Up on Jebel Akhdar, the Omani rosewater industry is in full swing with round-the-clock production, finds Kate Ginn.
High up on the slopes of Jebel Akhdar, the terraces are bursting with colour and the bushes are laden with pink flowers. A fragrant smell of roses is in the air.
The rose season is well under way on this mountain range.
Omani rosewater producers have only a picking period of one month, between April and May, to collect their precious harvest and make big money.
The rosewater industry is the most important means of a livelihood for many in the mountain villages, such as Sayq. It is also a huge draw for tourists, who make their way up the Green Mountain as soon as the first petals begin to bloom.
About 5,000 rose trees are spread across seven acres and it’s estimated that around 4,000 litres of rosewater are produced from each acre.
The finished product could make its way to kitchens in homes and restaurants in Oman and beyond, and can also be used in perfumes and cosmetic products.
One rose of choice is the Rosa Damascena (or Rose Damask), a species preferred for its intense fragrance.
Omani rosewater is exported around the world. It has a distinctive amber tinge and a unique smoky smell, which is particularly sought after in Gulf countries. It also fetches the highest prices, costing between RO6 and RO7 for 375ml.
Production has existed on Jebel Akhdar for hundreds of years and the skills required have been passed down through generations.
There are around 15 to 20 rosewater operators working on Jebel Akhdar.
For one month, output continues for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s gruelling, labour-intensive work but well worth the effort. One acre of roses can make up to RO40,000 a season, according to government figures. That’s RO280,000 across the seven acres, a considerable amount.
Traditional methods are said to be behind the sweet smell of success for Jebel Akhdar’s producers.
One, Abdullah, and his family, has been making rosewater in the fertile ground for decades. He toils in a two-room mini-factory, which is a traditional mud-brick house with an old blackened wood-fire oven in one room and mounds of freshly picked roses in the other.
Roses – the whole flower including the stem – are picked by hand as dawn breaks over the mountain. They are then soaked and distilled at high temperatures. Condensed rosewater is sieved into large storage urns with tops made from woven palm leaves and kept for up to 40 days to allow the sediment to settle. The pure rosewater is then bottled, ready to be sold.
But the onward march of progress is threatening the old ways. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has distributed machines for extracting rosewater as a substitute for the firewood method.
There is even an Aromatic Plants Distillation Centre, affiliated to the Public Authority for Craft Industries (PACI).
Modernity is creeping in and producers are having to embrace the changes to survive and let their mountain rose farms continue to flourish and, quite literally, come up smelling of roses.