World War I started a hundred years ago this month. In retrospect it makes me cringe when I think of all the golden afternoons of August in Flanders being shattered by shellfire and drifting clouds of mustard gas.
Even this unfortunate anniversary does not spoil the month for me. August strikes me as being one of the very best times to smell things in gardens and one of the best smells of the August garden is phlox. I should make myself clear and point out that I’m discussing Summer Phlox or Phlox paniculata to give the plant its right name.
If you garden with perennials you know this plant well because it conveniently blooms in August when so many other perennials have shut up shop for the season, and all you are left with is annuals.
My mother used to adore phlox which is probably why I remember the plant so vividly, and why I stop to smell stands of phlox in other people’s August gardens. In The Fragrant Year the authors describe the tall phlox’s scent as…”August in essence, the mecca of every bee and butterfly for miles around. The fragrance has an indefinable reaching quality, a bit like Clethra yet not so syrupy, a light musty sweetness that belongs to phlox alone.”
My mother would always cater to a crowd of phlox in her gardens with pitch forks of manure in a place where they could have sun all day and would wade out into their midst to breathe in her favorite’s perfume. That favorite was Phlox ‘David’ a big white variety that never failed to scent her garden for several feet on a good day. The fragrance was almost as pervasive as oriental lillies’ and a good deal nicer to my mind. White Flower Farm still sells this type, and I’m absurdly pleased that they do. Not that the mauve and pink and purple varieties of summer phlox aren’t as lovely as a girl in a pastel dress, they are, but ‘David ‘ was one of those romantic plants that you’d miss if it disappeared. That Phlox was statuesque, and the perfume was sweet and hay like with something just a touch alcoholic or at any rate fermented, to the accord.
Why, I ask, is the fragrance found nowhere in perfumery? You will seldom if ever see Phlox listed as a note, at least I never do. Why is that? Do perfumers yawn and say “Just a bunch of indoles and linalool on a stem.” Well, that’s like saying lasagna is just a matter of flat noodles, sauce, and some cheese.
This makes me wonder if I have ever smelled a scent that replicated, or even just evoked the perfume of ‘David’? After some thought the best I can come up with is Aftelier’s Honey Blossom, plus a slightly more synthetic version of a similar garden scent in Neil Morris’ neo-floral aldehyde Intimate Lily which brings out the slightly musty/hay facet of late summer florals, or the more unapologetically sweet side in his Scrumptious. But there really isn’t a good version of the smell on the market.
Anyway, I like to go out and inhale phlox at this time of year and remember all the interrupted afternoons of the Twentieth Century. What we need these days is a lot more gardening, and bees, and a lot less war.