The Scent of Chocolate, Bread, and Vanilla

A scent not to be found inside a bottle created by Guerlain, even though you might well think that, and no, it wasn’t something from Parfumerie Generale either, it was a clematis in flower, in a yard, one town over from mine.

I should explain that I am a walker.  Scarcely a week passes that I don’t go for a two mile walk, three or more times, and one of the best aspects of all that walking, is that I can see and smell whatever is in bloom that week in my neighborhood.  This last week one of the things in bloom was Clematis Montana (or C. Montana rubens if I introduce the plant formally here).  Montana’s the small anemone flowered clematis that blooms in the spring, and lots of people grow it for its carpeting effect of pale pink flowers up to thirty feet, but what that vine should be famous for is the scent.

That’s, well breath taking, and frankly very complex.  There’s nothing like it in any perfume bottle that I can think of.  Montana is quite simply the most amazing floral oriental I’ve ever come across.

To be honest, I should know the variety better.  The truth is that clematis in general(so long as they don’t fall victims to blight) are pretty tough customers. They are common enough in gardens all across the Northeast, and I’d assume a lot of the rest of the country as well, and I’d certainly seen the plant plenty of times, but what I hadn’t done was to stop and smell it.  I’d grown Clematis Paniculata in Vermont, and that has a pungent scent of anise and vanilla, kind of like off-the-chain Italian biscotti, but the Montana is much more nuanced.

So I have to admit to standing there on the edge of the road with my nose in this pale pink flower thinking about what exactly it smelled of while the rest of the world ran, cycled, and skate boarded past me.  And the results of that highly informal head space analysis was the following: aldehydes (yeah, I know they’re chemicals  but that’s the closest descriptive I could come up with) then a delicate green floral similar to angelica, but maybe closer to the scent of tarragon, then a distinct vanilla note, light vanilla, not the vanilla some of you may know from Spiritueuse Double Vanille, then something rather like fresh bread, a yeast smell, and finally milk chocolate. If you stood there long enough, the whole sequence began again, but after round one, I was rather concerned that the homeowners might feel that a lunatic with a flower smelling fetish had turned up next to their front garden, and I moved on.

For all the food associations in the scent, it did not come off as particularly gourmand, by the by.  The Montana perfume was delicate,  feminine, and also, judging by the winged traffic around it, possibly a moth attractor. They often do like honey or vanilla scents, I’ve read.

In any case, apparently I’m not the first person to have some difficulty in describing the smell of C. Montana. I have an old gardening book from the 1960’s called The Fragrant Year, and in that book the authors wrote this about the Montana in flower:

“In full bloom a mature vine is magnificent and a joy to smell, but of what it smells is controversial- macaroons?  Boiling toffee? Fresh baked bread?  To us, the scent is strong vanilla, coming through as milk chocolate.  It spreads but is stronger in passing than close up, and quantity seems only to send it out farther, not to increase the intensity beyond bearing.  Here is a sweetness some find cloying – we do not.”

If only a bottled perfume smelled like that!  But none do, as far as I know. There’s nothing for it but to go and buy a Clematis Montana, dig a hole, and wait till next year.

For that smell, the digging is worth while.

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2 Responses to The Scent of Chocolate, Bread, and Vanilla

  1. Meg says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post. I love your botanical explorations. BTW, are you experiencing the butterfly irruption in your neck o’ the woods? We are, and it’s quite a spectacle — CLOUDS of Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies mobbing anything that flowers. Yesterday while driving I thought I’d hit some kind of colorful airborne debris field, but it was butterflies on the move!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Thank you much, and no, we are not having the butterfly hoe-down here. But from your description I wish we were. I haven’t seen that kind of pageantry since our Vermont days. It must require acres of things in bloom, and suburban front yards and public parks just don’t cut it for butterflies en masse.

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