The Pure Purple Faith: Lilacs

Tissot  Lilacs from 1875

Tissot Lilacs from 1875

In just a few weeks we will have lilacs again.  Looking out of the front window at half a foot of snow on the ground that is hard to believe, but true.  Lilacs populate the end of April here and have usually concluded their life cycle by the end of May.  They are lovable flowers though it’s hard to say why.  The bushes are tall, often flowering on hard to reach tips, are therefore hard to prune, sucker, get powdery mildew, and if you don’t dead head them the seed heads remain on the bush like dessicated shrunken heads.

When we lived in Vermont we had half a dozen bushes on the property most of them enormous old things probably grown from suckers that came from neighboring gardens.  One of them was fifteen feet tall and had a wide circumference that I dreaded during mowing season.  The scent of lilacs in full bloom when there are hundreds of panicles all at once is dizzying,it made me trudge around the bush with the push mower like a narcolept.

No lilac fragrance I’ve ever smelled has reproduced that compelling heavy lidded smell.  Most of them by contrast are prissy little essays on floral reconstruction, which many people now associate with the scent of soap and paper tissues.  You have to know lilac flowers to understand the range there is in the natural smell.

Mary Cassatt Lilacs in a Vase 1880

Mary Cassatt Lilacs in a Vase 1880

The biggest difference is between blue and lavender lilacs and white ones.  The white lilacs- which always used to feature as individual scents*- were lighter with a distinct aniseed quality.  White lilac was just that tiny bit more delicate than mauve.  I haven’t smelled the famous White Lilac of Mary Chess for years, but that perfume was once considered one of the greatest in the world, and the talent of that house for floral compositions like lilac and tuberose went almost uncontested back in the thirties and forties.

Besides the Chess White Lilac in vintage bottles, you have a few other Lilac soliflores these days.  The most famous is En Passant.  I wish that I liked it.  I find the bread and cucumber aspect of Olivia Giacobetti’s composition distracting.  The sheer prettiness of the initial lilac accords seems to deliquesce on skin. You lose the scent in a watery cucumber infusion with what smells like a few croutons bobbing about on top, waiting to become a soggy mess. I don’t find that they improve on the fragrance of a plain old lilac soliflore, and so am not one of those romantics who recommend this perfume.

Lilacs in bloom

Lilacs in bloom

Better I like Roja Dove’s Lilac which is quite true to the mauve lilac (not the white please note) and has a phenomenal lasting power on me.  I tried it one morning at Bergdorf’s and found myself scrubbing the remains off my wrist some twelve hours later.  This was almost too long a tenancy.  I don’t mind a little evolution in a fragrance but Roja’s was almost linear and tremendously tenacious. Lilac is a true soliflore and although a large number of parts are assembled for this amalgam of a scent, such as clove and ginger, ylang-ylang, vanilla, cinnamon and Peru balsam, all I really smelled in passing was the bergamot opening and the jasmine and heliotrope in the heart. He has succeeded in producing a true lilac perfume which smells pretty natural except at the very end where Roja probably had to use a synthetic extender to keep his scent on skin for so many hours.  This mars the fragrance for me, I would prefer to smell his lilac for four hours and then let it go like the lovely ultimately ephemeral thing it is.  He’s done so well here that I would like to see if he could recreate a white lilac as well, but no doubt he has had enough of lilacs.

Aerin's Lilac Path

Aerin’s Lilac Path

Pacifica’s  French Lilac suffers from the opposite problem.  I like the fancy soap and lilac accord you get from this one, but you only get that for forty minutes and then the perfume goes away.  I’m not sure that it merits the bother of so many re-applications in a day, and so this one too I pass on.

I find myself rather liking Aerin Lauder’s Lilac Path.  This one was passed on to me by the always friendly counter people at Estee Lauder’s and I think that it is very true to the lilac note, particularly at first when the scent is almost identical to what you or I might smell on a Spring evening with the windows open and a bush in bloom ten feet away. Lilac Path can’t maintain this level of exactitude and eventually you find yourself smelling the clean soapy lilac  from your grandmother’s bathroom, but that’s not so bad, and may be what Aerin remembers from her grandmother’s bathrooms. You could smell a lot worse I guess, than Estee Lauder’s powder room.


* You can find several formulas for white lilac perfumes in old perfume texts from the beginning of the twentieth century.


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11 thoughts on “The Pure Purple Faith: Lilacs

  1. This is timely, I already wore the first lilac fragrance of the year: White lilac and rhubarb, which on that grey day was just perfect, and reminded me that spring will come. If you’re after that narcotic smell of lilac at their most insect alluring, then I’d recommend Lilla Serenella by Il Profumo di Firenze, quite different from the other lilacs I know. I didn’t try Roja’s Lilac, the price even for a small decant just seems ridiculous, but of course if I could try it in store I would.
    Funny about the mildew, here they seem extremely robust with none of that at all, they grow all over Copenhagen, in fact for a few weeks every year (if the weather is right) it’s like Copenhagen smell of lilac and seawater.

  2. Lilac and seawater sound like a beautiful combination, wish it smelled like that here. The very next time I order something from Beautyhabit must try the Lilla Serenella, because I do love that narcotic lilac which was not part of Roja’s Lilac.

    Lilacs don’t seem to like hot weather. I’m guessing that it never gets too hot in Copenhagen (I hope not anyway) and in Vermont the lilacs were similarly healthy, but here in New Jersey they hate the 90 degree plus summers and get miserably mildewy.

  3. Yes, I’m sure that’s the reason, it certainly doesn’t get too hot here. At least it’s very rare. I hope you will find in Lilla Serenella the kind you’re looking for.

  4. I love lilacs. Every spring I say it, and every spring I wonder why on earth I haven’t planted any yet. This will be the year, I think.

    I love the purple ones better than the white, but wouldn’t turn down any of them. Ahhhh, lilacs. I haven’t tried the Serenella Asali mentions – nor the Roja Dove – but I fell pretty hard for DSH’s White Lilac (in oil format, not sure she makes that anymore). It doesn’t really have that ethereal quality that white lilac blooms have, but it is really lovely.

    I like En Passant, but it lasts all of 2.3 nanoseconds on me, and like you say, doesn’t really satisfy when you want LILAC.

  5. I knew a woman in Vermont who “planted” lilacs up and down her drive by shoving suckers next to the gravel . All wrong and naturally they all grew huge. Boy it irritated my mother who had just bought an expensive dwarf lilac which proceeded to have the vapors and barely produced any flowers.

    You’ve mentioned the other problem with En Passant-it doesn’t last. I simply have not met the best lilac perfume yet. I do like white lilac but no one does those anymore. i’ll see if Dawn still does her lilac. Now I have two to try.

    • Another one I found worthy but not-quite-right was Soivohle Lilacs & Heliotrope. Sweet and heady, but nothing of that ethereal, uplifted quality, and almost heavy. In fact, this weather might be right for my teeny bottle of that one.

  6. This weather is right for any floral that has some depth.

    We’re getting four to eight inches of snow (after yesterday’s sleet). Can’t wait, so anything floral but with a bit of body is good. Your Soivohle Lilacs & Heliotrope would be a contender.

    I’m wearing Kiss Me Tender. Maybe heliotrope is good for snow conditions.

  7. I love lilacs (flowers) and after many searches realized that I don’t like lilac in perfume soliflores. I mean, I enjoy smelling some of them but I’m not compelled to wear even the best of those I found – Highland Lilac of Rochester and Rue des Lilas by Phaedon.

  8. Rue des Lilas, thank you for mentioning it because there’s one I ought to check out.

    Keep forgetting about Pierre Guillaume’s secondary line which is bad because I like a number of PGs. Also I take your point about loving the flower but not liking to wear the scent as perfume. Lilies are the same for me, I’ll grow the big orientals but couldn’t wear the scent. Still, this year I’m up for the reappearance of any flowers at all :-)

  9. I like the look of that Aerin lilac scent – its packaging is also drawing me in. The Highland one Undina mentions I heard was the ‘reference’ lilac, though I have yet to smell it.

    • I have to try Highland Lilac too- but yup it is considered one of the best if not the best- though I’m not sure Undina who did try it was too impressed.

      I kind of liked the Lauder although frankly the scent was in no way spectacular. It was very lilac at the beginning, later it on it became “generic lilac”. The start though was very true to life. Bet they used headspace.

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