Norman Benoit ‘s passion is roses. The co-owner of Rose des Champs, a garden filled with 2000 rosebushes that’s located on a hillside in the green rolling hills of the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Benoit loves everything about roses – their beauty, their history, their fragrance, and, yes, even their taste.
A half dozen years ago, this Eastern Township native and his partner Clair, were looking for a new direction. Raised on a farm, Benoit, then living Sherebrooke, wanted to return to his agrarian roots. “Few people have a farmer uncle they can visit and they want to get out in the country,” he says. “I still had the farm here, so I plowed up a half acre thinking I’d plant an organic vegetable garden that people could visit.”
Clair had other ideas. She arrived with a trunk full of rosebushes. And, as they say, one thing led to another, and now the garden boasts 800 varieties of roses, many of them unusual or historic. They make and sell an ever-expanding line of rose products– rose oils, soaps, lotions, syrups, jams, jellies, teas, and more. And Benoit has discovered a passion for roses he never knew he had.
For a better perspective on the long and colorful history of roses, visitors should start their self-guided tour of Rose des Champs in the history garden. This garden traces rose varieties from the earliest known variety through today.
As you meander through various rose beds throughout the garden, the varieties are clearly labeled – waterfall roses , known to grow as much as a foot a day, tumble down a rock wall; “pavement” roses, a rugged variety from Germany that’s often planted near highways and is famous for needing almost no care, bunch together throwing off hundreds of blooms. There’s even a water garden with ponds and fountains that attract local waterfowl.
Healthy plants, Healthy Planet
One of the partners’ guiding principles has been to “do good for our visitors, our employees, and society.” So, from the beginning, they opted to live lighter on the earth. The farm is off the grid, powered largely by solar panels. They also grow everything organically. Instead of treating black spot, a common rose affliction, with toxic chemicals, they use “Brown Cow,” a concoction of baking soda, water, cooking oil, and dish detergent. For mildew, they use a spray of skim milk and water, which causes the leaves to acidify, killing the mildew. They plant companion plants that give off smells that confuse potentially-harmful insects. They “wake up the microbial life in the soil,” with a fertilizer made from powered white crab shells. They add coffee grounds to the soil for added nitrogen. “I could feed my plants chemical fertilizers and they’d be one-quarter inch taller, but they’d be on steroids,” says Benoit. “By growing them organically, they’re stronger.”
The air in the gift shop is redolent with the sweet smell of roses. While garden tours (5.50 $ Canadian), bring in some income, the bulk of their business is selling rose products. The shelves of the gift shop are lined with soaps, lotions, and essential rose oil.
They distill their own essential rose oil using a still Benoit had shipped from Kentucky. There’s a reason why essential rose oil is expensive. It takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to make one pound of essential oil.
Roses taste great too. There are samples of rose jam (tastes slightly floral, not overly sweet), rose syrup (tastes like a light honey), rose lemonade (surprisingly refreshing), and rose hip tea. Benoit says the vitamin C and other antioxidants in rose hips make it a healthy drink. “The health properties of rose hips are amazing,” he says. “The British Osteoporosis Society says that the rose hips are more potent than anti-inflammatory medications.”
In fact, he says several weeks after starting to drink one to two cups of rose hips tea every day, both he and wife Claire noticed “our aches and pains disappeared.”
Benoit says both professional and home cooks are recognizing the culinary uses of roses. Rose water has long been used in both cocktails and dishes and area chefs are buying his product “because it’s sweeter than others.” He also offers rose oil, rose petal infused olive oil (petals are soaked in extra virgin olive oil for one week), which you can cook with or rub on your skin as a conditioner.
For Benoit, Rose des Champs isn’t just a job, it’s become his passion. “Roses are an amazing plant. I really just love them.” — Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor