1000 PETALS IN A DROP

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It takes about 60,000 roses to produce just 1 ounce of rose oil, and 10,000 pounds or 5 tons of individual rose petals to produce 1 pound of rose oil. These precious and delicate petals must be hand-picked beneath a quiet early morning sky to capture the best yield of rose oil. More than 1,000 distilled roses are needed to create a single drop of this voluptuous aroma.

With over 9000 acres dedicated to the production of the Damascena Rose, its cultivation is deeply rooted in the history of the country. The epicenter of rose cultivation in Bulgaria is located in the region called the Valley of Roses and the town of Kazanlak, where the original rose plantations began in the 16th century. The area's humidity, precipitation and soil conditions have proven to be the most favorable in the world for rose cultivation. This cloudy valley is surrounded by the Balkan and Sredna Gora mountain ranges which provide protection against the region's harsh weather conditions. 

In Bulgaria, the rose blossoms of Rosa Damascena begin to bloom around the third week of May and continue for three or four weeks depending upon climatic conditions. The yield of rose oil can be dramatically affected by the prevailing weather conditions - for example during very hot and dry weather the harvest may last only two weeks and the yield of rose oil is lowered due to loss by evaporation. Conversely, during mild and humid weather the harvest time can be extended whilst at the same time increasing the oil yield.

The harvesting season starts as soon as the flowers begin to open and continues until all the roses have been gathered. In Bulgaria the blossoms are still collected by hand in the time-honored way, and are nipped just below the calyx (the green, outer protective cover). Harvest begins at sunrise when the oil yield is at its highest and should be completed by 10 am whilst the dew is still on the flowers. The flowers are initially placed into baskets and then transferred to sacks for transportation to the distilleries.

Time is of the essence, whilst the harvesters are picking the flowers, other workers carefully transfer the flowers from the baskets to the transportation sacks where they are weighed, and all the relevant details are recorded since harvesters are paid by the weight of flowers picked. Each sack weighs approximately 25 kilos when full and is loaded onto horse-drawn carriages, the backs of donkeys or less commonly, trucks.

The harvest is then transported to the distillery as quickly as possible since the picked flowers will begin to deteriorate immediately as precious volatile oil begins to evaporate due to the heat of the sun. This in turn of course will lower the yield of the crop and push up the price of production.

In Bulgaria, during the early 1900's, virtually all rose oil was distilled on-site using direct-fire stills operated by the farmers. A suitable site would be chosen adjacent to the field and near a stream and the apparatus would be set up. Although this sounds rather primitive, the yield produced from this type of setup amounts to 1 kilogram of rose oil for every 2,500 to 3,000 kilograms of roses. Amazingly, this is a considerably higher figure than what can be achieved by modern industrial distillation techniques.

Modern stills are made of copper and are heated with an open wood fire from below. The roses cannot be distilled in the usual way by directly injecting steam, because the petals compact to form a large mass that the steam cannot penetrate, therefore the distillation techniques have been refined in various ways to overcome this problem.

During distillation a large amount of oil is absorbed into the distillation water, and this is known as the 'First Water'. The rose oil must be recovered from this water to produce an acceptable yield, and this is achieved by skillfully re-distilling the water to separate the oil; a process known as cohobation.

The amount of rose oil produced directly from distillation is as low as only 20% or 25%, the majority being recovered from the distillate water by cohobation. This ratio does vary depending upon certain factors, but is usually in the region of 25% 'direct oil' and 75% 'water oil'. The 'Second Water' remaining after the process of cohobation is then sold as rose hydrosol (aka rose water) or re-cycled in the still for the next batch of flowers.

The total yield of rose oil will depend upon several conditions: climate, the time of the harvest, the condition of the flowers and the method of distillation. During the middle of the harvest period, the yield is higher than at the beginning, and mild weather will result in a further increase in the oil produced. 

On average, the Damascena Rose will yield 1 kilogram of rose oil per 4,000 kilograms of flowers using modern distillation processes. Under very favorable conditions only 2,600 kilograms of roses may be required to produce 1 kilogram of rose oil, whereas under less favorable conditions up to 8,000 kilograms of flowers may be required to produce the same amount of rose oil.