Travel: Liquid Rose Gold
Photos + written essay commissioned and published by National Geographic Traveler
- Liquid Rose Gold
Bulgaria’s Rose Valley, ordinarily in respite just below the Balkan mountain, dresses up its verdant skirts in a plume of pink each May and June.
The sloping valley stretches for about 140 kilometers across a narrow interval between the Balkan mountain range (otherwise named Stara Planina, or Old Mountain in Bulgarian,) and Sredna Gora (Midland Forest) mountain. Once also known for making pistols, ammunition and automatic weapons under Communism, it is now simply famous as the source of an oil likened to “liquid gold.” Rose oil is thus nicknamed for a reason - it takes an average of 3.5 tons of roses to produce just one kilogram of rose oil, with that kilogram valued between 6,000 and 12,000 euros.
Roses’ edible, highly fragrant flowers are idolized as Bulgaria’s national symbol of pride, their oil occupying between 50% and 65% of the international market, according to various industry estimates. Cosmetics and fragrance producers, such as Dr. Hauschka and Estee Lauder, rely on the aromatic, anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties of the oil, and the rose-picking seasonal labor pads the thinning budgets of the retiree and Roma communities, especially. But amidst the blushing rows of flowers has grown a discord, in both the climate and communities that sustain them.
The most common oil-bearing rose of the valley is the pink-petaled Rosa Damascena Mill. Scientists unofficially call its local population Rosa Kazanlika, in honor of its breeding ground, Kazanlak - a town regarded as the heart of The Rose Valley. Kazanlak boasts a Rose Festival with traditional rose-picking and distillation in the mountains, folk dances, roses ensconced in cakes, soaps, jewelry, wine and rakia (a regional 80-90 proof fruit brandy,) and even a parade in honor of its very own Rose Queen, picked from a pool of high school graduates. The birth place of Rosa Damascena is unclear, but many accounts trace it to Damascus, Syria’s capital (hence, some say, the name,) yet others to Ancient Persia in Iran - and Bulgaria’s local rose population, to a Turkish merchant in the 17th century.
Since Rosa Damascena no longer grows in the wild on its own, it must be cultivated. “The rose is a complicated culture. It needs both funding and attention,” says Veselina Badzhelova, engineer and agronomist at the Institute for Roses and Aromatic Plants in Kazanlak. There’s more of an economic return to cultivating roses than other aromatic cultures, such as lavender, but roses also require more manual labor and disease prevention.
For Tihomir Tachev and Aleksandrina Aleksandrova, much like many rose producers, cultivating the 20 decares (4.5 acres) of roses they own in Buzovgrad has been a long, complicated, expensive process. It starts by planting cuttings in the autumn when the soil is moist, and continues into the year with persistent fertilizing, tractor work, dry branch removal and insect- and weed-eradication, which could cost around 6,000 BGN leva ($3,600 USD) in total.
Finally, May and June bring the rose-picking season. This year, the couple’s hired labor collected 6 tons, or 6,000 kilograms, of rose flowers, that they sold for 2.80 BGN leva ($1.68 USD) per kg.
“In the summer, if workers pick 10,000 tons, I have to pay 10,000 leva ($6,000 USD) - if I want my roses to be picked,” says Tachev.
Which isn’t always the case. This year, the two joined rose producers across Bulgaria's Rose Valley, dumping out entire bags of flowers on Bulgaria’s highways in protest against the low purchase prices by distilleries that process them into rose oil, the price of which has stayed relatively high. Rose flower prices, however, have fallen from 3 to 5 BGN leva (about $1.80 to $3 USD) per kilogram in previous seasons, to about 2-2.5 leva BGN (about $1.20-$1.50 USD) per kilogram this year - half of which rose producers say they use to pay their rose-pickers, and much of the rest for costs related to cultivating roses.
Distilleries describe an over-saturated market, with more rose gardens popping up each year, which means some distilleries reject what surpasses their capacity. Through the farmers’ whisper networks runs a suspicion that distilleries have instead colluded to lower the purchase price of roses. Many say they'd like the government to regulate the entire chain between producers and processors - and even, set a contractual minimum purchase price.
But a market economy, which is what Bulgaria’s has been for nearly 30 years since the fall of Communism in 1989, is ruled not by the government but instead by supply and demand. Tihomir Tonchev, from the communications department of The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, says it’s simple math: the yield from rose gardens increased because the number of harvested gardens did as well, drastically dropping their product’s purchase value.
Badzhelova, from the Institute for Roses, thinks a boom of rose distilleries due to European Union sponsorship is what has led to the boom in rose fields: “It’s the distilleries and the market that control the production. But the distilleries now have enough oil, so they can crash the prices of roses, if they’d like. And if the producers agree to sell at a high discount, they will sell their yield. Otherwise, they throw their roses to the ground.”
According to the ministry’s agricultural data, harvested rose gardens grew to 4,189 hectares (10,351 acres) in 2017, a 17% jump from 2016, delivering 12.8 tons of harvested rose flowers, an increase of 43% from 2016’s 8.9 tons. This year’s harvest is so far counted at an approximate 16 tons.
Tonchev adds there might be future regulations on rose-harvesting, from the appropriate picking hours to the type of fertilizers, pesticides, and roses used, as well as oversight on producer-distillery contracts, including how to handle a mismatch between capacity and production - but never a mandate on roses’ purchase prices.
There is no special subsidy for rose production. What most farmers receive is 40 BGN leva ($24 USD) per decare yearly, no matter what the culture. But the agricultural subsidies Tachev and Aleksandrova receive per decare from the European Union are not enough to even buy pesticides for one year, they say.
“So, let’s say it it costs 10 times more to cultivate roses than say, wheat, and when the subsidy is the same no matter the crop, it is not fair toward the cultures which demand more expenses,” says Tonchev. According to the Ministry, there is indeed a special rose subsidy in the works that the Minister of Agriculture, Rumen Porozhanov, plans to introduce to the European Commission as early as next year. However, as subsidies are European Union-sponsored, the idea must gain traction within the EU to win approval. Meanwhile, Durzhaven Fond Zemedelie (State Fund Agriculture) which approves de minimis state regulation funds, has announced it will distribute an additional 2,200,000 BGN leva ($1,320,000 USD) in subsidies to all registered rose producers in the next year.
What trips up rose producer and distiller in equal measure, is the weather.
Roses like sandy, permeable, clay-free soil, and a clear, sunny climate with mild winters and enough atmospheric humidity during the spring and their summertime flowering period. These are just the conditions found in The Rose Valley - the mountain ranges and two rivers, its shield against atmospheric volatility. In the Valley, it is usually sunny but cool before noon, with hotter, sometimes rainy afternoons. These temperature amplitudes during the flowering period provoke the production of rose oil, which is formed as a defense reaction of the plant.
The rose flower is very sensitive, and its oil resides in the top layers of the flower, so it evaporates easily with rising temperatures. Cold dew drops in the morning hinder the evaporation of oil, and the moist air preserves the plant’s moisture, turgor and oil content, which is why farmers usually pick the flowers between sunrise and 11:00 a.m.
“The rose doesn’t need a lot of water the rest of its life, but during its flowering period, it is thirsty. And in the valley, it is usually sunny before noon but in the afternoon, it rains,” says Ana Dobreva, PhD, technologist of essential oils at the Institute for Roses and Aromatic Plants.
Under unfavorable climate conditions, however - for example, temperatures that climb above the norm, or rainfall that dips below it - flowers could bloom faster and all at once, without allowing the usual benefit of a slower, more gradual blossoming across varying altitudes. As this could reduce the usual three-week rose-harvesting window by 4-5 days, it places more pressure on producers to find enough rose pickers, and a strain on pickers to work faster.
Krastina Malcheva, assistant engineer at the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, says that even small shifts in the valley’s climate could impact rose production. “The quality, composition and quantity of essential oil in the flowers of the oil-bearing rose are determined by the complex temperature-humidity characteristics of the air throughout the year - and most of all, in the period of rose-growing (from about May 10th until about the end of June,)” Malcheva says. “There has been a general trend of rising temperatures in June and while there has been more heavy rainfall in May over the past 15 years, if examining the entirety of last century’s data, we see a slight overall decrease in rainfall alongside a rise in temperatures.”
This year’s rose-picking season was a full week shorter for Tachev and Aleksandrova, from May 17th until June 4th. They suspect the drier, hotter conditions stimulated faster blooming.
“Having to pick roses in a shorter time window isn’t a good thing - we have to do it faster, with more laborers, and there aren’t more laborers because everyone has roses to pick,” says Aleksandrova. “So we just end up picking roses until a later hour than we should, when the rose oil has started to evaporate from the flower.”
This more rapid, simultaneous blossoming in all production regions, NGO InteliAgro reports, makes it difficult not only to harvest, but also to process the entire rose crop in distilleries that can’t handle large quantities of raw material in a short period of time.
Lema is a Kazanlak family-owned rose plantation and processing facility. Its rose bushes share airspace with the manmade thorns of wire that border Arsenal, Bulgaria’s oldest weapons-maker, privatized in 1989. Chicken roam Lema’s rose rows - gratis laborers against the spread of weeds. Bags of roses land on the distillery’s unenclosed second floor as producers deliver their yield, tossing it up into the air from the first.
The distillery’s CEO, Marin Todorov, 71, deftly walks through the cavalcade of bags, translucent so they betray both their pink contents and often, a note with the rose-picker’s name, past his steaming 5-ton cauldrons. He directs his gaze toward the rose gardens just below.
“In the first couple of years, you have to watch them like little kids. You have to pull weeds with your hands. When roses grow up with quality, it’s more difficult for them to fall ill, and easier for them to convalesce if they do. It’s the same as it is with people,” Todorov says.
Addressing buyers’ protests, he says: “By their logic, last year and before, we [distilleries] should have protested when prices were high. We are a market economy. When there’s a surplus of something on the market, it’s expected for the price to fall.”
At the same time, Lema has managed to avoid turning away any distributors by shortening its distillation times during the busiest deliveries, and Todorov’s purchase policy on rose flowers is to never dip below the average sale price.
The rose-gathering process attracts a lot of Roma because discrimination often limits their income, and retirees due to very low pensions (many at or around the minimum of 200 leva BGN, or $120 USD monthly.) Picking roses requires great dexterity and patience, as flowers are carefully collected one by one, and then sent to the distilleries for immediate processing. Although beautiful in sight and scent, it is not a job without its pains — from wrist to waist, via bee stings and thorn scratches, bodies are marked by long, shade-free hours spent in a bent position.
Gelka Laleva, 65, is a retiree on low monthly pensions, who picks up seasonal work for extra cash. While gathering roses in Tachev and Aleksandrova’s garden, she says, ”Roses used to be Bulgaria's national pride. But now production has become expensive, which places our pride under threat."
Both rose farmers and rose-pickers are concerned about the sustainability of their product. But it is hard to picture The Rose Valley, or Bulgaria as a whole, without the roses that symbolize its national identity. In Kazanlak alone, a rose is an untouchable brand: seamlessly emblazoned onto passersby’s clothes and jewelry; it is the inspiration of museums and hotel namesakes; it flashes as a tattoo darting from plant to plant on a rose-picker’s arm, or skillful pastry decor in the town’s market; it’s a ubiquitous guest in cosmetics and perfumes; and of course, a combustion of color throughout proud gardens, in bold proliferation.
“Cultivating roses is a tough, big fight,” Tachev says. “Agriculture is a laboratory under the sky, right? It’s open to you, but it’s not all up to you. My grandmother used to say until you pick it, it isn’t yours. One hailstorm and it’s gone.”