Chrysanthemums smell of cemeteries that’s the conventional judgement of Western Europe. My sister who spent the most impressionable years of her childhood in Italy still cannot bring anyone a bouquet of chrysanthemums. She just can’t. The flowers are bad luck to her, so often seen as blackening bundles in front of the small Italian tombs.
This is bad luck for me as I take quite the opposite view of chrysanthemums. To me the chysanthemum is the flower of immortality, the flower of Japanese gardening exhibitions. They’re exotic, they’re strange, and are total shape shifters running the gamut from pom pom to anemone. Grown in China since 550 BCE, there are over 160 species which have been cross bred to produce all sorts of impossible whirling shapes which The National Chrysanthemum Society classifies by such terms as Regular or Irregular or Japanese Incurve. Some resemble fireworks. Unfortunately what we lack in the States is variety in chrysanthemums. In the past over 3000 different cultivars were grown here, but times have changed and now relatively few enthusiasts grow the vegetal whirligigs and petal explosions that chrysanthemums can produce.
I also have to declare an interest in their scent. It’s slightly medicinal but beautiful, bordering on woody, delicately cold, with something in it that must attract late pollinators to the plant. The scent is seldom used in perfume. Maybe it’s the cemetery association again, but the sole perfume I remember coming out with that note in the 1990’s was Cassini. There you could indeed catch a whiff of chrysanthemum leaves. Cassini was a chypre scent, a fruitier, woodier relative of Jean Patou’s 1000, with osmanthus in the top notes and then a floral roundup that counted tuberose in rather heavily, and rose plus the chrysanthemum. The base was quite dry with a double dose of oakmoss.
To my surprise when I was reading up for this post I discovered that it is in Estee Lauder’s Private Collection as well ( the original Private Collection from 1973) though I don’t recall catching the distinctive scent there. Then and most beautifully, chrysanthemum is in Serge Lutens’ De Profundis, but he has brought up the association with cemeteries again, and so does the clever Funeral Home of Demeter, one of their early hits. But though I recognize de Profundis as beautiful the melancholy of violets and chrysanthemums incense and soil, do tend to remind me of funerals. Funeral Home is a pairing of florals in
such a way that the cynical buyer of the late twentieth century could wear florals (lily, carnation, chrysanthemum) and not be perceived as wearing anything overtly girly. Your Goth side was sufficiently represented by the name.
But what I would like is more of the eastern touch with chrysanthemums. Shiseido did something called Kiku which I have never smelled. But from what I recall it may have been Cassini who was on the best track with Chysanthemums, they fit well into green fragrances, and particularly well into chypre structures. They also just smell cool, but I suppose I’d better not hold my breath, the funeral home association is going to pull more weight than its opposite, and the flower of immortality seems all too mortal on this side of the Pacific.