Turkish Roses and Rose Oil

Living in Turkey provided us with so many cultural and once in a lifetime opportunities like swimming to a castle or watching the oil wrestling matches, and we were itching for another. The Turks love roses, anything with roses in it, and we found out that we live, breathe, and as it turns out, eat roses for a weekend. Off we went!

We were heading to a tiny village outside of Isparta where we had signed up to be part of a team of rose pickers to follow the famous Turkish roses, the Rosa Damascena, through the entire harvest and rose oil process. Driving along Lake Burdur in Spring, we enjoyed the golden glow of the landscapes and watching the storks caring for their young. 

How we helped harvest the Damascena Roses

We saw the sign for the factory first and started looking for the house.  We pulled in and right away were greeted with the most fragrant red rose bushes on the path to the house.  Ringing the bell, we were met by Fedan, who immediately ushered us into her modern house, up the stairs to what looked like had been turned into a proper bed and breakfast, complete with numbered doors.

Turkish Roses

Only a few minutes later, as we were downstairs sipping a glass of çay, the front door burst open and in came Johanna. Johanna is the Dutch woman who masterminded the rose eco-tours and staying in the Turkish home. Just like the plains of Turkey, she was dusty and moved about a bit frenetically. 

We were the first visitors in the season, so I think she was a little out of practice. Johanna whipped off her sunglasses and started immediately in on what we were to expect, what we were going to do, and why she was there.  We spent the rest of the evening talking to both women and getting to bed early since we would be up before light to pick the roses at the optimum time.

Turkish Roses
Turkish Roses

Sure enough, the knock came at the door about 5:30. Hurry up! Get dressed! No time for breakfast. We were piled into a seatless van, with a couple of plastic lawn chairs as our places to sit and off we went in true Turkish fashion.  We were a bit shocked when we pulled off the road; we didn’t see any rose fields.  What?  We drove about two kilometers closer to the lake and well hidden from the road and there as the sun started to peak over the horizon were rows and rows of pink roses.

Turkish Roses

We weren’t the only people there.  In a farm trailer, the pickers who were women from the village, dressed in their cotton billowy pants, scarves, and rubber boots were getting ready to  work.  We were not as well prepared as they were, and the rubber boots were soon envied by all of us as our expensive hiking books sank immediately into about four inches of muck.

Turkish Roses
Turkish Roses

The harvesters worked in pairs with one huge bucket between them, so heavy when filled that it takes both to dump it into the white plastic bags.  One of the women greeted us and showed us how to “pinch” the flowering rose from its stem.  The rose oil is made from the petals, so we were to leave the still closed buds alone.  They would be picked in the next few days.

Turkish Roses

The four of us got right to work. At first we thought this is not so bad, but let me tell you after about 30 minutes of bending over, occasionally getting pricked by rose thorns, unsticking our feet from the mud, and using arm muscles that were not used to this particular action, we were all soon feeling it.

While we were there, we took the opportunity to talk to the women in our broken Turkish and their very limited English. It was made more difficult since our hands were busy with the task at hand, and we asked them about their lives. All of them had families and multiple children at home.

They woke up and came to the rose fields, picked for about three hours until the sun just made it unbearable, and the flowers starting wilting, and then they would go home to a full day’s work. They earned about 7 lira per day, which is the equivalent of about $3.35 US. Per day!

Turkish Roses
The pickers finish their work day and go home covered in mud and smiles!

We helped empty the big buckets of flowers into the bags, loaded up the farmer’s trailer, and were ready to return to the factory.  By this point, the sun was overhead, and we were all tired, sweaty, and hungry. We were ready for Fedan’s breakfast and çay. We went off to breakfast as the hard-working village women went off to care for their families.

Turkish Roses
Turkish Roses

How do all those pretty pink petals turn into one of the most expensive oils in the world? To book a similar experience with Johanna go to the Alia website.

Factory Processing into Rose Oil

As we drove back to the factory, we passed cars, trucks, tractors, and even horse carts piled high with rose-filled plastic bags all heading in the same direction to have their roses collected and weighed with the amount being added to their overall payment at the end of the season. Muddy, wet, and sleepy we rolled into Fedan’s.

She made breakfast as we sprayed the mud off our boots and took a well-needed hot shower. It was waiting for us on the table, even utilizing her special rose tableware for us. Our morning talk was consumed by what we had experienced, the lives of the pickers, and Fedan’s thriving hostess business, contributing to the income of her husband’s rose factory in her own way. Fedan’s breakfast consisted of the usual Turkish fixings: bread, cheese, olives, eggs, bread and jam.

We were happily surprised to see the jam we were eating was rose jam, and she had more on the stove-top boiling away. Before we left she gave us each a few jars as a gift as well. Our plan for the day was to visit the factory and learn about the production of rose attar (the extracted oil). We started off on a side exhibit. Here the owners had kept the traditional casks and fire intact just for the purpose of showing how the oil used to be extracted.

To be honest, the machines are newer and probably more efficient now, but the actual process doesn’t seem to have changed that much. In a nutshell, the petals are collected, separated, dried, boiled, and pressed, extracting the oil. After which it was put in a cask and sold. Some of the essence is then turned into other products such as creams and lotions, but there are some folks that like the oil just as it is and are willing to pay the very high price to have it.

First, the harvested petals are dropped off in the front yard of the factory, off-loaded and weighed. After the amount is carefully tallied and recorded, the petals are conveyed to the drying room, and finally put into the boiler. The drying room was one of the most fascinating parts. The petals are emptied and for over 24 hours, dried and constantly moved around to aerate them. The workers throw the petals in the air or rake them over and over.

Have you been to Isparta?  Have you ever been on such a harvesting adventure?  Tell us about it in the comments below!

Pin Turkish Roses for later!
Every year the Turkish rose harvest takes over the area around Lake Burdur, and we got to help out! Click here to find out more!

50 thoughts on “Turkish Roses and Rose Oil”

  1. That sounds like a hard day’s work! I can’t imagine getting up at 5am every day to do the picking and then going off to another job. I bet it was fun for a day though. The fields are totally beautiful. Looking forward to the next post to find out what happens to the petals!

  2. The turkish roses are beautiful. Their soft pink colour is really pretty. The hard work that went into harvesting it must have been quite a lot. Loved reading about it.

  3. Oh, this is an unexpected thing to do in Turkey. But I feel pity for the people who really do it day after day, this is such a hard job for very little money. At least the roses are beautiful.

  4. I have never heard of this before. Great that you can do it as a tour and get to experience what its like. It sounds like a really interesting experience, though I am not sure I would last very long picking them!!

  5. Such an unusual experience it must have been, this Turkish rose harvesting. I can feel the air full of the sweet fragrance of roses. Do they have any rose essence to buy?

  6. Such an interesting post! I had no idea about any of this. I love your pictures and I can just imagine the smell perfectly. And you’re right–I can see how this would be really tough work!

    1. Amy, I love a factory/processing/how things are done sort of activity, maybe that’s the teacher in me. But, being able to harvest with the women made this trip an incredible experience!

    1. Tom, There’s plenty I haven’t done, and that’s why my list is ridiculously long! The rose harvest was really great. I loved being with and talking to the village women, and I also always love learning how things are made! If you get the chance, you and Kristin would really enjoy it too…Plus, it’s in Turkey!

  7. I would have sneezed my way through the picking but what a cool experience! I’ll be watching for part 2 because I want to learn how the rose petals become rose oil. Love the photos of the women in their traditional clothing.

  8. These ladies remind me a lot of Poland in some way. When spring comes, many Polish farmers pick up roses and sell them in the street and farmers’ markets. Lovely scenery!!

    1. Anabel, Well, the good thing was that we only had to do what we wanted. As you can see I spent more time taking photos then picking, but I did get a feel for it!

  9. I love this post for not just the excellent content and the information but it is all visually appealing with the rose colours even in the outfits, including yours. Well done.

    1. Paula, As usual, if I was color-coordinated, it was just by chance. Make sure you read part two next week as well; I can see you doing this Paula. You would love it!

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