Monday, May 3, 2010


Nothing lasts forever.

Unusual are resurrections, real or illusory.

Nature provides us with a little bit of magic each spring.  Out of seemingly empty ground rises life.  Most of this life stays with us through the growing season.  Those that last the season and then return for another round are "perennial."  Those that pump up the volume, ever churning out the blooms for a constant production of seeds and propagation, but die at the end never to return, are "annual."

Then there are those that appear but briefly, disappearing back into the earth well before the growing season is over, nearly disappearing from our understanding of the very landscape they lie waiting beneath.

The most common of these is bulbs...the crocus, the tulips, the daffodils, the hyacinth, which come up, pump color into an otherwise still waking tableau, and then retreat as the others start to fully develop.  These bulbs are kind of showy, like the supporting actor in a show who chews up the scenery in the second act but has nothing to do for Acts Three through Five.

Less considered are the quiet, more fleeting ephemera.  The ones with gentler blooms, that lurk tucked in shady areas and under the emerging canopies of other plants.  Or which might pop up in plain sight, in an area that the rest of the year reads as "there's nothing there."

Just listening to some of their common names is fun: trout lily (aka dogtooth violet, lat. erythonium americanum)...skunk cabbage...bluebells...dutchmen's breeches...May apple...Jack-in-the-Pulpit...bleeding heart...coltsfoot...lady's slipper...wake robin.

From childhood on, a springtime activity in my life has been keeping an eye out for the ephemerals.  Some would appear in your yard; others required a walk in the woods.  You never knew just when they would appear.  You never could say precisely where they would appear.  Basically, you simply had to be aware and ready.

Looking for ephemerals carries an unfortunate similarity to snipe hunting for those who have never seen them before.  How can you know where to look?  Whether or not you've found what you are looking for?  You need a guide.  My favorite guides were not bound and in my pocket.  They were other humans, people I cared about very much, and who had this magic ability to find a sort of "abracadabra" in the humus.

Loving ephemerals requires both patience and a willing suspension of disbelief.  Patience, to ride the long interval between appearances.  Willing suspension of disbelief because, unlike those showy bulbs, ephemerals present no identifiable presence underground.  Ever.  So, if you miss them, you can't go digging for gold. They're just...roots.  Among other roots.

At the top of the post is a photograph of a patch in a shady part of my yard.  I went back there this weekend on a hunt.  I've been in this house but a few years, so I still find myself pleasantly surprised by the hosta and the bleeding heart that follow the daffodils, all of which are additions I made to a basically bare patch.  You can see they've come up again this year. You can also see a surprise that greeted me back there, a classic sign of the cycles of life, an empty bird's nest.  I look past the bird's nest, still searching.  I take note of something else.  You, of course, can't notice what I can't see, because it isn't there.  I, as you might have guessed, notice it because it isn't there. That something?  Trillium.

Somewhere beneath the dirt here, and in two other patches of "ideal conditions" of the patch of earth I tend to, are the defunct root systems of Trillium grandiflora.  Wake robin.  Ephemerals are tricky.  They tend to live where they choose, not so much where humans decide they should go.  Despite great care in site selection, the trillium I planted have not chosen to reappear.  What is not there is the substance of today's story.  What is not there...but might be.

Yes, my goal is to successfully bring into existence something which by definition will shortly leave.

I am not frustrated, though.  Fleeting beauty has a place in my does accepting that you can't grasp all that you reach for.  I'll continue to cultivate, and wait.

Non-gardening ephemera I cherish:  A belly laugh from a friend.  The "A-ha!" look on a student's face.  Those moments when an ensemble of musicians totally connects with each other in a live performance.  Witnessing an aurora borealis.  Flow.  The smell of En Passant.

En Passant?  Oh, yes; the perfume part.

Perfume is by standard definition ephemeral when an application's duration is measured against the wearer's life span.  But it is not horticulturally ephemeral; it doesn't magically reappear once it has disappeared.


Unless that perfume is En Passant.  Olivia Giacobetti's creation for Editions des Parfums Frederic Malle offers the kind of softspoken* scent that a woodland ephemeral could be proud of.  But it's the magic that En Passant pulls off on my skin...drawing me into the bread-y lilac dissipation through a cucumber-y rain with this haunting echo of the thing that connects Apres L'Ondee to L'Heure Bleu (what is that? heliotropin? it's that meringue marzipan desert thing)...making me love it...and then...disappearing.

And's back.  Pulling a wonderful meta-trick; the perfume that is supposed to allow the ghost of Apres L'Ondee to haunt it now haunts you.  You need to be can't watch the clock...but if you are open to'll find it.

Magic.  Real magic.  That creates the illusion of bottling the ephemeral.

Maybe by the time my bottle runs out, the trillium will come in.  

*please remember that softspoken does NOT equal "simple"

image credits:  Top image author's own.  B& W photograph of trillium undulatum from Chest of Books.  Third image of trillium grandiflorum appears on the Scottish Rock Gardening Club bulb log diary of 2006.

Today's post is included as part of a month long festival of flowers coordinated by artist/perfumer Roxana Villa.  Use the link on the upper left of this page to see Roxana's list of contributing writers and artists, or go to the opening page of Illuminated Journal here.


La Bonne Vivante said...

lovely post! I am always on the lookout for the delicate ephemera as well. It is about time for my first woodland wildflower walk of the spring, and your post has inspired me to go as soon as this rain stops...

Roxana said...

How eloquently written. Here on the west coast, the plants of the chaparral are often referred to as the "Elfin Forest" because one must really look to find the treasures of the woodland. A bit like ephemera, but not quite as fleeting.

ScentScelf said...

LBV...thank you, and I do like being responsible for a happy something...

ScentScelf said...


I was just responding to a comment last week about how a friend and her daughter keep a watch for "fairy flowers" every spring, the ones that are most easily noticed by wee folk who know their way through the wood, and whose flowers often nod *down* as if they were meant to be seen from underneath.

I wonder from an experiential viewpoint how one could translate that to fragrance...that the best "view" is from a different angle...

flittersniffer said...

What a beautiful post, and I admire your green fingers. Even hardy annuals and plants that purport to withstand wanton neglect become emphemera in my care, and one of my undone chores this weekend is in fact the interring of some deceased cacti. Well, not actually cacti, even - succulents - which is why they are deceased.

I am intrigued to try En Passant again to experience its tidal properties. Do you get that at all with L'Eau d'Hiver, another floaty number?

ScentScelf said...

Oh, dear. Perhaps you're better off collecting antique botanical prints? :)

My son desiccated a cactus once. He was both very sad, and rather impressed. It takes a LOT of neglect to accomplish that. So, you could go there. If you want to.

Ah, L'Eau d'Hiver. You're right, it is "floaty" in a similar vein...occupies a similar altitude...but no, on me at least, it stays around. Not loudly, and not exactly on my skin, but there constantly until it is gone. Unlike the game of hide and seek that En Passant plays. With me. You?

Flora said...

Very nice post, and I do love those woodland ephemerals too!

And I utterly adore En Passant, even though it makes me cry with its beauty. Has any perfume ever been more ethereally lovely?

ScentScelf said...

I'd be hard pressed to name one, Flora...