COLLEGE STATION – Fragrance. That and the potential to boost his country’s economy are what brought a student halfway around the world to learn about horticulture at Texas A&M University.
Roses, it turns out, are as popular in Pakistan as in the U.S., albeit for slightly different reasons. And those reasons are what has Pakistani Gulzar Akhtar searching for answers for the next six months under the mentorship of Dr. David Byrne, Texas A&M AgriLife Research rose breeder.
“Roses are used in ceremonies and at various functions. Mostly, roses in Pakistan have been grown for their oil, which is used in many products, and those appeal to me,” Akhtar said.
“The oil, which is extracted from petals, is precious and valuable around the world,” he said. “It is used in many products from creams to eye drops. And the dried petals are used in home décor.”
Therein is the difference: Pakistani roses stem mostly from the Rosa centifolia which are high in fragrant, extractable oil content; U.S. roses have varying amounts of fragrance but not used commercially for oil.
But in Pakistan roses only blossom a couple of months during the year, whereas some rose varieties in the U.S. can bloom continuously as long as it is warm enough.
Developing rose varieties with both traits – producing fragrant oil and year-round blossoms – could be beneficial to both countries, Akhtar and Byrne agree.
“The trend in the development of landscape roses is to develop cultivars that are well adapted with good disease resistance, but also with fragrance,” Byrne said. “These objectives are also important in the rose oil industry in Pakistan. Gulzar’s work should help us better understand the relationships among these fragrant roses from Pakistan which will help in the development of highly fragrant landscape roses.”
Rose oil has been used for hundreds years, according to the Pakistan Journal of Agricultural Science, which valued the crop at about 5,000 Euros per kilogram. That’s about $6,750 for five cups of rose oil.
Akhtar said a Pakistani farmer with 5,000 Rosa centifolia plants per acre should yield 5,000 kilograms of flowers, from which 1 kilogram of rose oil is extracted.
He plans to study the morphology and genetics of U.S. roses and to work on plant tissue culture aimed at producing desirable traits for rose varieties. With improvements, he hopes, Pakistani farmers might increase production of the valuable crop.
Even in Pakistan, where rose oil is in demand, production of the crop takes a backseat to traditional agriculture, Akhtar said, because with only about 40 percent of the country’s land suitable for farming, growers have opted to raise food crops.
“I hope that while I am here, I can research and gain experience in breeding roses for things such as resistance to black spot, which is also a problem in Pakistan, and heat tolerance,” Akhtar said. “If we can breed a rose that flowers in very hot weather, maybe we can develop the rose industry further in Pakistan.”