Friday, May 21, 2010

Indigenous Scents, or, Love the One You're With

Outside my bathroom window, pressing against the partially opened casement glass, generously wafting throughout that level of the house, is a Miss Kim lilac.  So full of blooms, and so distracting, when I try to come up with adjectives for how smothered and ponderous with panicles it is, my mind keeps on half-attending and only comes up with words like "abundant" and "smothered."  (As if "ponderous with panicles" isn't trite AND awkward.)  Yeah, sure it's got all the benefits of being nature's air freshener and all that.  But there is so much could be any is the idea of this, this *offering,* being made again this year as every year, that distracts me and fills my brain with thoughts of each of those little tiny flowerlets with their mole-nose like openings and walking the alleys to find overgrown shrub-trees hanging over fences so I could gather a few and looking for them while walking home from school as a kids and thinking about how those were grandparent flowers because they talked about smelling them when they were kids and imagining my great-grandparents burying their noses in lilacs in the Great Plains and the North Woods and the Ozarks and oh, it's heady but it won't last long.

So why don't I think of it as "serious" for perfume?

Here am I, cheering on any yard I see harboring an old-fashioned lilac.  Holding all sorts of powerful emotional memories tied to their presence and triggered by their smell.  But it took me three years to build the courage...and find the right space...for an old style (full height, loose looking most of the year) lilac.  Even with that, I picked one with white flowers.  I was, and am, grateful for the Miss Kim, which blooms later than the traditional lilacs, but which holds to a more modest height and looks more like a shrub than scrub the rest of the year.

It seems that I treat the stalwart old-fashioned like the stereotypical well-heeled person would a trusted member of the staff...appreciate it, will sing its praises in the right company, but want it to stay out of sight unless I need it.

Funny, when I see a bottle of perfume marked "lilac," my first reaction is to think of my Nana's scented talc, and move on.

When I see a listing for Patou "Vacances," I get all moony, and linger on the write-up for something I'll never have.

One way or the other, dismissed or beatified, lilac is...beyond reach.

Perhaps this is why one of the few lilac scents I love is En Passant?  It is both messed up lilac (I mean, seriously, do you rise your bread dough in your lilac bush?), and fleeting (so I can only "hold" it for a limited time).  Like the name says, it is an impression in passing.

But what of this other element that haunts me, this attribute of being..."common"?  Does this spell doom for garden flower scents?  That is, flowers from MY garden?  After all, jasmine and champaca might be outright weedy in other, say, orange blossom in Arizona or Southern California, or bougainvilla in San Francisco...

Uh-oh, I just complicated my train of thought.  Do we have tiers of privilege at work here?  Those tropical flowers are "special" (oooh, exotic...), the edgy climate ones "worthy," but the workhorses of the midwest?

Let us review.

Lilac.  Iris.  (Which is to say iris FLOWER, not root.)  Apple blossom.  Peony.  Lily of the valley.  Mock orange.  Tartarian honeysuckle.  

Rose could be tossed in there, but I think that's a side issue that deserves a discussion unto itself.

Iris, we toss outright.  Nobody has done that.  Why, I don't know.  I'm going to turn that into a separate discussion, it just too darn hard?  Did nobody pay attention to the fact that the flowers smell so blasted good they are practically narcotic?  Is it because you can only smell them if you chance to catch their "throw" (and can identify what is the source), or if you stick your nose right inside the petals...and let's face it, that's kind of like sticking your schnozz into a Georgia O'Keefe painting?

And we know what *that* means.  (And sorry, skanky fans, but that is NOT what the inside of an iris smells like.)

But discussions of iris are moot, because there is no flower based perfume.  Harumph.  Of course, given the variations I smell in the irises I grow, you'd first have to pick a "baseline" iris.  (Just among the beardeds, there is what I would call "traditional" iris smell, a grapey smelling one, a clearly lemon smelling one, and a softened "lemon chiffon" smelling one.  Of those that smell.  That are bearded.)

Let's pick a trio.  Lilac, Apple Blossom, Honeysuckle.  What's your first thought?  Raise your hand if you thought "good perfume for a girl who wants perfume but is really too young to wear perfume."  Hands down.  Raise your hand if you thought "something my grandma would be comfortable wearing." Hands down.  (And take a moment to think about the conflicting ways grandma gets hit with "unh-uh" reaction when it comes to perfume...too aldehyde-y...too mossy...too garden flower-y...really??)  How about a show of hands for anybody who thinks "Avon"?  Okay, anybody not raise a hand yet?  Please take a moment to comment RIGHT NOW if your first thoughts for any one of those is "serious perfume."  Seriously.  And, to keep the game challenging, tell me what apple blossom or honeysuckle perfume you find "serious."  If you insist on lilac, go anywhere but Vacances or En Passant.  

Maybe I'm pursuing a dead end.  But seriously...doesn't something smack of privileging the exotic over the backyard here?  I don't mean to invoke evil Colonialism, either; I just mean...maybe...the grass is greener over the fence?  You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?  Something along those lines.

To be fair, there are some small perfumers who use their backyard.  Roxana Villa champions her local oaks in her politics, and features their essence in some of her perfumes, notably "Q." Liz Zorn has teased Facebook followers with images of mock orange blossoms she is currently putting through enfleurage, and will some day end up in one of her bottled creations.  

But what is on my mind, right now, is the idea that there's plenty to be found in the realm of tropical white flowers, or the root of a florentine iris.  (I'm going with the belief that "florentine" refers to Florence, Italy, not Florence, Alabama.  Orris root.  There is, incidentally, a Louisiana or swamp iris, but I haven't smelled that one.  I digress.)  Nothing of the iris I find inside the flowers in my garden.  Nothing of the apple tree I fell asleep under as a child.  Nothing from the flowers that not only smelled good as you rode past, but also tasted flowery sweet if you plucked them and sucked out their backsides.  

I'm going to go outside and find one of the spots where the irises are currently throwing their scent.  Happy invisible pockets that stop me in my tracks and make me remember that I am here, right now, this year, inside this moment, which is incredible.  

But will pass.

And, if fate allows, will come again.

A mole nose is shaped like a star.  Learned that a while back, thanks to some reading or other with the kids.  When they were short.  And would wander the garden with me, going on a "scent hunt."

ADDENDUM:  Sonofagun.  Zeitgeist.  I leave, go to check some of my favorite blogs...and it seems that granny in the guise of "old lady" was on Helg's mind today.  See her discussion of "Old Lady vs. Older Woman."


La Bonne Vivante said...

I love this post; I read it yesterday, and have been thinking about it ever since. Why do we ignore the scents and flowers closest to us, most part of our history and sense of place? I know for me, it is a question of exoticism--fragrance is a way for me to get my head out of my own life and into a world of imagination and fantasy. But I find your point very appealing indeed. Thanks for a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay!

Datura5750 said...

Formerly of Michigan (40 years) no outside of Santa Barbara, I read this post with great interest, My Miss Kim lilac just finished, but the Mock Orange is just starting, I grow my iris for fragrance as I love the smell of the flowers...I wont tease you with what grows like weeds here ;-)

March said...

You're hitting all the notes today ... my Miss Kims bloomed a couple weeks ago. Nothing but En Passant even comes close to touching them. Not sure what the problem is; everything else smells too bath-product-ish? Maybe Miss Kims are meant to be smelled in their surroundings... and you know I've been singing the Iris Song ever since I started blogging about perfume. All I can say is, on my behalf, Denyse has mentioned the smell of iris flowers to several perfumers who seem to have no idea that iris *has* a smell. Orris is a substance that, as you and I know, is highly valued in perfumery but bears no real relation to the smell of the flower. It's as if all "rose" fragrances were made by grinding up their rootstock... I can only continue to hope/pray that someday, some perfumer, somewhere (Frederic Malle? Isabelle Doyen?) notices the smell of iris in a field and is captivated.

ScentScelf said...

La Bonne V,

Certainly I enjoy the exotic, too, whether because I have had brief encounters or can only dream of inhaling otherwise. But...this right in front of me is SO beautiful...why not, indeed?

There's more to be thought here...why does the rose get attention, for example, when it is under noses on multiple continents?

I figured this was chunk enough to chew on at once. Both philosophically, and in the perfume application. :)

ScentScelf said...


Ah, another ex-Michigander! Transplanted to one of THOSE growth climates...I do appreciate you withholding the teasing ;) ....

I'm going to start collecting names of those who nod and know what iris flower smells you'll see in my reply to March (next), I have been rather struck by the number of people who just have no idea.

Wave to that salty water for me. :)

ScentScelf said...


Yes, everything else is just...NOT when it comes to lilac in a bottle. Funny, I can cut them by the armload and put them around the house; nothing wrong with that. But try any human recreation (perfume, room scent, candles, whatever), and my nose does those sinus gyrations of closure, kind of a physical equivalent of saying "aw, H3LL no!"

So here's my question about perfumers expressing ignorance of iris flower scent. Because, when I first started falling down this perfume hole, and was clawing around trying to grab onto iris, you were the ONLY voice I could find saying iris *flower*, dang it! And the occasional fan of perfume who I'd run into and would say yes, they knew iris flower scent, would also say no, it never occurred to them to find it in fragrance (perfume). there no perfumer who knows the scent of which we speak? Will it maybe take an American perfumer, who grew up/learned/was acculturated outside of some IFF or indigenous flowers paradigm to be able to even conceive of such a thing?

Or maybe, outside of Denyse's inquiries, someone has tried to capture the actual essence (via enfleurage etc.), and it just won't do, a la lily of the valley? And nobody bothered to pull a Roudnitska and lie down among the iris and find a way to mad scientist their way to the smell?

Should we make a devilish plan for 2010? There's still time! Not all of them have opened in my garden, which means there are some yet to come further north!! Who could we get to go on a field trip? What perfumer wants a little time out to go discover just what it is we dedicated champions are talking about???

(Can you tell I like to spontaneously road trip? And that I like to pretend it's just that easy?)

Mals86 said...

OH, iris. Iris iris iris. I had some of my grandmother's bearded irises - lovely soft mauvey-pink ones, with that delicate yet swoony, almost grape-y, scent - at my old house, but didn't transplant them to the new. Mea maxima culpa. And immediately after we moved, she sold her house too.

I have no irises in my yard at the moment, but plan to remedy that this summer. Just yesterday I was making a list on my computer of varietals I'd like to have... Top of the list is Sugar Blues, a periwinkle-blue rebloomer that's supposed to be very fragrant.

Lilac scents never smell quite like the real thing*. The "apple blossom" scent I got from DSH was a sweet fruity rose. Nothing gets honeysuckle right, either, although I'd say Amoureuse gets the heady, sensuous feeling of honeysuckle right if not the actual smell of it.

*Exception the forbidden-to-mention Vacances. The Soivohle L&H is very nice, but too bloomy, not enough leafy for me.

Mals86 said...

I didn't really address the issue, but I'm one of those simplistic people who never mind smelling of flowers, or just one flower. If I could smell like the Sarah Bernhardt peonies that are blooming in front of my house right now - with their petals ruffled and crinkled as those tissue-paper carnations I used to make at school for Mother's day - I'd be happy.

ScentScelf said...

Mals, I love sharing my iris so much, I wish we were neighbors so I could give you some pass-alongs. I have a couple of clumps that need some dividing...

I see you are running into the same frustrations I have with "apple blossom" or honeysuckle etc. Interesting point about Amoureuse, though; perhaps I should be happy just to find the "spirit" of one of my under my nose but overlooked loves?

Hope we've made clear by now that Vacances gets a "bye" for purposes of this discussion. ;)

Peonies! I have some of those in the house now, too. Funny, as much as I complain about "soapy" smells in perfume, I don't mind it in a peony at all. There's one in a vase of garden flowers on my kitchen's a little too long for the hangs a little too far over one of the placemats...I just happen to usually sit has yet to be "fixed"... ;) I think it is a Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps; those are a certain solid shade of pink, yes? No matter; I ♥.

And I happened to cut some fresh stems of iris just before I sat down to write...they are wafting very, here's some for you....

Mals86 said...

Oh, thank you for the irises! Oddly enough, when The CEO came home from deworming cattle (ugh) today, he brought me a bunch of irises that are growing near the working pens. They're lovely - white stands and medium-purple falls - but they don't have a scent.

So I put them in a pitcher and cut a couple of stems of Sarah Bernhardts (man, those things are huge, the blooms are six inches across, I swear), and now the bouquet smells nice.

Musette said...

I am stealing 30 seconds from a fraught day to say I have NO ideas on Lilacs other than the two you said we couldn't mention (waaah!) but there are apparently some new Zorns.....???

You know how the scent of apple blossom just lifts my soul and my spirits - I'm not sure I've ever smelled it in a fragrance and to be honest, all yarking aside, I'm not sure I really want to. If they screw it up it would be hellish.

I will pass on the honeysuckle. It's nice in its place - and I love it in nature - but not so much in perfume.


ScentScelf said...

And *I* am shamefully tardy in my reply...

Isn't that true? The potential for getting it right--you, your apple blossom, me, my iris--is so appealing. Yet, if they mess it up, the disappointment might be too much to bear.

Did I just use the phrase "too much to bear" in reference to a perfume disappointment? Oh, dear; I think I need to go recalibrate my reality meter.

Hopefully, all transgressions will be forgiven.