

In Indian mythology Brahma (the creator god) created for Vishnu (the guardian of the universe) Lakshmi, the most beautiful woman, born out of hundreds of rose petals.

Roses in Kazanlak, Bulgaria

The rose was first cultivated in Central Asia, the homeland of Bulgars. There are over 250 types of roses and more than 7000 hybrid varieties of them. Only three of these (Rosa Gallica, Rosa Centifolia, Rosa Damascena) can be cultivated for the production of rose oil. The Bulgarian rose is of the third type which comes from Syria. The rarity of these rose sorts and the specific climate are the main reasons why Bulgaria is the world leader in the production on the fragrant oil. On the Balkans, Rosa Damascena has been grown for sale at least since the 17th century. There were vast rose fields at the time of the First World War. Nowadays the production of rose oil has considerably fallen and even the grannies who used to pick the flowers would tell you: ¨things are not how they used to be¨.

The Rose valley is the region formed by the towns of Kazanlak, Karlovo and Strelcha. It got its name during the 19th century to commemorate the long-term tradition of growing the roses. In Skobelevo, a village in that region, there is the Ethnographic complex Damascena where an authentic distillery can be found. Here, they give a demonstration of the steam distillation and the production of rose oil. In the modern part of the complex they also make rose water with the remaining petals.

“Everyone has to smell this fragrance for themselves because words cannot describe it. It cannot be compared with anything else and the rose damascena is unmatched by any other. Last year, I took some of my relatives from Sofia to the rose distillery and I think they would be always grateful for that. If you’re reading these lines, listen to me and at least once in your life go to see the rose picking and the Festival of the roses in our valley. No matter where you have been in your life, visiting this place would make you happy to be a Bulgarian.”

Dida Tsoneva

The rose oil is very expensive as it takes over three tonnes of rose blossoms to produce one kilo of it. In fact, the more it rains, the more oil the roses can make. The liquid gold of Bulgaria is extremely valued all over the world because it can be widely used in perfumery and medicine. It harmonises the mind; it has a calming and rejuvenating effect on the skin; it can be successfully used to fight inflammation, rashes, bad circulation, cardiovascular problems, asthma, hormonal imbalance and many more. The natural oil is very highly concentrated and it needs to be used sparingly in combination with another base oil. Rose water is also unmatched in skin care because it can be used to treat any skin type. It cleans, refreshes, regenerates the aging tissues and it stops the growth of bacteria.

Bulgarian rose-pickers in traditional clothes, during the Rose festival

There is some sort of magic in the ritual of picking the roses. When I read the memories of rose-pickers I feel like I’m back amid the rows of roses in the village of Rozovo. The ritual, part of the annual Rose festival is just about to begin. The Bulgarian girls, dressed in gorgeous national clothes, are carrying hand-weaved baskets that are going to be filled with aromatic blossoms. The field is echoing with the songs of rose-pickers who sing and dance with delight. During the real rose-picking there is no time for dances and there are no colourful traditional dresses. However, one thing remains unchanged – above all, the work is a feast.

Rosa Damascena, Bulgarian Rose festival

“These memories come back to me every May. Back then, only 14 or 15 years old, we probably couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty of it. The three working camps – spring, summer and autumn, seemed long and tough. Now, I wish my children could also go to these, so they can learn to be hard-working.”

Dida Tsoneva


1 Comment

  1. Randel Williams
    August 28, 2019 / 7:07 pm

    Who are the pickers?

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