Antique Oleanders

Oleanders in bloom

Oleanders in bloom

One final thought on the smells of Italy, and that concerns the scent of oleanders.  Oleanders do well in dry heat. They sprout into huge sprawling bushes all over Rome and because of their size, often grow near the ruins, especially around the Palatine and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, or wave in the desiccated wind off the autostradas.  The reason is space. Conditions in Rome are too cramped for oleanders and their expansive growth habits.

Their perfume, though, is one of the most recognizable ones of the city.  It’s heady, and  heavy, there’s a sweetness underwritten with toxicity. The toxicity is fair comment, because in fact oleanders are quite poisonous.  Somehow it’s fitting that oleanders with their narcotic scent of almonds (similar some say to arsenic) should drift about the Palatine.  The Roman emperors and their wives knew a thing or two about poison.

The smell, however, was very familiar to me.  As in nearer in time to me than my last stay in Rome.  This was a scent I had been on intimate terms with, and since perfumes are rather like old lovers, apt to bring up inconvenient memories at inopportune moments, this was one I had to re-visit.

Of course I remembered, one night while we were out at dinner.  It wasn’t really the Carbonara but an unexpected Proustian blast from my daughter’s elementary school Rome Oleander 1days that jogged my memory.  I had been wearing – what?  Whatever it had been smelled exactly like these oleanders in bloom.

The answer was Farnesiana.

Farnesiana, the old Caron perfume often out of production these days was what I had referenced. An odd place admittedly to be certain that you’ve nailed a scent memory into place. I suppose memory is no respecter of location or activity, as Proust would have remarked.

Farnesiana is a heliotropine perfume, meaning that it has almond qualities and also a flowery aspect that doesn’t owe much to the fecal pong of indoles. Oleanders are not really a white flower perfume and don’t have a sexual subtext up their sleeve. Furthermore, the very best scent match came from the pink double flowered oleanders and not from the white, which makes Farnesiana  a pink and not a white flowered perfume.

Oleanders near Santa Maria della Misericordia

Oleanders near Santa Maria della Misericordia

The old Caron compositions, like the Guerlains,  were made for high end customers and mostly  for export, but they were also made to commemorate the perfumer Ernest Daltroff’s travels.  He seems to have enjoyed Italy because two of his best sport Italian names, Bellodgia, and Farnesiana.  Usually, Farnesiana is said to be a mimosa perfume, but  whether by accident or on purpose (because heliotrope can mimic any flower with a sweet almond perfume) Farnesiana smells like both flowers. Daltroff may have been thinking less of Acacia farnesiana than of the Farnese palace in Rome. Either way, the perfume is a ringer for the scent of those oleanders.

You ask me, the inspiration does not matter, though Farnesiana now recalls Rome in Midsummer to me.  Personally, I like to think of Farnesiana smelling the way the Lungotevere does on a Sunday morning when you are on your way to the flea market at Porta Portese, there are lots of oleanders along the way…

Do you have an oleander perfume?

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6 thoughts on “Antique Oleanders

  1. I’ve never knowingly experienced the scent of oleanders but you’ve made me curious about them now. A little sleuthing may be required to find them up here, in the botanical gardens perhaps?

    It’s lovely when a scent memory has a successful outcome; I applaud your little grey cells, as Poirot would say, for making the connection between the Caron fragrance and the oleanders.

    • Oleanders were all over Malta too, and maybe if you’ve been on a Mediterranean holiday you have smelled them already. A trip to the botanical gardens sounds like a nice way to find out if you enjoy the scent though.
      Incidentally some people keep them as house plants but my daughter always insisted on a NO Oleander policy because of our houseplant munching cat 😉

  2. No oleander perfume but our primary school had oleander hedges until somewhere in the 1990s they were all removed. I was long out of school by then but I wondered if their poisonous qualities had made them unsuitable.
    I remember no scent coming from them at all.
    Portia xx

    • Did they flower? Odd. And yes I suppose they must have felt that one of the kids might take a bite or something.

      These big double pinks in the pictures my Hub took were the most pervasively fragrant in Rome, though there is also a single peach colored flower with a nice perfume. We used to have tubs of those on our terrace growing up.

      • Yes, I remember them flowering most of the time but I have zero scent memory of them. There were also loads of eucalyptus though and we could always smell them.
        Maybe they overrode the Oleanders?
        Portia xx

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