Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Elusive Smells of Lilac and Osmanthus

Some smells in nature are elusive in their misty, delicate nuance, in their complexity which defies classification. Two among them are the scent of lilacs and osmanthus blossoms. The former is at once lush and fresh, intimately fleshy and pollen-dusted sweet in its corolla, the spin of April lanceloate yarns of purple and white, goosebumbing their small blooms in the cool breeze. The latter is an intricate dentelle of fruity-leathery smells evoking plums, apricots and prunes hidden in a suede pouch upon a warrior-poet’s belt in the stunningly beautiful landscape shots of the film "Hero".

The hunt for the perfect lilac (syringa) has taken me into semi-treacherous paths of testing dubious essences concocted in amateur workshops, as well as laying out good money in the pursuit of the unsatisfying (ie.the let-down that was En Passant for me personally, because of its watery-yeasty direction) or the perfectly congenial (Tocadilly by Rochas and Ineke After my Own Heart). Now that the season of lilacs has here reached its end, it is with the somewhat premature nostalgia of tasting the end of a beautiful phase that I find myself reaching anew for one of the scents which utilize lilacs in a realistic rendition: the Highland Lilac of Rochester, NY, the Lilac Capital of the world. Every May the Lilac Festival of Rochester consists of a lavish array of flowers and attractions which commemorates a flower traditionally close to the heart of Americans: from the garden of Thomas Jefferson to the Custis and the George Washington Families who financed the region abundant in the blooms.
The fragrance was conceived in 1967 and developped by International Flavors and Fragrances perfumers consequently becoming the romantic choice of no less than 5 US first ladies. Each Spring, the rare double flowering and other special varieties of lilac buds and blossoms are harvested, collected and tested to ensure adherence to the original composition. The formula seems to undulate between an oily, yet fresh top note not unlike that of hyacinths, with a spicy whisper of anisaldehyde. The sensuality of the drydown brings a lightly powdery, not too sweet darkness that speaks of lovers amidst the bushes. Among lilac fragrances Highland Lilac of Rochester stands as the one which best captures both facets of the natural blossoms.

Osmanthus fragrans (Sweet Osmanthus) or 桂花/ guìhuā in Chinese and金木犀/ Kinmokusei in Japanese is ~like lilac~ another member of the Oleaceae family and its fresh and highly fragrant aroma is a natural wonder professing a nuanced texture. Also known as Tea Olive (because olive is the pre-eminent member of the Oleaceae family) it is the emblem flower of Hangzhou, China. It is therefore not surprising that one of the best renditions of the elusive wonder is made in China. The local company 芭蕾 producing it translates as "Ballet", which is highly appropriate considering the dancing nature of the scent on skin. Highly fragrant and succulent in its peachy-apricoty top note it is nothing short of mouthwatering. The effect of the natural flower is undoubtedly enhanced with a synthesized apricoty creamy note (benzylaldehyde, aldehyde C16, amyl butyrate?), giving an almost velours effect along with an ionone note of sweet violet. Later on the scent takes on the delicious aroma of a freshly taken-out of the wardrobe suede coat, its butyric creaminess a welcome contrast to the fruity-floral heart.

In both fragrances the fleshy naturals are flanked by man-made essences which bring diffusion and radiance, yet the surprise they created in me was pointed: here were two elusive scents captured lovingly!

Highland Lilac of Rochester can be purchased online on the official Highland Lilac site (1oz for $49.95) I do not know of an online source for the above osmanthus fragrance, alas, as I was given a decant by a friend to try out. However Hove’s of New Orleans Tea Olive ~although not quite as faithful~ is a very nice rendition with white floral accents.

Top pic of Zhang Zigy from Hero via Chrisohnbeckett/flickr (some rights reserved) and second pic via
Osmanthus via wikimedia commons.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful article. The lilac season just started here, I like the smell of the white ones best.

  2. Hi L!

    You're most welcome {and thanks!! ;-) }

    It did?? It ended here with the first signs of May. April was rampant with them...I like both kinds, but don't really equate lilacs with them not being...lilac, I guess.

    I will be posting pics of many wonderful plants/tress/flowers soon, for anyone interested.

  3. Rappleyea00:15

    I am bowled over by your diligence in searching out and testing scents! If not for you, fragrances like these would never even come across my radar. So a huge thank you!

    I think I'm starting to realize that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a perfect dupe of nature, of the living flower - even when using absolutes and essential oils. For me, jasmine seems to translate the best. I've never smelled a live osmanthus bloom, and JCE has scared me off of perfumes with that note! Although as usual, your beautiful writing has made me want to try these two perfumes.


  4. Here in Eastern Canada, the lilacs usually bloom in the last week of May or the first week of June, so we're still waiting for them. When they come, the scent will be EVERYWHERE, because there are always thousands of lilac bushes--they grow so well and are so hardy that everyone plants them. There are three huge ones within a one-minute walking radius of my apartment, so very soon the air will be garlanded with ribbons of lilac perfume for days and days. I can't wait!

    I have never found that lilacs work well in perfume, at least not as a dominant note: the little wisp of lilac in Diorissimo is very beautiful, but a lilac-heavy perfume always seems cloying and artificial. However, I am surprised that Demeter's Lilac is quite good, a bit synthetic but otherwise the most convincing single-note lilac I have ever smelled.

  5. Anonymous09:05

    Wonderful review and pics, as always.As Osmanthus fragrances I would mention Osmanthe Yunnan and Osmanthus Interdite

  6. Hi Donna! How are you honey?

    You're most welcome. The lilac hunt had been going strong for a LOOOOOONG time, I can tell you! I thought I had found a very good rendition from a local company while at Thailand, but after the pase of a year the little bottle of essence seemed to go rancid on me due to oxidation of the carrier oil :-((
    Thankfully, I explored some more.

    There's certaintly truth in what you say and sometimes the point of "proper perfume" isn't the photocopying of nature anyway. But we do try anyway, eh? Probably because we have so fond connections with certain natural smells. Don't you think?

    Jasmine is one essence which indeed translates excellently, which explains its reigning place in perfumery I guess. I am a little surprised by your mention of Osmanthus in relation to JCE though: you mean the Hermes or TDC renditions? Or both? I admit I prefer the TDC version to the rather pale Hermes one. But curious to see how it translates for you, personally.

    I dearly wish I could accomodate you with the osmanthus fragrance (if I had a bottle myself I'd definitely send you some over), but perhaps if another poster who knows about this chimes in, perhaps they might know how to direct you to a source to find some. At least I hope so! :-)

  7. Dear R,

    you're soooo very lucky!! I know lilac likes the frost, which is why they're never durable or as rampant as I'd wish here. We never get as much cold during the wintertime.

    I completely agree with you on the diffuculty of capturing a convincing and not "artificial" smelling lilac in perfumes. So often they smell of household products too! I admit that Demeter has some surprising little tidbits in their line (Rain is a fav, the exact smell of a humidifier-ioniser) and Lilac is certainly a pretty one. Do try to compare with the Rochester one and with Tocadilly.

  8. Anon,

    thanks for your kind compliment.
    Your suggestions are excellent!
    I prefer the Osmanthus Intedite, though, as the OY one seemed a little pale in comparison. Maybe I was not in a summery mood when I first tried it when it launched though; it definitely needs re-testing. Who knows, I might change my mind.

  9. Rappleyea14:01

    HA! You said - "the rather pale Hermes one". That's what everyone says, but on me it turned into a a screaming synthetic monster. Pale indeed! And there was NO scrubbing it off. I still smelled the osmanthus aroma chemical three days later - and I promise I shower daily ;-)

    To my nose, the chemical that JCE called osmanthus smells very similar, if not identical, to the fleeting opening floral note in 31 Rue Cambon, and to the "lotus" note in the new Guerlain. I think it must be a fairly new and popular aroma chemical for perfumers.

    I've been in communication with a POL'er in Singapore about vintage Mitsouko and I emailed her last night and asked her about the osmanthus scent for you, so I'll let you know if she turns anything up.

    I forgot to mention yesterday, that the linden trees are just beginning to bud so it won't be long until the air is perfumed with their beautiful scent. Has it already been a year since we had that discussion?!?

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  10. Donna,

    indeed how time flies, eh?? It's been a year since Linden Tree, very true.

    Very interesting what you say there: I haven't tried to new MFDL, so I am withholding judgement till I do but I will certainly bring out 31 RC and OY and see what happens in the top notes and get back to you if anything of what you say materializes on me and I detect commonality up top. It's certainly an intriguing thought, which I didn't have till you brought it up.

    Real osmanthus has a suave, not sharp, feel about it, quite intoxicating.

    Re:the POLer, you mean T/Petals? I do know her! Very kind lady. Let's see if she finds out they carry this there. Thanks!!

  11. Alexandra16:40

    There is one sweet, girly, natural-like osmanthus fragrance from Jardin du France Culture&Nature called Shaiming (and quite cheap, for those who can`t afford Parfum d`Empire). I think it`s osmanthus/linden combo.

  12. Alexandra, you have my fingers busy Googling what you just mentioned: Shaiming by Jardin du France Culture&Nature. Osmanthus and linden sound good!
    Do the scents come from the Loire region? (I am asking due to the name). Do you know any distributor for those or a place that has samples for sale?

  13. Alexandra17:31

    You can order bottles directly from
    I have big samples of Shaiming and Inahe both scents longlasting, natural and great, and a price is low. I don`t know where you can get samples, I got these as a present from a friend. Try to email them , or I can send you some.

  14. Alexandra, you're a gem, thanks very much!
    I will try to email them and ask (and if it fails, I would bother you here and ask you in exchange for something of mine you might like :-) Thanks so much for being so kind!}

  15. Anonymous05:55

    Dear E,

    Speaking of lilacs...have you heard of Rachmaninoff performing his early work Lilacs (Op. 21) in high-def? It's a dozen of so rare recordings Rachmaninoff performed on pianola (works almost like a music box) which later converted into digital recordings. So we have the best of the two worlds--Rachmaninoff performing his own piece using modern technology! Anyhow, the piece:

    As for the composition it is the piano solo version of the Russian poem he set to a song, about how true happiness can only exist at the heart of a lilac blossom (sigh).

    If you want to hear Rachmaninoff performing other pieces I have the whole 2-CD collection so simply drop me a line. (He ttacks "Flight of the Bumblebee" like nobody else.)


  16. Hi A!

    The piece is wonderful of course and wow, what a great site, I didn't know it!
    I assume he was providing the rolls and sitting on the clavier, eh?

    When I was studying piano I recall playing his Morceaux de Fantaisie and tackling the infamous Prelude C sharp with great gusto!! (I broke two chords in the Conservatoire, which was highly unusual for a girl, they nicknamed me "fingers of steel" ever after, LOL!! although I went crimpson with embarassement, as you can imagine ~btw, they weren't on the same piece, broke the second on Liszt's Funerailles)
    It really spoke to me when I heard that it was about a man buried alive, a legend of old Russia and the frantic hammering on the clavier was really meant to represent his efforts to be heard and escape his dark tomb.....

    Later when I was preparing for my Master Diploma there was a choice in the programme between Rach 3rd concerto and Grieg's one. I chose the Grieg... :-)

    My S.O. is crazy for Francesca da Rimini. I really like Vespers (I'm a bit crazy about all religious/religious-inspired music, basically, not out of piety)Especially this one:
    Praise the LordHow lovely that you're offering! I will be dropping you a line about it.

  17. Anonymous02:41

    Dearest E,

    Ah, the infamously long question on Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor! (You probably know the composer's answer so I won't repeat here...)

    I'm actually glad you chose the Grieg--the second movement is to die for. (I still consider Radu Lupu's recording to be the benchmark.) As for Rach 3 I'm ambivalent about it: generally the piece is played too fast (that or maybe I'm just jealous of Martha Argerich ;-p). Liszt is my blind spot, which is a bit strange but aside from "Un Sospiro" and "St. Francois de Paule marchant sur les flots" the composer doesn't click with me. (And I collected Claudio Arrau's CDs!)

    Thanks for the Vespers link: I'll listen to it when things quiet down a bit. BTW you probably know this but if you like religeous music Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" is a must hear--kindly ignore the Christmas tree backdrop but the music glows from the 4'10" mark all the way to the very end.

    The background on the piece is quite intriguing...

    Thing is going to get pretty crazy next week so gotta run--I'll drop you a line on how I'm doing with everything else.


  18. A,

    just saw this...

    Yup, poor dear, he was so very young and how bothered he was when asked about it all the time.

    Liszt no click eh? Un Sospiro is of course magnificent, so you're set I guess. :-)
    The Biebl's link you included is lovely!! (and Chanticleer sing with crystal clear voices too) I had no idea on the background, so it was largely unknown for years, eh?

    Listen to these when you get a minute:
    I like the Tallis scholars as well. Late Middle Ages music and Rennaisance, motets, those.
    And this "modern" take:

    Then again I like weird things like this (it's completely unsynchronised tonally with the accordion, but the voice says it all):



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