A Rose Tinted Life

by Louise Elliot, Country Living

Teresa Scarman has turned her love of roses into two flourishing businesses, while her own garden in Staffordshire encapsulates her unwavering addiction to the Queen of Flowers..

Many gardeners profess to a love of roses, even to a passion. But for Teresa Scarman they are more than this – they are quite simply an addiction. This obsession began during her childhood in the 1950s when her father, an enthusiastic rose grower, filled the garden on their Buckinghamshire farm with a kaleidoscopic selection of different varieties. “I grew up surrounded by the scent of roses,” she says. “Even at the age of eight I would spend hours picking the velvety petals to perfume the house throughout the summer.”But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that she found a way to turn her love of roses into a full-blown career.

At the time her husband John was working for legendary rose-grower David Austin. “David asked John what he would like as a Christmas bonus – money or understocks of the old-fashioned French roses David was using for cross-breeding. We chose the roses and planted them in the garden of our Staffordshire farmhouse that winter. The following summer we were quite simply bowled over by the evocative fragrances of the flowers and their subtle shades often delicately tinged with a different colour.

”In 1982 the couple set up their own nursery, Cottage Garden Roses, running it from the gardens of their house and growing and selling 140 different varieties of old-fashioned roses, mostly of French origin, to a burgeoning list of customers. “We owe the popularity in this country of these roses to Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West who used them in the 1930s to develop the cottage garden style we imitate today,” Teresa says.

 Twenty years later she still marvels at the colours (“from the creamiest white tinged with apricot to the deepest, richest red”), the incredibly strong fragrances (“from fruity to spicy”) and the variety of forms (“from vigorous ramblers that will clamber anywhere to well-behaved shrubs that can be clipped into neat hedges”).  Until 1992 they grew all the roses on their own land; they are now grown under contract by a local Staffordshire plantsman but Teresa still produces all the bud wood for grafting. The couple have also created their own formal rose garden artistically underplanted with herbaceous species, such as delphiniums and lupins, and herbs.

In 1994 her rose addiction took a new direction. Although she and John had been busy researching and writing their seminal book, Gardening with Old Roses, they managed to find time to exhibit their plants at one of the RHS flower shows in Vincent Square, London. “While we were there an old Iranian woman approached me with a sample bottle of rosewater and asked me if we would be interested in selling it,” Teresa recalls. “It smelt so wonderful that we decided to take a chance and ordered 2,000 samples in beautiful hand-blown glass bottles. We advertised it to our existing customers and sold out almost immediately.

The idea for a range of organic beauty products made with rosewater and rose oil grew from there. ”Two years later she had formed her second company, Persian Rose, and now produces a complete collection including face creams and mists, body lotions, hand creams, eye gels, shampoos and soaps, each one developed and made by her in the kitchen of Woodlands House, her 18th-century farmhouse.

The ingredients, chiefly rosewater, rose oil, rosehip seed oil and shea butter, are blended together in a huge mixer and left to heat gently on the Aga. “I have about six local women helping me part time, but I do have to get up very early indeed to get everything done,” she says. Teresa is constantly developing the range and following the particular success of her rosewater and aloe vera gel, she has recently launched a rosewater and aloe vera body scent. 

“The products have incredible healing properties as well. Pure rosewater can soothe dermatitis, eczema, bruises, heat rash and burns, and it has a softening, hydrating effect on the skin,” she says.

The best rose for perfume is Rosa damascena ‘Trigintipetala’, which does not grow successfully in this country because of the climate but flourishes in Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and the south of France. Teresa continues to import her rosewater and oil from Iran as she believes it to be the purest and most organic available.

The roses are grown at 10,000 feet using traditional methods and skills handed down from generation to generation. The altitude means that the distillation process using old-fashioned copper stills is slow but gentle and, for the best quality rosewater, needs to be done only once. It takes more than 1.2 million rose petals to produce one kilo of essential oil, which has an incredibly powerful perfume.

With its fragrant rose beds, where an amazing collection of different varieties flower from late spring to early autumn, Teresa’s garden is a Mecca for rose-lovers and is open throughout the year. Visitors can buy a selection of her favourite plants, as well as the Persian Rose collection, and in the summer she holds special rose days inspired by the ancient Roman festival of Rosalia, with talks, demonstrations and treatments.

And even though she is surrounded by roses from dawn to dusk every day, and in every season, she never tires of their perfume. “Their fragrance is addictive. I’d even say it was an aphrodisiac. Cleopatra was said to sleep on a pillow of roses. The scent gives you the same feeling as when you’re in love – it puts you on a high.