Aka crataegus, and as a species, rather small dense trees, native to North America, alternate leaved, armed with fierce thorns and prone – in New England, anyway – to fire blight. I‘ve never grown them and have never wished for their flowers, either white or pink, although other people – chiefly Europeans, I notice - get nostalgic about them. I don’t get nostalgic about anything involving a lot of time spent with fungicidal sprays. It all smacks of hard labor to me, and what is the point of gardening if you can’t fuss over the things which interest you and pass over in silence all the things which don’t?
Ah, but of course I do care about smells and therefore have to say something about the hawthorn.
The first thing to say is that its flowers have a powerfully indolic smell. What died in the hedgerow? You look around thinking surely the cat’s been in there again, but no, it’s merely that the hawthorn is in bloom.
So why the romantic reputation in France?
You might think it was all down to Proust. It may be all down to Proust, who associates Albertine in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, with pink Hawthorn, whoa! If that’s not foreshadowing Ms. Swann’s whiffy sex life, I don’t know what is.
Perfumers though, more alive to Proust’s reputation than the malodorous facts of life he was referring to there, have included the hawthorn note in several perfumes. (By the way, I except from this whole sale dissing of perfumers’ reading comprehension Jacques Guerlain who knew precisely what he was referencing with this sort of indolic note, but I digress.)
As for where in fine French perfumery hawthorn turns up it is right there in No5. Oh, yes it is. Full frontally, I might add, and this places the hawthorn at the very epicenter of French reference points, up there with pissoirs, Marianne’s bust, and six weeks of vacances each and every year.
Well, give them this, the French certainly do showcase all the things they cherish. Given the fact that No5 is still the best selling perfume in France, you realize that the French smell hawthorns very frequently, “souvent,” as Proust would have remarked, “mais peu a la fois.”*
*Since I wrote this post though Dior’s J’Adore has become the best selling perfume in France.