The Scent You Mistook for a Rose: Geranium

Scented geranium in bloom

Scented geranium in bloom

We all thought her name was Rose, how wrong we were.  This confusion tipifies the history of the geranium ( or beg pardon once again, Pelargonium to give the plant its true name) in perfumery.  The pelargoniums are experts in the art of scent mimicry.   You find pelargoniums that smell like fruits, spices, herbs, mints, even coconut.  Their range is astounding and all  of this from their leaves alone.

The eldest -at least in Europe- is Pelargonium capitatum or the rose geranium which besides smelling like roses is also edible (the whole clan is edible) and was once used to wrap up freshly churned butter.

Scented Geranium Cake from Martha Stewart Living

Scented Geranium Cake from Martha Stewart Living

You can  bake with them and they are said to make a nice contribution to apple jelly if pressed into the bottom of a jar before you fill it (mint geraniums especially).  Here I found a Martha Stewart cake made  with the geranium leaves which gives the pound cake a pretty silhouette leaf design.

As houseplants they are incredibly easy only demanding sun, in a south facing window and of course to be put outdoors in the summer.  They do not like heavy soils and prefer to dry out between waterings.  You can try as many scents as you like and the choice is surprisingly wide.

In the perfume world though it’s rose geranium that was the star for years.  I grew up thinking that this smell was rose in soaps and bath cubes.  Little did I know that geranium essential oil was SO much cheaper than rose otto. Let me re-phrase that.  If you buy an oz. of Bulgarian Rose essential oil now you may get an adulterated product but the price I see listed at Eden Botanicals is $175.00 whereas if I go for Rose Geranium at an oz. the price is $25.00.  This is  why when I grew up and began to smell and think about perfume, I rapidly identified the difference between the two.

Lanvin's Spanish Geranium Talc from Ebay

Lanvin’s Spanish Geranium Talc from Ebay

What is that difference?  I’m smelling Rose absolute as I write and the distinction is subtle but unmistakeable. Rose is a thick opaque, very sweet perfume,with a jam like thickness in your nostrils, filling them up, singular too, there is nothing else I can detect. Rose has crowded out all other scents.   Geranium by contrast  is slightly lighter, has a translucent quality, also that thin acidic tendency people often call soapy.  I myself like this element and always thought it would be nice to have few fragrances that simply play geranium up, rather than have the note masquerade as rose one more weary time.

It turns out though that not all the perfume world was intent on concealing geranium’s true identity.  You had some geranium fragrances, notably Lanvin’s Spanish Geranium and more recently Miller Harris’ geranium soliflore Geranium Bourbon.  I have never smelled the Lanvin but know Geranium Bourbon well having got through two decants.  Interestingly  there is a good description of Lanvin’s Geranium on Australian Perfume Junkies, and it seems that Miller Harris may have been trying to resurrect the old Andre Fraysse fragrance from 1925 because the notes described are a) unusual and b) almost identical

Both scents featured a palmarosa note that went along with the geranium in the top of the scent along with pepper, there was rose in the heart together with violet and amber and vanilla in the dry down.  What I got from the Miller Harris was mostly geranium, palmarosa, pepper and an endearing booziness.  This was a perfume for a pub crawl if ever  I smelt one, relaxed, slightly frowsty, but attractive all the same.

Geranium Bourbon

Geranium Bourbon

Geranium Bourbon was an easy perfume to wear, and had a little undertone of masculinity to it that could dry out and go about its everyday chores very well.  This was one of my favorite Miller Harris perfumes.

Unfortunately there are few attempts to make geranium perfumes and the only other one I can think of is Geranium Pour Monsieur from the Federic Malle line.   It’s not a soliflore, but an attempt at a masculine oriental. The notes do not remind me of the fragrance I smelled at Aedes de Venustas which was fresh and green and minty rather than geranium centric to my nose.  The effect was herbal and played up that aspect of the plant mimic with mint and anise in the beginning along with geranium.  The heart was all cloves and spice and the end was full of

Scented geranium leaves from Whiteflower

Scented geranium leaves from Whiteflower

incense. Unlike Lanvin’s Spanish Geranium or Miller Harris’s do over, this was a composition meant to use the versatile geranium note to make a point about masculine perfumery.  Namely that it can be more complex than merely bracing formulas. True.  But what about geraniums?  Can’t we glorify that changeable note, or is it just too variable?

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4 thoughts on “The Scent You Mistook for a Rose: Geranium

  1. You know, I don’t really enjoy geranium in perfumery. It can be so screechy! I like the smell of the plants, which does vary, but if I look at all the rose soliflores I *don’t* like, they all seem to have geranium in them.

  2. You know how people think rose is sour? I often think they’re smelling geranium. Makes sense given the price differential.

    I thought I didn’t like geranium till i smelled the Miller Harris that got me and Spanish Geranium I haven’t come across yet, but apparently a favorite of Joan Crawford’s!

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