Behind the finished products of rose oil and rose absolute, there is a long tradition of rose cultivation in Isparta, Turkey, a place also known as the Land of Roses
As the sun starts to rise behind the rose fields in Isparta, the rose pickers make their short tractor journey through Yeşilyurt, a hilly area high above sea level, where the cool breeze is a welcome relief from the scorching heat. This is the best time of the day for picking roses - before the sun cooks away the oil in the rose petals, meaning the yield will be higher.
Even in the early morning, the fields are abuzz with Nature. Bees and butterflies pollinate, while ladybirds act as natural pest control. Further into the hills, wild tortoises soak up the sun. In this high altitude, where water is limited, fruit and vegetables would simply not grow. But these roses - the traditional Rose Damascena - are born to survive, and need nothing more than manure, saving on precious water supplies.
These roses have been grown here for centuries; it’s believed that the Ottoman Empire brought Rosa Damascena into Turkey from Syria. The flowers are also found in Bulgaria, but this high elevation is particular to the Turkish rose.
In the field
Halil has travelled back to his home village especially, so that he can pick roses. On most days he works as a security guard in the town, but right now he is on holiday, helping his mother in their family tradition. First thing this morning, they picked roses in their own field, and now they are helping a neighbour.
Experienced pickers, as this family is, could pick up to 100kg of roses a day. As the rose petals sit in their collection bags before being delivered to the distillery, they start to ferment, giving them a unique, spicy fragrance.
In another field in Senir, roses are picked by Syrian people who have sought refuge in Turkey. The rose company pays the refugees the same wage as Turkish nationals, and helps them with accommodation whilst they take on the seasonal work.
“We needed workers, so we hired them, and tried to help make their situation better,” says Hasan Kinaci, the co-owner of the family rose business that buys 40% of the roses in Isparta. Hasan’s father founded the company in 1985, and now he and his brother have taken over the reigns.
“We’re not trying to do anything special. We treat them like they are from Turkey. They are our brothers and sisters too.”
The company has also helped build a local primary school, supported by Lush.
Rose oil prices, like so many other materials, are constantly fluctuating. A frost a few years ago killed off huge swathes of roses, sending the prices soaring. When locals saw how lucrative roses could be, more people started to plant their own fields. As more and more roses started to bloom, their value dropped. If the prices continue to go down, inexperienced farmers are likely to give up on roses, and so the cycle continues.
Distilling rose oil
At the distillery in Senir it takes around two million roses - which are collected every day from villages across the region - to make one kilogram of rose oil, which explains the €8,000 price tag. More than 3,000 farmers bring in the harvest every Spring, and 100 people work in the factory to produce rose oil and absolute.
“Rose oil is more like honey and is really strong, and absolute is more like the actual rose,” Hasan says. “If you ask me personally, absolute is my favourite.”
Inside the distillery, the whole building is perfumed with a sweet rose fragrance. Hundreds of bags of roses arrive from the farms, and are sent up a conveyor belt. The steam distillation process releases bubbles of oil into water, before a second distillation, which is followed by filtering before finally, the liquid is boiled. This distillery is careful not to waste any materials; water is reused, and spent rose heads are given back to farmers to use as compost, free of charge.
Rose growing has been a tradition in Isparta for centuries, and is one of the most important industries in the region. Now, this company is growing, and is building a new factory just down the road, to accommodate the expanding business. As long as the rose gardens continue to grow, the traditions of Isparta are being kept alive - traditions which are inclusive of both local people and refugees.
Read more about the Syrian refugees working as rose pickers.