Continuing with the theme of scents in the natural world, it feels right that this should be linked, where possible, with natural seasons and cycles. In our contemporary world, it might seem that our day-to-day lives are less connected with these natural cycles than they were in days gone by, when seasonal celebrations marked the year. May Day, the 1st of May, is just one example. It is a celebration of the coming of summer, and falls exactly six months on from Samhain, now marked as Halloween. The first day of summer was celebrated in ancient Rome by the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and in northern Europe by the Germanic Walpurgis Night, or in Britain by the Celtic Beltane. Most of the ancient pagan festivals became merged with Christian celebrations, but a few, such as May Day, have survived as secular celebration days or holidays. Some of the earlier customs can still be observed, such as the May Queen and Maypole with their old Anglo-Saxon origins, and in some places such as Calton Hill in Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May Day.
So, what is the link with scent? Well, there are two fragrant species that are inextricably associated with May Day. These are the hawthorn, Cratageus oxycantha, and the lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, and I thought it might be a good time to highlight their charms and folk traditions… and then we can add a fragrant dimension to our own celebration of the coming of summer.
May blossom is the flower of hawthorn, the common hedge tree of Europe. Its blossoms have snowy white petals and bright pink stamens, and they have a heady, intoxicating, sweet, rich scent. In Celtic folklore, the hawthorn is very much associated with the Fae – indeed the Faery Queen is sometimes depicted beside a hawthorn tree. In the 13th century, the Scottish poet Thomas the Rhymer encountered the Faery Queen by a hawthorn on Eildon Hill, long regarded as a holy site, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Here, he entered the world of the Fae, for what he thought was a brief time, but when he emerged back into his own world, seven years had elapsed. This particular association with hawthorn can be seen throughout Celtic folklore, and consequently the trees were never cut down or damaged so as not to incur the wrath of the Fae, or the ‘Wee Folk’. In even earlier pre-Christian times, the goddess was worshipped in sacred circles of hawthorn; indeed the site of Westminster Abbey was once called ‘Thorney Island’, because of a sacred stand of hawthorns. Later on, Joseph of Arimathea arrived at Glastonbury, carrying two vessels that contained the blood and sweat of Jesus. It is said that he thrust his staff into the ground, and it grew into a thorn tree – becoming known as the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury.
With folklore such as this, it is hardly surprising then that this tree, which blooms in May, figured in ancient and now contemporary seasonal festivities. May blossom was used in garlands during May Day celebrations, but it was never brought into homes, as it was believed that this would bring illness and death. It has been noted that the initial odour of corporeal decomposition is sweet, given by a chemical called trimethylamine, and it is perhaps not unlike that of hawthorn blossom, and maybe this is why the superstition arose. Also, in mediaeval times, it was said that the blossom (admittedly of the woodland species which was prevalent at that time, Cratageus laevigata) was reminiscent of the smell of the plague (Kendall 2002).
In traditional herbal medicine, the leaves, flowers and berries of the hawthorn tree were used. The berries were used to treat heart problems and both the flowers and berries were used for sore throats and as a diuretic. More recently, clinical trials have indicated the efficacy of the flowers and leaves in the treatment of congestive heart disease, due to ischemia or hypertension, and also for the treatment of acne; it is thought to have anti-inflammatory activity, and may increase elasticity and hydration (Mills and Bone 200). In perfumery, the aromachemical anisic aldehyde is used to give a hawthorn note, whose natural scent is described by Jouhar (1991) as ‘exquisite’. It is not possible to extract the volatile oil, and so hawthorn blossom can only be appreciated in its natural environment.
The lily of the valley grows wild all over Europe. There are two legends that explain how this beautiful plant, with its tiny bell-shaped white flowers, and delicate, green, rosy-floral scent, came into being. Its species name, majalis, means ‘belonging to May’, and it is said that the thick carpets of lily of the valley in St Leonard’s Forest in Sussex emerged when St. Leonard died in a long battle against a dragon in the woods. Wherever his blood fell, lilies of the valley sprang up. Another folk tale suggests that in wooded glades, the scent of lily of the valley attracts the nightingale, and leads him to select his mate (Grieve 1992).
In France, it is customary to mark May Day by giving a bunch of lily of the valley, the symbol of springtime, to loved ones and friends. This practice was instigated by Charles IX, who received lily of the valley as a lucky charm, and each year would give the flowers to the ladies in his court. In France, it is sold tax free. The renowned perfumer, François Coty, also gave gifts of lily of the valley every year, with flowers picked from the grounds of his Chateau de Puy D’Artigny (Morris 1984).
In 1936, shortly after he died, and as a tribute, Coty launched a lily of the valley fragrance called Muguet des Bois. However, the archetypal lily of the valley fragrance must be Dior’s Diorissimo, composed by Edmond Roudnitska in 1956. Turin and Sanchez (2009) tell us how Roudnitska went about composing Diorissimo; he planted lily of the valley in his garden in Cabris, near Grasse, so that he would have a natural reference for its perfume. It is often remarked that he would be seen, on his hands and knees amongst its flowers, comparing its scent with his work in progress!
As with hawthorn blossom, it is not possible to extract the scent of lily of the valley. However, it can be recreated, up to a point, with aromachemicals including hydroxycitronellal. The synthetic fragrance has been shown to produce a heightened sense of calm, with an increase in awareness and energy (Warren and Warrenburg 1993); however more recent restrictions on the use of hydroxycitronellal mean that the recreation of this scent is compromised, and that it is no longer possible to appreciate good muguet fragrances. So, again, like hawthorn blossom, we should take the chance to appreciate the beautiful flowers in their natural environment, and enjoy their connections with the transition of the seasons and the natural world.
You will be able to read more about these scents in my forthcoming book that explores the impact of plant aromatics on the psyche, ‘Fragrance and Wellbeing’, which will be published this autumn by Singing Dragon. In the meantime, I hope that this May Day, some of us will be fortunate enough to find these scents of the season! Given our experience of spring in Scotland this year, I don’t think that lily of the valley will be quite ready to flower, and hawthorn leaves have barely emerged… I suppose this all reflects just how much things have changed over the centuries, and since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when these species would have flowered in early May rather than mid- or late May.
Grieve, M. (1992) A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International. (Original work published in 1931).
Jouhar, A.J. (ed) (1991) Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps Volume 1: The Raw Materials of Perfumery 9th Edition. London: Chapman and Hall.
Kendall, P. (2002) Mythology and folklore of the hawthorn. Caledonia Wild 2002-03.
Mills, S. and Bone, K. (2000) Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
Morris, E.T. (1984) Fragrance: the Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Turin, L. & Sanchez, T. (2009) Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. London: Profile Books Ltd.
Warren, C and Warrenburg, S. (1993) Mood benefits of fragrance. International Journal of Aromatherapy 5, 2, 12-16.
Written by: Jennifer Rhind