Celebrating Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival | Seed Sistas Celebrating Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival | Seed Sistas | Herbal Evolutions Cultivating Change

Celebrating Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival


Bulgaria’s Rose Valley

During the first weekend in June, all roads lead to the Kazanlak region, aka, The Valley of Roses. If you don’t already know, Bulgaria is one of the biggest rose oil producers in the world, and a visit to the yearly Bulgarian Rose Festival will send your senses into overdrive with the intense rose fragrance in the air. Nestled in what’s commonly known as Rose Valley, lies vast rose plantations where Bulgaria’s floral heritage is celebrated from mid-May to mid-June. It’s also where thousands of people descend to honour Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival.

This liquid gold rose oil is made from the petals of the highly prized Rosa Damascena, or Damask rose variety, which has been cultivated here for centuries. Unofficially, however, the Rosa damascena species is given a local name and is often referred to as Rosa kazanlika as a nod to its cultivation in the Kazanlak locality. 

Situated in central Bulgaria, it’s surrounded by rivers and two mountain ranges – Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora – which nurture its diversely unique micro-climates and fertile soil for growing this particular rose species. It’s also home to breathtaking landscapes of forests, rolling hills, and sprawling rose fields. For centuries, the Rose Valley holds secrets to legends and myths that have morphed into the symbolism of Bulgaria’s national identity; the Queen of Flowers is still celebrated in Bulgarian songs, dances, poetry and art, continually showcasing the rose as a symbol of Bulgaria and its people.

History of The Bulgarian Rose 

Celebrating Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose FestivalIt’s unclear how, when or from where this remarkable flower arrived to Bulgarian lands. It is said it was brought back in the Middle Ages from ancient Persia before being exported to the rest of the world, while others trace its origins back to Damascus. It’s also no coincidence that the area is also referred to as Valley of the Thracian Kings, as the rose represents the Great Mother-Goddess, worshipped by ancient Thracians in the Kazanlak region. There’s no dispute over the fact it is deeply rooted in Bulgarian culture, and it’s likely the agriculture of the Damask rose was first introduced by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 18th century.

The production of rose oil subsequently flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries when it became renowned for its medical and therapeutic properties. The demand for cosmetics, and especially perfumes, in Europe’s high societies helped to further boost the profits of Bulgarian merchants. By the 1930s, it was an established contribution to the Bulgarian economy, and the country became renowned as the world’s leader of rose attar production, an essential ingredient for the booming global cosmetic industry.

The economics of the Bulgarian Rose has since changed considerably according to which political system rules: under Communism for example, production was modernised and factories were nationalised which resulted in a huge rise in manufacturing. However, with the collapse of Communism, fields and factories were given back to the previous owners who had little idea how to tend and process the making of rose attar. For some time, this left acres of land neglected, which allowed competition from other countries – Japan, Turkey and Morocco – to gain momentum, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s when rose production here started to recover.

Recent challenges include an over-saturated market with prices often falling so much, it’s a stretch for farmers to cover labour and production costs, particularly when they have to compete with workers heading off to Europe to work for better wages. Add to this climate change and finding sustainable ways to improve distilling technologies, the rose farmer faces a complicated, expensive and long process to keep the Damask flourishing.

Rose Picking Rituals

The rose bushes bloom for approximately 25 days each year, from mid-May to mid-June, and the flowers need to be hand-picked early in the morning when their fragrance is most intense and the dew has yet to evaporate. Directly after harvesting, the rose petals are transported to the distillery. 

Rose picking has always been a communal affair with young and old alike sharing the difficult job of delicately picking flowers amongst the thorns. During the Rose Festival, villages scattered around Kazanlak start the days off by welcoming locals and tourists to get involved in the rose picking rituals and learn the art of harvesting these fragile blooms. While you can also enjoy observing Bulgarian folklore, singing and dancing, and connecting with nature in the rose fields, you’ll also get a glimpse into the labour intensive process behind how rose oil and rose water are produced.

As each flower is hand picked, every hand is likely to get scratched and muddy while in the vast rose fields. From 4 am, in rain, cold or humidity, picking roses needs to be done quickly otherwise the sun will evaporate their essential oils. Pickers are paid by the kilogram, and it takes around 4000 kg of rose blossoms to produce 1 kg of rose oil! This tough job is usually undertaken by Roma families – a stark contrast to the stereotyped image of beautiful Bulgarian women in traditional dress, smiling while picking roses in the sunshine that is often portrayed for marketing tourism.

Bulgaria’s Rose Festival

The Valley of the Roses stretches over 130 km and although villagers honour Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival on a local level throughout the area, the climax of the festivities takes place in Kazanlak’s centre. First celebrated in 1903, the Rose Festival has now become an international event during the first weekend in June. 

In this part of the festival, the streets come alive with colourful parades, folk dances, and traditional music. Both locals and tourists indulge in the joyous atmosphere, and here, just like in any part of Bulgaria, you can taste rose rakiya (brandy), jams, buy anything from postcards and souvenirs to rose cream, soaps and cosmetics, and wrap yourself in the aromatic scents of rose garlands. The festival also includes competitions, the highlight being the beauty pageant, where the Queen is adorned with a crown made of various rose varieties. As the old tale goes, the most beautiful women were dressed up with roses by the farmers to show off the quality of the roses to potential buyers and hence the tradition of choosing a Queen of the Rose during the festival was borne.

Celebrating Damascena at Bulgaria’s Rose Festival Then comes the real carnival procession: brightly coloured masked men, traditionally known as Kukeri, dance and stomp, clanging their cow bells round their waist as they exhibit their moves through the streets; large groups of local children dressed in Bulgarian national costumes march and dance past with sweet smiles and a proud demure. They often scramble for a photo opportunity with the Rose Queen who sits on her throne with pride in her title and waving to the crowds that pass. Older ladies gently sway past carrying large baskets of rose petals which they throw out onto the streets lined with thousands of people.

When the procession finishes, instead of the usual litter spray on the streets, there is a carpet of rose petals that have been thrown from carnivalists to the audiences and back again, filling the air with roses’ intoxicating fragrance.

Di Bach is an honorary Seed Sista working behind the pages and helping to create the words of herbs for our readers and Member’s Area. Just as Bulgaria has a long-lasting passion for the rose, Di has a deep passion for the country having travelled around it extensively for a number of years.

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