Anyone who has read my posts will probably have realised that my love of scent is inextricably linked with the natural world, landscapes and seasons. I also find that we can glean valuable glimpses about how our early ancestors related to their world through the world of myths, legends and folklore. But also, because natural scents are unchanging, they are our only remaining tangible link with our predecessors. This is the time of year when we begin to emerge from winter; it is a time of seasonal transition, and so a time of observation. The ancient Celts and Gaels – like so many other cultures – would look for signs and portents.
In Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, the last throes of winter and the first signs of spring were marked by the festival of Imbolc, which coincided with the emergence of snowdrops. This festival, and others such as the Welsh Gŵil Fair y Canhwyllau, celebrated the beginning of spring – held on the 1st February, falling exactly between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Apart from the snowdrop, Imbolc was also very much associated with the fire goddess Brighid, and it is sometimes said that snowdrops mark her footsteps on the earth. Her presence was welcomed and celebrated, being benign and protective. However, it was also said that the feared Cailleach gathered her firewood on this day. So, if the snowdrop was a sign, watching the weather was a portent. Logic dictated that if the weather on the 1st February was fine, it would be a long winter, because the Cailleach would have time to gather her supplies of firewood. However if the weather was inclement, it meant that winter was nearly over, and the Cailleach slept. For those of you who might wonder at this digression, I would like to tell a tale which illustrates the point of all of this…
The Cailleach is the name given to a Gaelic/Celtic crone. I prefer to use the term ‘wise woman’, but she is invariably depicted as a hag. In the area by Loch Fyne known as Strathlachlan, near the ruined Castle Lachlan (my grandfather’s family came from these parts) there is a wise woman of the woods and loch, known locally as the Cailleach Lachlan. Many years ago, we were driving along a single track road, and I was musing aloud about her presence. Another member of our party did not share my views, and shouted her name out of the car window, with a degree of, shall we say, ‘disrespect’. Suffice it to say that the Cailleach’s retribution was swift. Her offender was bitten by a cleg (a vicious west coast of Scotland version of a horsefly), the bite was infected and required medical attention that same day, resulting in the immediate termination of our visit to the family homelands! Permanent facial scarring resulted too – it is now very faint indeed, but to this day I cannot utter the name of the ‘wise woman’ in the presence of her ‘offender’!
Whether you choose to believe in the Cailleach or not or indeed speculate how she might manifest, it is my view that these beliefs of the ancient peoples, their myths and folklore were, and remain, ways of connecting with natural phenomena. Their festivals and customs acknowledged this, and allowed the peoples to respect their environment and the natural world in meaningful ways. So, I for one will take more than a passing interest in the weather on the 1st of February, and I will also spend some time outdoors with the snowdrops, perhaps on the trail of Brighid’s footsteps. For me, it is very important to not only respect, but also to honour nature. This means connecting with the sights, sounds, textures and scents of our world – we can only appreciate the beauty of our planet through our senses. Now, finally getting to the other important point of this post – what natural scent marks the transition of winter to spring? Although snowdrops might be the first visible sign, they are not the first scent. That honour goes to the fragrant mimosa flower – native to Australia, celebrated in France, and completely unknown in the ancient world of the Gaels and Celts!
Mimosa, or Acacia dealbata, is a small tree, also known as the ‘silver’ or ‘blue wattle’, because the early settlers used it to make wattle and daub huts, and the silver or blue description might refer to white lichen that can cover its bark, or perhaps its silvery blue-grey leaves. Its bright yellow flowers are born in racemose inflorescences; and flower is globe-shaped and composed of 13-42 tiny individual flowers. Mimosa was brought to France initially as a floral decoration, and soon became adapted and acclimatised, cultivated and indeed invasive – eventually colonising the South of France, the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Italian Riviera. It is loved not just for its attractive bright blossoms, but for their beautiful fragrance – delicate, candyfloss-like, and honeyed, with a sharper green note.
In the South of France, from Cannes and following the coast, La Fête du Mimosa is a floral carnival that is held every February, in celebration of the golden flowers which have come to represent the end of winter. Towns in the Var and Alpes-Maritimes mark the Route des Mimosas (the ‘Mimosa Trail’). Mimosa bouquets are given as gifts at Candlemas (the feast day of the Christianised Saint Brighid is the 1st February, and is immediately followed by Candlemas on the 2nd; interestingly, snowdrops are also known as ‘Candlemas Bells’). There is a profession dedicated to the use of mimosa in floristry – the mimosiste! This came about because a 19th century laundress accidentally discovered the beneficial effects of heat and humidity on cut mimosa. Since then and to this day, cut branches are carefully stored in humidified rooms at 22-25°C, to encourage the development of the flowers and their longevity.
Mimosa flowers and twigs yield an absolute with a powerful, green-floral scent (Jouhar 1991). One of its main constituents is farnesol, which is often described as having a sweet, delicate, floral and green odour. Lawless (2009) describes mimosa extrait (a 30% dilution of the absolute in perfumer’s alcohol) as being soft, sweet, floral and waxy, with balsamic and green notes – and I can certainly confirm that the extrait is more pleasing to the nose than the absolute! Unsurprisingly, mimosa has found its place in perfumery; fragrances that feature it include L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Mimosa pour Moi, Kenzo’s Flower by Kenzo Fleurs d’Hiver/Winter Flower and Annick Goutal’s limited edition Le Mimosa (Turin and Sanchez 2009). My personal fragrance ‘wardrobe’ tends to be very seasonal, and I enjoy Mimosa pour Moi most when we emerge from winter – its soft, powdery floral opening is sharpened with a leafy green freshness, before fading gently into an almost fluffy delicate floral drydown. I am wearing it is I write, but my senses are screaming at me ‘Not Yet! Too Soon’!
In aromatherapy; mimosa is used to alleviate anxiety, stress, tension and over-sensitivity (Lawless 1992). You might like to visit a florist’s shop, where you can smell the fresh blossoms and take them home, to mark your own celebration of the return of spring! The scent of mimosa offers us a beautiful opportunity to appreciate nature’s seasons and cycles.
An interesting thing about blogging is that it really gives you a chance to reflect! On writing this post, I wanted to convey the unique relationship between folklore, customs, cycles, seasons and scents – and I hope that I have done so. But I think that I might have left those of us who live in the land of the Gaels and Celts feeling a wee bit disconnected! A chance remark by a Welsh friend who now lives in the Midi Pyrenees in France, confirmed my feeling – because for many of us it is the lovely daffodil that epitomises spring! After the seasons have turned, and the scented spring flowers are brightening our landscape, I will redress this.
Jouhar, A.J. (ed) (1991) Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps Volume 1: The Raw Materials of Perfumery 9th Edition. London: Chapman and Hall.
Lawless, A. (2009) Artisan Perfumery or Being Led by the Nose. Stroud: Boronia Souk Ltd.
Lawless, J. (1992) The Encyclopaedia of Essential Oils. Dorset: Element Books Ltd.
Turin, L. & Sanchez, T. (2009) Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. London: Profile Books Ltd.
By: Jennifer Rhind