E.M. Mills Rose Garden: Nothing Like the Real Thing

One in a Series of Three on Syracuse University Area Open Spaces

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Stopping to smell the roses.

Have you ever watched one of the hoarding reality shows on A&E and wondered, could this be me someday? I think this fear strikes the heart of anyone with a collection. For me, my concern is waking up surrounded by perfume bottles, essential oils, and piles of scented candles and thinking, when did my collection of good-smelling stuff get out of hand?

For now, my obsession is at bay, but beware: If you join me at the E.M. Mills Rose Garden in the Syracuse University neighborhood, be prepared for some serious sniffing. While I enjoy collecting olfactory treasures, there’s nothing better than the real thing…

On Saturday morning, I took a humid, post-rain walk through the E.M. Mills Rose Garden where over 400 rose varieties are jam-packed into a big backyard-size garden. Eight brick walkways, four shaded by rose-heavy archways, lead to a small pavilion in the garden center. Everywhere you turn, you feel engulfed in roses that spring out from large bushes or up from tight clusters.

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The Marilyn Monroe Rose, first cultivated in 2001.

That morning, dew had collected on the roses; each looked perfectly primed for a picture. I got into a rhythm of admire rose (a pale yellow), look at rose name (Marilyn Monroe), wonder how rose inspired rose name (I’d expect it to be pink?), sniff rose (only mildly rosy), repeat. Unfortunately, only about half of the roses are fragrant, but the ones that are – ohhhh! Each rose has a different scent; some are pure, heady rose; others, slightly smoky or tinged with licorice – one variety even smells like vanilla, another a bit lemony. At one point, the scents started blurring together. High-end perfume counters usually put out a cup of coffee beans to cleanse the nasal palette, but I was out of luck.

Then I sniffed out a particularly lovely scent: the incense-like Constance Spry rose. I felt the urge to bottle it up and take it home with me. But a single ounce of scented rose oil requires the distillation of about 10,000 pounds of petals; that’s not so practical. And really, there’s no way to truly capture a fragrance from nature. After a spring visit to Scottsdale a few years ago, I left enchanted by the scent of orange blossom that hangs in the air. I did some serious Googling to find the closest perfume replication (Jo Malone Orange Blossom) and ordered a sample size. I remember receiving it in the mail, taking an excited sniff, and feeling disappointed: it just wasn’t the scent in my memory. It’s the same frustrated feeling you get when you trying in vain to capture a breathtaking view on camera.

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This rose looks like it's been painted.

My disappointment was validated when I heard about a study that proved there’s no replacement for our interaction with the natural world. In the 2008 University of Washington study, office personnel were divided into three groups. One group got to look out their window at the natural world; the other group had a similar real-time nature scene shown on a plasma monitor, and the unlucky group go to stare at a blank wall for months. The study concluded that while the simulated nature scenes were better than the blank wall (obviously), the window view produced real health benefits – most notably better stress response.

I wonder if the same logic holds true for stopping to smell real roses as opposed to sniffing a substitute? In aromatherapy, rose essential oil is known to have a calming effect. My friend Courtney Klick, who’s an Ayurvedic practitioner at Puja Wellness in

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Named after the Chanel designer, the Lagerfeld Rose has a soft rose scent.

Wisconsin, told me that rose scent promotes “bhakti,” or spiritual devotion towards a person or god. It would seem that spending time among actual roses would only enhance these benefits, or at the very least, improve your response to stress (the study proves it!).

All I know is that the scent of fresh roses captivated me for a good hour at the E.M. Mills Rose Garden. And I did leave feeling relaxed. There really is no substitute for being engulfed in nature, surrounded by the “real thing” whether it’s roses or rivers, mountains or trees. To experience nature at its fullest is to be drawn into the present moment, taking in all it has to offer, but taking nothing when you leave beyond a memory or memento. That you can’t collect – or re-create - natural experiences,  is a good thing though, because it keeps you coming back for more.


A Sniff-Inspired Read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

Robbins is one of my favorite writers: He over-writes which writers are taught not to do, but he pulls it off. His rich, descriptive sentences are as lively and imaginative as the stories he tells. Jitterbug Perfume combines beets, New Orleans, the Greek god Pan, the perfume industry, and an eccentric waitress into one crazy story. Read it!


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Take a Walk on the Rosy Side: Visit the Garden!
Learn more about the E.M. Mills Rose Garden, here.

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