Pluperfect Purple

When was the heliotrope last in fashion?  I wonder.  It may have been sometime in the  nineties.  The 1890’s, that is. It went out no doubt with hair pomade and gardenia boutonnieres.

What is the heliotrope?  It is a small flowering herb originally from Peru.  It has dense heads of flower usually horizontally arranged, violet or dark purple in color.  You grow them for the scent which is heavenly.  They used to be called Cherry Pie – a doubtful characterization to my mind since the flowers don’t smell like cherries or pie.

Heliotrope flowers smell along the lines of a powder/vanilla/and fantasy fruit , the fruit being the sort that is always out of reach. My own visual association with heliotrope is Rupert Everett in An Ideal Husband. It’s such an Edwardian smell, you see, very Oscar Wildean, urbane Importance-of-Being-Earnest-Oscar, not Ballad-of-Redding-Gaol-Oscar.  It is simply wonderful, and once you have it, you generally go to some lengths to keep it.  I would still have mine except for the fact that our cat took a liking to the smell last winter and ate the entire plant.  She nearly expired from the gas it gave her, but I suppose she had a good time before her methane levels got out of control.

The leaves are attractive as well, crinkly with a purple shade under painting their dark green, and the plants will get long legged very soon, so you have to take the scissors to them frequently, and water them often.  Oh, and they like sun. Lots of sun, so much in fact that they have to transfer outdoors in the summer. Their name in Greek means to turn to the sun, helios tropein. They make perfectly good bedding plants (though not if you have cats) and look very nice with roses of all shades.

As for re-creating the perfume, you have your difficulties. Heliotrope is one of those many flowers that do not produce a commercially viable extract.  The note is mimicked by heliotropin which is an aldehyde derived from pepper oil.  Most people say it smells like almonds or like baby powder.  When too much of the stuff is used indiscriminately, it doesn’t smell like heliotrope.  It either collapses into a welter of talcum, or it becomes tooth-achingly sweet.  The same aldehyde is used also to recreate mimosa, which is why so many mimosa solifors remind people of heliotrope and vice versa.  In nature, mimosa doesn’t smell much like heliotrope, and the best versions of either flower make a clear distinction between them.

One of my favorite evocations actually was a passing note in the 90’s formulation of Guerlain’s Chant d’Aromes that came just after the top note had evaporated.  I wore that perfume for years before it was reformulated yet again.  The last time that I tested it the heliotrope note was gone.  It had been un-sweet, abstract, peppery and flowery.  Now it is …noshy, and not wanting to smell like a peach soap parfait, I will pass.

In recent years I’m not sure what evokes the smell of heliotrope. There are some efforts such as de Nicolai’s Kiss Me Tender but that one is marshmallows and band-aids and I find I can’t recommend it, the Guerlain Cuir Beluga is drier and extremely powdery, and with the caution that it is either a love or hate perfume, I would suggest that.  It’s by no means a heliotrope soliflor but it does smell quite a lot like the flowers.

Then there is always L’Heure Bleue and that one does smell of heliotrope, among many other things and is also genuinely a refugee from the Belle Epoque.  Perhaps Oscar smelled it, weaving tipsy and burnt out about Paris during his last years.

On second thought, let’s hope not.

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2 Responses to Pluperfect Purple

  1. Angie Jabine says:

    A homely little annual, the heliotrope, I only plant it for the scent. Too bad it’s so hard to duplicate in a bottle.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      So did I, until that little incident with the cat. I had no idea that cats customarily follow the Atkins diet, and that the meat gets cut with salad on a regular basis. It turned out that absent catnip, she would go for the heliotrope. Now I miss the stuff, and would like to re-plant it but don’t dare, Oh well such are the vicissitudes of cat companionship.

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