Tuberoses for a Founding Father

Thomas Jefferson at the age when he was experimenting most in the garden at Monicello

Thomas Jefferson at the age when he was experimenting most in the garden at Monicello

Ever wonder what were the favorite scents of historical figures?  In the case of Thomas Jefferson we know one of his: the Mexican tuberose.  Jefferson was a gardener when he was not writing the Declaration of Independence or being president.  Monticello was a sort of test garden for all sorts of plants and flowers that Jefferson had admired abroad, or that he thought might be useful or simply ornamental, in American horticulture.  One such discovery for him was the tuberose.

He kept a diary which is how we know about his tastes and what he ordered.  Like anybody else who gardens, he loved to look at plant lists from nurseries and dream of where he could tuck this or that little rarity into the spaces he had open. Continue reading

Gardenia 911

How many gardenias fall into the cold cream vat?

How many gardenias fall into the cold cream vat?

Gardenias are said to be the perfumer’s best bet at capturing the US feminine market.  We in the Sates love our gardenias, and if you can just concoct us a good one, we’re your customers forever.

There’s some truth to the rumor. All sorts of niche perfume companies have tried to crack open the American feminine market with gardenias, but only Annick Goutal succeeded with Gardenia Passion*, and such venerable houses as Guerlain have struck out with non-gardenia gardenias such as Cruel Gardenia.  C’est la Vie. Continue reading

Tit for Tat: Lavender Soliflores Disappear

La Liz was her secret violet eyes or lavnder oil?

La Liz was her secret violet eyes or lavnder oil?

You may have noticed the disappearance of lavender soliflores.  In fact you may have noticed the disappearance of lavender essential oil from perfumes and soaps and other such products with some vague fake floralcy substituted for lavender.  Why has this happened?

The explanation may be related to the findings  in 2006 of Derek Henley and Edward Reiter of the National Institute of Environmental Health and Science concerning the strange cases of five young boys and “idiopathic prepubertal gynecomastia”.  Translated into the demotic, these five boys had begun to sprout breasts when using otc tea tree and lavender oil containing soaps and shampoos. The effect went away when the boys changed products.

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Trumpeting Florals: Lilies

Bouquet from The metropolitan Museum of Art

Bouquet from The metropolitan Museum of Art

Big honking lilies and not those tiny little lilies of the valley, that’s what I’m referencing.  They’re not shy and they’re really not understated either, but the big lily’s smell can be beautiful.

They can also be great big honking hits with the public. Consider that billboard sized lily Cacharel’s, Anais-Anais.  Cacharel let Anais-Anais loose on unsuspecting mortals in 1978 and the beginning was a  heavenly whirlwind of florals: White Madonna Lily, black currant, hyacinth, lily of the valley, then a midsection crammed with even more flowers and woods.  Everything was stuffed inside Anais -Anais’s delicate skin, jasmine, Grasse rose, iris, ylang-ylang, orange blossom, vetiver cedarwood, oakmoss, patchouli, finally an almost apologetic ending trailing behind this monumental arrangement, a few leather streamers and a tiny bit of musk as though Anais had stepped out of one fragile leather slipper and left it behind. Continue reading

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 tipifiys 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. Continue reading

Sunshine on a Branch: Mimosa

mimosas in full bloom

mimosas in full bloom

You know who you are: fellow mimosa maniacs.  You wish you were on the Riviera in spring just in order to bury your nose in the bouquets of mimosas which are everywhere  there in March.  This is the month when you miss the flower markets of France and Italy the most, when there’s nothing at US supermarkets but green dyed carnations. They just don’t cut it for us.

Of course there’s always a bottle to take the place of the real thing, and with mimosa you are luckier than with most other flowers because there is an extract and you can smell the real thing rather than a reconstruction.  Acacia is the proper name for the yellow flowering mimosas or wattles- their Australian moniker- because these trees are native there.  Here in the US most of us know Acacia dealbata or Acacia baileyana both of which are fragrant. I find that the terms acacia and mimosa are batted about interchangeably in a confusing way, but from a horticultural standpoint, acacias are mimosas. *

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The Fragrance of Water: Lotus and Waterlillies

Lotus in bloom

Lotus in bloom

Nelembo nucifera has got a wonderful perfume all by itself.  The lotus produces an extract that is sweet and strong with a sort of hay or grassy facet.  If you’ve never smelled it, this extract is surprising because there is none of that watery quality you might have been expecting, instead you encounter a scent that is part flower, part grass, and finally something faintly like tobacco.  The lotus is unexpected.

The waterlilies on the other hand only sometimes have a scent and when they do the scent can vary.  Nymphaea odorata has been described as smelling of vanilla, fruit, or lilies of the valley.  Long years ago my mother grew some in a whiskey barrel which we hauled into her pond.  They must have been tender day bloomers,  and though I remember that they were scented, I don’t any longer recall the particular perfume. Continue reading

The Unfamiliar Scent of Tulips

Tulip Bellona, from homeguides.sfgate.com

Tulip Bellona,
from homeguides.sfgate.com

Many people profess to smell no scent in tulips.  I have to disagree. Tulips have always been in our gardens except here where squirrel activity is at an all time high.  I have discovered the hard way that squirrels simply love to excavate them.  This is how I lost a stand of late flowering white double flowered ones and have not had the heart to try again.  That redoubtable huntress the cat antagonized several of my little foes, but that only held back the squirrel invasion for a month..

Anyway the scent of tulips is one of their more overlooked pleasures, and most of the time you get that scent from the species tulips. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Simple Complexity of Honeysuckle

Bush honeysuckle

Bush honeysuckle

Lonicera is the proper surname of of honeysuckle, but no matter which name you happen to call this vine you can’t mistake the scent. It’s frankly one of my favorite fragrances  on earth, and commonly found growing in enormous mounds at the seashore, a gorgeous, white floral fragrance with a fruit undertone from a plant that is sometimes not much more than a garden nuisance.

Surprisingly though honeysuckle isn’t that easy to interpret as a fragrance. You would think  it would be a very simple exercise for perfumers, but that seems not to be the case. Continue reading