Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

Published May 30, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Jaime Laya


Calles Ylang Ylang and Clavel (carnation) of Manila’s San Nicolas district were possibly where flowers were distilled into essential oils sought by European perfumers. Ylang Ylang oil was a major Philippine export in the 19th century and the flowering tree is now being replanted in Pangasinan and Tarlac. Ylang Ylang is an ingredient of Chanel No. 5.  

Madrid’s Museo del Prado has an ongoing exhibit that I wish I could check out but it closes in a few weeks. It features a 400-year-old painting by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, “The Sense of Smell,” and a high-tech surprise. You can smell flowers and objects in the painting.

The painting shows the garden of Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Spain’s King Philip II and sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands. A nude, the allegory of the sense of smell, relaxes amid some 80 species of flowers, plants, and trees. Thanks to Samsung and Barcelona’s Puig Perfume, museum goers can also smell the nude’s bouquet and flowers, trees, and things that help make us smell good:

THE PERFECT SCENT The Sense of Smell by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado), and Ylang Ylang flowers (Inday Blooms)

The Bouquet.  Rose, jasmine, and carnation are the flowers in the bouquet. The exhibit blurb says that the world of perfume considers jasmine the king of flowers given its strength and luminosity and the rose the queen because of its seductive fragrance and ability to combine well with other olfactory families. The spicy facets of the carnation add volume and sensuality to the bouquet. Orange and other citrus tree flowers are seductive.

Gloves.  Only the European elite could afford leather gloves. Unfortunately, these are not exactly fragrant and the smell was enhanced with resins, balms, wood, and flower essences bound with ambergris, a secretion from the sperm whale’s intestines found floating in oceans. It sounds like whale poop but processed, it stabilizes scents that quickly evaporate otherwise.

Fig Tree. This perfume suggests the humid fragrance in the shade of a fig tree. Just as a composer tries to reproduce scenery in music, Puig Perfumes’ “nose” seeks to evoke in smell the “velvety texture of [the fig tree’s] leaves and feel the dark, wooden tones of its trunk and branches.”

Roses. Brueghel included eight varieties of roses in the paining whose smell is described as “fresh, floral, velvety, and intense with green facets and a slight fruity touch, combined with spicy notes and a subtle hint of honey.” Three hundred thousand flowers, picked in the early morning, are needed to obtain one kilo of rose essence.

Iris. The root of the iris plant (it’s a lily) is a super-expensive perfume ingredient, about double the price of gold, due to the complex and lengthy processing time. The plant, which grows well in Tuscany, around Florence, has to be about five to seven years old before its rhizome can be harvested, pulverized, concentrated, and then distilled.

Daffodil. The daffodil used in perfumery is cultivated mainly in France. It is harvested at the end of May and in early June. Its unique fragrance is described as “strong and intoxicating, with subtle hints of apricot and peach combined with notes of leather, olive, and a floral and hay background.” Some 1,300 kilos of flowers are needed to obtain one kilo of daffodil absolute. One person can pick approximately 105 kilos of flower per day. 

Civet.  The African civet cat has a sac between its hind legs that secretes a thick yellowish musky fluid that is refined into an oil. The product enables fragrances to remain long on the skin. A synthetic substitute is now used to bind the scents of flowers, wood, spices, and balms.

Spikenard. Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet with this perfume. “Mary brought in a pound of pure nard, a very costly ointment, to anoint the feet of Jesus […] and the house was filled with the scent of this perfume.” Made from an herb grown in India and increasingly rare, spikenard now costs about €10.000 per kilo. Due to its strength and intensity, the essence of nard in a perfume highlights the character of the other floral notes present

In addition to Ylang Ylang and jasmine, we have sampaguita, kampuput, champaca, rosal, sanggumay, camia, calamansi, sintunis, and who knows what else? We may have another industry under our noses.

Notes: (a) The exhibit The Essence of a Painting. An Olfactory Exhibition is ongoing at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado until July 3, 2022; and (b) European artists painted a series of works among others on the times of day, the seasons of the year, the five senses, and possibly others.

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