Taif’s flowers: a blooming industry
From late March to April, more than 500 million roses are harvested each year in Taif, and the oil extracted from their petals has grown an industry with an estimated annual worth of SAR 35 million. It is an industry teetering its historic breath on the edge of an online marketing revolution, and a catalyst for transforming opportunities for local Saudi women.
Deep cultural history, economics, and female empowerment fragrantly waft together across the soaring peaks of the Sarawat mountain range in western Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Province.
For three centuries, the exquisite pink hues of damask roses have nestled each spring in ancient farm fields ploughed among the giant granite boulders of Taif’s imposing 2,000 meter mountain slopes.
From late March to April, more than 500 million roses are harvested each year in Taif, and the oil extracted from their velvet petals has grown an industry with an estimated annual worth of SAR 35 million. It is an industry teetering its historic breath on the edge of an online marketing revolution, and a catalyst for transforming opportunities for local Saudi women.
Taif’s enticing 30-petal damask rose, celebrated for its purity and exclusive quality of its intensely complex scent, is grown for its oil-rich petals, which are processed into expensive rose oil.
Up to 860 local farms, from the mountains of al-Shafa in al-Taif city’s south, to the valley of Wadi Mahram, and al-Hada, cultivate Taif roses.
The distilled oil, or “attar” — derived from “‘itr,” meaning “perfume” or “essence” — is used as an ingredient in the finest luxury perfume brands around the world. Up to an astounding 40,000 rose flowers go into producing one 10-gram bottle of rose attar, and the market price of one miniscule gram is currently SAR 120.
Fragrantly cutting across cultures
The Taif rose has framed al-Taif city’s cultural brand, and the rose’s cross-cultural appeal is recognized as a way to promote the Kingdom’s tourism, culture, and economy. Local and international pilgrims often complete their holy visits to Makkah with a visit to the highlands of nearby Taif.
An extravagant and colorful Rose Festival at the end of the rose harvest attracts approximately 20,000 people. According to a 2019 report by the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monshaat), the Taif rose market is estimated to be worth SAR 35 million.
Rose oil is calculated as a Tola — a 10-gram glass bottle — and one tola of the liquid oil currently fetches SAR 1,200.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the price was up to SAR 1,500, but safety measures such as border closures, lockdowns, and regulatory change on pilgrimage, led to a domestic demand drop, oversupply of rose products and price drop, however, it also drove the industry to the brink of an online marketing transformation.
The Taif Chamber intervened quickly to solve the drop in the rose market. Chamber head Sami Al-Obaidi said, “The Taif rose is a national product, and an important national and strategic industry.”
Early-morning oil harvest
Taif roses start blooming in Wadi Mahram, then open 10 days later in al-Hada, and after another 10 days, start in al-Shafa.
In late March, on a medium-sized multi-crop farm in western al-Hada, farm workers gently displace the crisp dawn mountain air as they unobtrusively wander through rows of rose bushes, using a perfected wrist flick to expertly pick unfurled blooms from waist-high dark-green foliage. Like all roses, picking begins at daybreak, and ceases by early morning, before the rising sun’s heat evaporates the charming petals’ treasured oil into only half of what it was at dawn.
Thorn-covered woody rose bush stems, whose roots reach into the rich highlands soil, remain unwavering in the light alpine breeze, while leaves of surrounding nut and fruit trees rustle, birds sing, and insects leave gentle footprints.
Well-maintained mature rose bushes — last up to 20 years old — and in Taif, 2.5 million of them cover 2,250,000 m2 of farm land.
The seasons of crops do not stop in al-Taif, as the rose season is followed by the almond season, then pomegranate, honey, apricots, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables.
Digitizing farmer marketing
The discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia transformed its subsistence farmers into producers, and the al-Shafa farm of brothers Naif and Faisal Khalidi is overlooked by one of Taif’s highest mountain tops. Gazing up at the brilliant blue sky, pierced by the towering mountain peak, Faisal says he knows each slope’s every stone, “After school, in my bare feet, on the mountain I looked after the sheep.”
About 40 years ago, the multigenerational family farm decided to add Taif roses to the farm’s fruit and vegetable crops, and now harvest up to 200,000 roses a day during the 45-day season, where 20 people work 21 hours each day from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. to return a total oil output of between 14 to 17 liters.
“We love the roses, we devote ourselves to them during the season,” said Faisal, who is expanding the farm’s “House of Taif” rose oil and rosewater online range to include lavender, mint, geranium, and rue.
“When you wake up in the morning, you pick the roses to the sound of birds, then you come to the laboratory and see 29 stoves burning on a high fire,” he added. “The earlier the roses are picked and processed, the more oil is produced.”
Every year the brothers send a gift of 60 grams of rose oil to Medina, where it is used as perfume in the mosques.
Refining velvet treasure
While many farms send their rose crop to factories for processing into attar and rose water, others have their own distilleries. Over the centuries, other than gas replacing wood for heat, the core principles of the difficult and delicate distillation process have remained unchanged.
Rose flowers are boiled for up to 45 minutes in tightly sealed stills, each holding 12,000 roses and 120 liters of water, then simmered for 15-30 minutes until 75 liters of distillate flows into three large glass bottles.
Critical toward quality is temperature control. The distillate will solidify if it gets too cold, while too much heat means a loss of color. Steam rises from the still into a pipe, which travels through a cooling tank with a maximum temperature of 20-35 degrees Celsius.
Circular rose economy
In the glass bottles, condensed distillate separates into rose water, while attar is carefully syringed off the top, and a centrifuge separates the final water from the oil. The rose water in the first bottle contains “bride’s water,” used for beauty products, while the second bottle’s rose water is for culinary consumption, and the third bottle for rose drinking water.
Producing rose oil and rosewater, from bud to cooked bloom yields millions of cooked flower heads, but the rose continues to give generously. Taif turns a circular rose economy, with boiled rose mash manufactured into perfumed rose incense, or used as fodder for local animals, fertilizer, and organic mulch.