Picking Petals in the Land of the Roses (Kasanlak, Bulgaria)
Bulgaria is a relatively unknown country and is far less travelled than many of the other European countries but its natural variety of mountains, plains, lakes and even a small dessert make it a very picturesque country. Perhaps the country is best known for its export of roses. The Bulgarian rose petals produce approximately 85% of the world’s supply of rose oil, an essential ingredient in the production of perfumes. This is why the country is known as the “Land of the Roses”. At the end of May / early June, the roses are ripe for picking which calls for a festival all around the Kazanlak Valley. Parades, fireworks and a beauty pageant take place in the main town, but I aim to show you photographs of the main cultural tradition of this event: the rose-picking rituals that take place in the small village of Razhena.
According to a legend, returning soldiers of Alexander Macedon’s garrisons brought the first roses to Bulgaria from Persia through Syria and Damascus. Scientists believe that the cultivation of the roses was introduced to the Kazanlak region by the Turks in 1420. The roses were reportedly brought from Tunisia by a Turkish judge, who had beautiful vast gardens painted with fragrant roses, This is known by locals as ‘The Trip of the Rose’.
Since then, the growth of the flower has thrived in the Kazanlak Valley due to the favourable climate and soil conditions. The valley is sandy and rocky, making it unsuitable for grain crops but fruitful for the rose flower. Winters are usually warmer so the ground will not freeze and summers are cooler with a gradual increase in temperature in May and June making the roses perfect for picking. Bulgarian’s first celebrated the bloom of the Kazanlak Rose in 1903 and since then it has traditionally been celebrated with a festival on the first weekend in June.
During the rose-picking season, there is a magnificent aroma of roses that fill the lungs every time you step outside. Whilst driving around the valley early in the morning you are likely to spot elderly ladies out in the middle of the field, hunched over, slowly moving from one plant to the next, plucking the finest pink petals from the bush and collecting them in a big plastic bag. The gathering process requires great dexterity and patience as she picks each flower one by one avoiding the thorns. They pick the flowers until the bag is full and then collect another bag and repeat – a very monotonous way to earn a living but every worker that I met was very upbeat and happy when I approached them. It was interesting to see the locals hard at work before I reached the festivities of the rose-picking ritual in the village of Razhena.
Upon arriving at the festival, we are welcomed by two ladies dressed in red and white folk outfits. They hand me a basket and invite me to join them in picking the flowers. The rose picking is best done early in the morning when roses are still moist. Even though it is early, there is still a jovial festival atmosphere. Folk music is playing and people of all ages are dancing to the music. The festival is very inclusive with elderly ladies teaching children songs and even the tourists are invited to join the Folk dancing.
Some of the rose petals that are picked are given to the Kazanlak children, who take great pleasure in making flower necklaces that are then handed out to the visitors. These are of course very popular with young girls but I also spotted a 16 stone bald man getting into the spirit with rose petals delicately attached to his head.
The rest of the petals are collected in bags and stored in a tent until they are ready to be transported. Traditionally, the roses were loaded in baskets and transported by horse and cart but now for efficiency, they are weighed in bags before loaded on a truck to be sent to the factory in Kran to extract the oil.
In Kran, the rose petals are added to large copper containers that are filled with water. The container is heated for over an hour so that the vaporised water and rose oil is collected in a condensing apparatus. A traditional demonstration of this is shown on a smaller scale in the Razhena village with a wooden barrel and handmade fire.
It takes a staggering 3.5 tonnes of rose petals to make just one kilogram of rose oil. Considering it took me around half an hour to pick one small basket of rose petals I can understand why Rose oil is more valuable than gold.
The majority of the treasured rose oil is used as an important component in perfumes and is shipped around the world, particularly in Asia which is evident due to the number of Japanese and Taiwanese tourists that visit the festival by the coachload. But the oil has many other applications such as a greasing component for equipment in outer space due to its resistance to any temperature changes.
The festivities continue in the town of Kazanlak with fireworks, folk concerts and art shows. The festival climaxes with a parade through the street and a beauty pageant where the winner is elected as the “Queen Rose”.
It was great to witness an important part of the Bulgarian culture and seeing a small, sleepy village come alive for a few days. I was delighted to see locals of all ages being involved in the celebration. Particularly the participation of young children, suggesting that this tradition will carry on in the heart of Bulgaria for many years to come.