The Scent of Irises and Earth

One of Monet's Iris bed paintings

One of Monet’s Iris bed paintings

Iris was never my favorite garden flower.  This should be admitted right away because I know many people love iris whether in perfume or in flower form, and the taste for them has been a long time coming in this case.

My mother who was a better gardener than I am, always adored iris and always had them in some form or other in her garden beds. In Vermont I remember Siberian irises being her choice probably because of their hardiness.  I found that the old bearded Iris germanica* grew like topsy in the cold little town we inhabited.  I inherited three big clumps of it which had to be divided, and I did a very clumsy job of hacking the rhizomes ( what is the difference between a root and a rhizome? See illustration) and then dropping (!), some around the yard where they actually took root and thrived.  I was literally lousy with iris. Continue reading

Iris in Disguise

iris wallpaper print late 19th century

iris wallpaper print late 19th century

Iris is one of the most expensive notes in the world of perfumery, or used to be, before the development of anisaldehyde, and Alpha Irones or the heavy synthetic iris Irival that makes an appearance in Iris Silver Mist. As you can see these days iris is unlikely to be natural, the cost alone more or less precludes that, but there are plenty of irises on the market some self advertising, some not.

Among the synthetics my personal favorite has to be the discontinued ShalimarParfum Initial.  This perfume had nothing to do with Shalimar, instead the scent had a good deal in common with Dior Homme and DH’s lovely synthetic iris note was reproduced but lightened just a little bit.  They were pretty close to one another as compositions.  I went out and spritzed Dior Homme from my local Sephora and then Shalimar PI and found out how close the kinship was.  They were siblings really, not even cousins. The Shalimar PI * did not prosper.  I suppose the fact that the new perfume had nothing to do with actual Shalimar hurt the sales in the end since those who loved Shalimar could not love this new iris concoction. Continue reading

The Sensuous Wallflower

Wallflowers from Unwins UK

Wallflowers from Unwins UK

Wallflowers are not supposed to be sexy, I know, but the flower Cheiranthus Cheiri has a wonderful rich scent that is sensual.  Usually their fragrance is described as being halfway between lillies and carnations, which is a hard notion to get your head around.  Carnations can be green and sparkling and spicy, and lilies are green but creamy and with that big old white flowered whiff that makes them an irresistible choice for Spring, but few people think of walflowers in that capacity at all.

However the scent has made a few appearances in perfumery, though not very often and not very recently.  The all time famous one, if anything regarding Wallflowers can said to be famous, is Dior’s Dune, that monster hit from 1993, which among its wood and floral notes also contains wallflower. Continue reading

Growing the Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena from Sunlanherbs.com

Lemon Verbena from Sunlandherbs.com

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s mother smells of lemon verbena, and in heaven knows how many other households of the 19th and twentieth centuries other mothers and grandmothers did too.  Lemon Verbena in cologne or sachet form was the antidote to sticky, peal your organza blouse off your back summer days below the Mason-Dixon line.  Lemon Verbena and iced tea in large Ball jam jar travelers to trek to the post box and back battled thick air and heavy legs.

I grew up as a little girl in Northern Virginia and Maryland where the summers were hot and sticky enough to please any reptile and where the perfume of choice was either White Shoulders or else these antique sachets.  Some old timers would even brew their  colognes – why not?  They also made their own White Lightning, a sore point with the local sheriff who was always trying to track down and close the stills. I get the impression that the stills at least are a continuing phenomenon of rural Southern life in the States.

Continue reading

Paperwhite Pollution

Pperwhites in bloom  from farmingtongardensblog

Pperwhites in bloom
from farmingtongardensblog

You’ve probably done this too, perpetrated the scent of paperwhites on your near and dear because you saw one of the adorable little kits at the home center with the dehydrated peat moss disk hiding underneath a plastic pot, or else you bought the little white gravel packet and glass vase hoping to observe the snaking progress of paperwhite roots around the stones.  This dear readers is how paperwhite pollution starts, but this particular air quality issue does not end there. Continue reading

Cyclamens in Winter

Cyclamen graecum in bloom

Cyclamen graecum in bloom

There is nothing quite so graceful as a cyclamen in bloom.  Every year when the last things in the garden have been blackened by frost I tend to look for the pots in the super markets and plan table scapes in baskets with cyclamens  dominating (kept in shape by watering with weak tepid tea). It’s too early for the amaryllis that I’ve begun and is still the season for chrysanthemums indoors, so I have to postpone my cyclamen fest until December, but I begin thinking about them now. Continue reading

Evelyn Rose, Evelyn Perfume

Evelyn Rose in bloom

Evelyn Rose in bloom

Only very infrequently do nurserymen or plant breeders collaborate with perfumers. Once briefly in 1993 one such collaboration  produced a success: Evelyn.

The company willing to work with a breeder to produce a replica scent was Crabtree & Evelyn and the breeder was David Austin.  He was promoting a new strain of roses that he had been working on since the late sixties, English Roses which have the look and perfumes of old garden roses but are repeat flowering.  He was always far more attentive to fragrance than any of the other rose breeders I’ve ever read about.  David Austin was concerned not simply with stem bending size of rose or outlandish color, but with form of blossom, foliage, and very much with scent. Continue reading

The Mortal Flower of Immortality

Picking Chrysanthemums

Picking Chrysanthemums

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. Continue reading

And One More Word on Vanilla

Three dimensional  Vanillin

Three dimensional Vanillin

The word I have in mind is vanillin. Vanillin is one of the earliest synthetics from 1874 actually when first produced by the firm of Haarmann & Reimer, and you would recognize the smell even if you were not fascinated by fragrance because vanillin, like the SPECTRE organization in James Bond stories is everywhere, though mostly these days in food, along with its close associate ethylvanillin. If you’ve eaten candy bars you’ve eaten vanillin. Continue reading

Contemporary Heliotrope

Heliotrope in bloom photo my own

Heliotrope in bloom
photo my own

Heliotrope is one of those floral notes in perfume that everyone thinks is old fashioned-that is if they even know what heliotrope is in the first place.  So heliotrope is that delightful annual that blooms in dark purple or sometimes white flowers and produces a delicate fragrance. Some say heliotrope smells  of almonds and others of vanilla, still others liken the perfume to a freshly baked cherry pie.  That was one of the popular names for the flower back in the 1880s in fact.

In case  you’ve never smelled heliotrope one of the best places to begin to encounter the note is Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue 1912.  The other place is Guerlain’s Apres L’Ondee 1906.  Both are re-interpretations of   Francois Coty’s L’Origan 1904, which used a heliotrope base (among five others).  All of these fragrances have made it into what you might call fragrant pop culture.  Never smelled them?  Try one and if you’ve never met the scent before chances are you’ll smell talcum powder. Continue reading