Here in Great Britain, the seasons are certainly turning, and in the southern parts of our Isles, it would seem that the weather is positively balmy and spring-like. Here in the north, our days are brightened by early flowers, as we await the arrival of warmer weather! In this blog post, I would like to talk about the scents of three spring flowers – what they meant to our ancestors and their important role in contemporary perfumery. We will explore two ‘narcotic’ floral scents – narcissus and hyacinth – whose names are immortalised in Greek mythology. To the ancient Greeks, both symbolised the cycle of life, death and rebirth, or transition and transformation. Our third spring flower is that of the blackcurrant, and in this blog we will appreciate the significance of this trio in the classic fragrance Chamade, composed by Jean Paul Guerlain and launched in 1969.
We shall begin by looking at the myth of Hyacinthus – a beautiful youth, and lover of Apollo; Zephyrus, god of the West Wind was also a rival for his affections. Apollo taught Hyacinthus many skills such as archery, music, and divination, and throwing the discus. Apollo threw the discus and, trying to impress, Hyacinthus ran to catch it; however the jealous Zephyrus blew the discus off course, and it hit and killed him. Distraught, Apollo transformed his blood into the hyacinth flower, rather than have him descend to Hades. Sometimes it is said that the letters ‘ai, ai’ were traced on the flower, so that Apollo’s cries of grief would always be heard. Some versions of the myth suggest that the iris was the flower that represented his transformation; while other versions suggest that Hyacinthus was taken to the Elysian Fields by the goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena. His tomb was at the foot of Apollo’s statue at Amylcae, south west of Sparta, and in the Mycenaean era, a cult grew around him. Every summer, in Sparta, the three day festival of Hyacinthia was held; the first day was spent mourning his death, but the following two days celebrated his rebirth.
The hyacinth emerges from a round bulb; it has bright green lance shaped leaves, and spikes of very fragrant, bell-shaped flowers. Linnaeus the taxonomist and botanist called the hyacinth the flower of grief and mourning. However, as the related, but largely unscented, wild bluebell of the British Isles did not appear to have Apollo’s cries of grief written on it, the early botanists named it Hyacinthus non-scripta (Grieve 1992). Despite the fact that it does not have a scent, when in full flower, bluebell woods are very special places to be; they can impart the sense of being at the fringe of another world, and have inspired many faery tales and even fragrances. The hyacinth that is grown for its scented oil is Hyacinthus orientalis.This is sometimes called jacinthe oil, and is cultivated commercially in both Holland and France. The absolute is a dark greenish liquid that has a very powerful, sharp, green, leaf like odour, only pleasant on dilution, and only resembling hyacinth on extreme dilution (Jouhar 1991). At the time of writing, hyacinth absolute is very scarce; however synthetic hyacinth is easily obtained. There is a marked difference in the fragrance, the synthetic version lacks the deep green/earthy note, and sweet green-floral notes dominate. Its odour is said to be narcotic, uplifting, refreshing, invigorating and it may enhance creativity. The scent was used in ancient Greece to refresh the mind (Lawless 1992), and in Islamic culture, hyacinth is said to sustain the soul; indeed Mohammed himself had suggested that scent itself was ‘bread for the soul’. In a study of the mood altering and enhancing effects of fragrances, Warren and Warrenburg (1993), found that hyacinth fragrance evoked happiness, sensuality, relaxation and stimulation while decreasing feelings of apathy, irritation, stress and depression. Hyacinth features in many classic and well-regarded fragrances. Guerlain’s Chamade has a hyacinth and galbanum accord, Annick Goutal’s Grand Amour is a floral bouquet with a powdery hyacinth character and Serge Luten’s Bas de Soie pairs hyacinth with iris. A hyacinth and oakmoss accord can be found in ‘vintage’ Guy Laroche’s floral green Fidji and Chanel’s Cristalle, a citrus chypre (Glöss 1995; Turin and Sanchez 2009).
In mythology, Narcissus was a very different character, and perhaps less likeable than Hyacinthus, but his myth has a similar theme. His name is derived from the Greek word for ‘sleep’ or ‘numbness’. He was the son of a river god and a nymph, and became a hunter who was renowned for his beauty. He had many suitors, both male and female, including the mountain nymph Echo, who pined and disappeared to an echo after he rejected her. Nemesis, the goddess of anger, was either petitioned for help, or angered by his attitude, and so caused him to love himself since he would not love others. He saw his reflection in a pool; fell hopelessly in love and couldn’t leave. Some versions say that he wasted away and died, and others say that he committed suicide. Either way, his transformation and ‘rebirth’ was symbolised by the appearance of the narcissus flower where he lay. He did not have a cult following, but leaves us with the concept of narcissism, and the scent of his flower has narcotic effects, perhaps reflecting his characteristic state of emotional numbness.
The genus Narcissus contains N. pseudo-narcissus (daffodil), N. jonquilla (jonquil) and N. poeticus (narcissus) from which an essential oil (ex-enfleurage) and an absolute can be obtained. In Islamic culture, like hyacinth, narcissus has a symbolic meaning – the ‘eye’ in the centre represented an awareness of the divine glory in the world. The plant is cultivated in the Mediterranean, Morocco and Egypt for its aromatic extracts. However, it is not named after the Narcissus of myth, but after the Greek narkao, because the plant has narcotic properties. Grieve (1992) quotes Pliny, who described it as ‘narce narcissum dictum, non a fabuloso puero’ which translates as ‘named Narcissus from Narce, not from the fabulous boy’ (p. 573). She goes on to elaborate, saying that Socrates called it the ‘chaplet of the infernal gods’ because of its effects; an extract of the bulbs, if applied to open wounds caused staggering, numbness of the nervous system and paralysis of the heart. Ancient Greeks planted Narcissus species near tombs. The bulbs of N. poeticus are even more poisonous than the daffodil, and Grieve suggested that “the scent of the flowers is deleterious, if they are present in any quantity in a closed room, producing in some persons headache and even vomiting” (p. 573). Tisserand (1985) describes how in ancient Greece, the physician Marestheus recorded his observations of the effects of flower scents; noting that the scents of lily and narcissus were ‘oppressive’ and could cause stupor if they were inhaled excessively (p. 27). Despite this, the scent is well-liked, and well-tolerated by many, and narcissus absolute is used in perfumery. It has a tiny yield, but is produced in small quantities, for example in the Lozère, in the Languedoc Roussillon region of France. It is a dark orange/olive green viscous liquid with a heavy, sweet, herbaceous, hay-like, earthy, floral odour. It only smells like narcissus on extreme dilution. According to Lawless (1992) it has antispasmodic, aphrodisiac and narcotic actions, and can be used in aromatherapy for its fragrance alone.
Narcissus absolute is used in the all-natural fragrance Narcissus Poeticus (Annette Neuffer); this also contains galbanum and blackcurrant bud, and has a smooth, sweet base of vanilla, sandalwood and tonka bean. The narcissus, galbanum and blackcurrant bud is also present in Chamade, whose drydown is described by Turin as “beautiful, a strange, moist, powdery yellow narcissus accord that had the oily feel of pollen rubbed between finger and thumb” (Turin and Sanchez 2009 p. 167). Escada (Escada) is a fresh floral. The top notes combine hyacinth, galbanum and peach, the heart is based on an accord of narcissus, tuberose and jasmine, and the base is floral and powdery, with cedar and heliotrope. A fragrance that showcases the hay-like nature of narcissus is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Fleur de Narcisse, which has notes of narcissus, hay, hyacinth, blonde tobacco, iris, and blackcurrant bud over a moss and leather base. Caron’s classic Narcisse Noir (launched in 1912) featured narcissus and jasmine, and also the related jonquil in its heart note (Glöss 1995), but according to Turin and Sanchez (2009), the reformulated version is a sweet, jasmine and orange blossom cologne.
There is no mythological tale to tell about our third scent of spring – the fabulously catty blackcurrant bud. The blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum, a native of the British Isles, is widely distributed. It is cultivated for its berries which are used in jams, jellies and as flavours for ice cream, yoghurts and alcoholic drinks. In the Burgundy region of France, the bushes are pruned in winter, and an alcoholic tincture is made from the cuttings with dormant buds. When mature, this is used to enhance the flavour of blackcurrant juice. Apart from producing small dark purple-black berries, it is notable for the strong aroma of its leaves and flower buds. Grieve (1992) notes that in Siberia a drink is made of the young leaves which make ‘common spirits’ resemble brandy. Their infusion resembles green tea, and has cleansing and diuretic properties, while the juice of the berries and blackcurrant jams and jellies is a folk remedy for sore, inflamed throats. She also comments that goats enjoy the leaves, and bears like the berries.
Solvent extraction of the flower buds yields a concrete and an absolute (Jouhar 1991). The absolute is used in the flavour industry for its intensity, and is a distinctive perfume ingredient. It is a dark green paste with a characteristic, strong, diffusive, penetrating odour, and it can be steam distilled to yield an essential oil which has a similar scent. In the perfumery industry, blackcurrant bud is known as Bourgeons de cassissier, or cassis Bourgeons. It is often described as green, fruity, minty and ‘catty’ (Lawless 2009). This is mainly due to trace amounts of sulphur compounds, specifically a thiole named 4-methoxy-2-methylbutan-2-thiol. The ‘catty’ element is, for some, like male cat’s urine, or reminiscent of the sexually-related odour of the male cat. However, for others, including myself, it is glorious! I do get the catty element, but do not find this in any way unpleasant – quite the contrary! Calkin and Jellinek (1994) discussed the importance of such ‘animal’ smells in perfumery, and suggest that such odours may have an unconscious erotic effect. Maybe that explains why some of us love it! In perfumery, the fruity green notes in blackcurrant bud can be used to modify intense green odours, such as that of galbanum. Guerlain’s Chamade was the first fragrance to use blackcurrant bud in this way. Its top note contains a green note, galbanum and blackcurrant bud accord along with hyacinth, which complements the galbanum, and bergamot which reinforces the fruity aspects. Chamade is usually classed as an aldehydic green floral, but is constructed in a typical Guerlain style, where the fragrance evolves and changes over time. Turin describes how he took ages to connect the narcissus pollen-like drydown on passers-by with its floral green top note, saying that “Chamade is perhaps the last fragrance ever to keep its audience waiting so long while props were moved around behind a heavy curtain” (Turin and Sanchez 2009 p.167). Other fragrances that include blackcurrant bud are Van Cleef and Arpel’s First, composed by Jean-Claude Ellena and launched in 1976, this is a floral with an animalic nature, and Annick Goutal’s Eau de Charlotte, launched in 1982 and with blackcurrant, mimosa and cocoa.
I am sitting at my desk, wearing Chamade, appreciating the interplay of the scents of hyacinth, narcissus and blackcurrant bud, loving the journey that fragrance takes us on, and honouring its connection with the past.
Content adapted from Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and their Influence on the Psyche.
Calkin, R.R. and Jellinek, J.S. (1994) Perfumery: Practice and Principles. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Glöss, W. Ed. (1995) Fragrance Guide: fragrances on the international market. Hamburg: Verlagsgesellschaft R. Glöss + Co.
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.
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.
Tisserand, R. (1985) The Art of Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden: The C.W. Daniel Company Ltd. (First published 1977).
Warren, C and Warrenburg, S. (1993) Mood benefits of fragrance. International Journal of Aromatherapy 5, 2, 12-16.
Turin, L. and Sanchez, T. (2009) Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. London: Profile Books Ltd.
By: Jennifer Rhind