Not the name of a beautiful Italian girl as you may have thought, but the name of a humble plant whose branches dried and lashed around stout sticks used to sweep out kitchens and yards. We’re talking about Broom.
Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum) is the most common sort and it is the inhabitant of dry hillsides throughout the Mediterranean. The flowers, which appear from May ’til September smell like coconut, and have been used in perfumery for centuries. They can be large plants getting as high as ten feet. I’ve seen bushes of it I don’t know how many times driving through southern Italy. It was the subject of one of Giacomo Leopardi‘s long poems, and is a common plant near Naples.
The type to use in your garden (provided you can find a permanent spot for it (because it hates moving) is Genista cineria. It has spiky blue gray foliage and sweet pea shaped flowers usually in a cheerful bright yellow color, and well scented. It has to be treated like lavender and cut back hard to give a good crop of flowers the next season. It’s not a plant that likes to be coddled.
It is also, would you believe it, the source of one of the most famous dynastic names in history. Truly – planta genista: Plantagenet. Yes, the same name you heard again and again in British schools while they were dragging you feet first through the Wars of the Roses. You emerged with all sorts of historical burrs and, as it happens, some gorse as well, stuck in your psyche, and a very insecure grasp of medieval British history. Plantagenet though is a name you will meet again if you do any further reading on the period.
(If you’re American, disregard all of this. We none of us know what the Wars of the Roses are and assume that the English went in for a lot of competitive rose growing during the Middle Ages. )
As for perfume renditions of the flower, I can only think of one in which it featured prominently: Nina Ricci’s now discontinued Farouche. This perfume was one that I wore as a teenager and I always thought that it suited my personality. It had this prominent sweet but sort of brash note in the middle and that, as far as I could tell from sticking my nose into Broom in bloom, was the genista.
Genista, ginesta, genistra, genestra – you’ll find all different spellings. The British just call it Gorse (or furse, or furze, or whin). Its long blooming season has entered into the realm of the nursery rhyme:“When gorse is out of blossom, then kissing’s out of fashion”.
This explains a lot, both why one prominent family of war lords would use it as an insignia (cheap and widely available over a long period), and why it was used in perfumery (cheap and widely available over a long period). Does anybody make perfumes that use it much now?
Well, yes, in fact, they do. Rather appropriately for a medieval theme, the Cistercian monks of Caldey Island do a line of various perfumes extracted from the island’s native flora, all available online along with their handmade chocolate and short bread. One of these is, gorse. (I haven’t tried it and would be curious to hear from anyone who has.)
But the brothers appear to be unique. The age of Plantagenets and Broom may be over. Unless, perhaps, you want to make a Nimbus 2000 of it.