In Britain it might be bluebells, but here in North America one of the best clues that Spring has really arrived, is this scent: grassy, pervasive, and fresh. When I smell it a cascade of images always runs down the surface of my mind: Easter services I’ve sat through in buttermilk colored southern churches, huge bouquets in white wicker baskets, bristling with pink, blue, and yellow hyacinths in front of altar rails, and the bowls of faience pottery we always had at home, with forced hyacinth bulbs in them every March. These last, just because. As my Mother said, we were good and tired of winter.
Hyacinths for me are spring. However not everyone enjoys their fragrance. Even in named varieties of hyacinth it varies, and in some the smell is just a smell, and a powerful one at that. Some hyacinths are indolic and off-putting at meals, if placed too near the dining room.
My own best bets with hyacinths have been with the whites and the pinks, L’Innocence, an old variety, always smells good, as does Pink Pearl, some of the creams are reliable too, particularly City of Haarlem. The blues vary, some are wonderful and some are just so strong that they’re better in gardens than indoors, though ymmv. All scent issues aside, they are too fabulous to leave out of houses in March or late February if you just can’t stand another icicle drip of winter.
Hyacinth perfumes are another matter. Really good ones are few and far between. Maybe it’s that forceful perfume again. Possibly a lot of perfumers think that the scent is too strong for any wearer to get away with, making them just as conspicuous as those Easter basket arrangements. Hyacinths are usually not subtle, and the public often doesn’t know the smells of nature. They are so much more familiar with hedione than hyacinths, that hyacinths might prove a difficult sell in a fragrance now.
The oldest and most reliable version is Guerlain’s Chamade, however the perfume does wallow in the soap dish, and might seem dated to younger wearers. Recent picks for hyacinth nosegays include Vero Kern’s Mito, which seems to divide people into two camps, those who think Mito’s like Eau de Rochas and the rest who liken it to Cristalle, in both cases everyone says Mito is more complex than either of those citrus chypres. I’ve never smelled Mito, but include the fragrance here, because so much has been written about Vero Kern.
Modern takes on hyacinth include Patricia de Nicolai’s Le Temps d’un Fete, and her Un Coeur en Mai for MDCI. This last is either a love or a hate experience, and ties off the hyacinth rose stems in its bouquet with very un-sweet sharp green grass.
Un Coeur en Mai is sophisticated, the Chablis of hyacinth perfumes, not the Pinot Grigio. Although described as a rose perfume, I would call it a distinctly sharp green rose with more emphasis on those leafy notes than most noses might be expecting.
My favorite for producing (anyway for twenty minutes) the best hyacinth, daffodil and narcissus bouquet I’ve ever smelled is Pierre Bourdon’s The Mistresses of Louis the XIV. I keep mentioning this series because I feel that it included some feats of perfumery that you don’t often come across, and this short lived bouquet is among them. The rest of the perfume becomes a faintly sweet, pale green, incense smoked dry down of much less interest, but those first twenty minutes are spectacular. If pressed, if someone asked for a hyacinth perfume now, I’d recommend this one for the beginning, and then I’d mention Mito.