For many people who like heady, strong florals – rose, tuberose, violets – linden and lilacs can seem like the “other white meat”, in other words, second-string players to more forceful or more characterful stars. Ask any one to describe what a Bulgarian rose otto smells like, or tuberose absolute, and words such as beefy, rich, and buttery come spilling out; strong words for strong scents. Flowers like lilac, linden, and to a certain extent, freesia, and peony cannot be so clearly described – people tend to use vague terms such as fresh, green, watery, honeyed, or soapy.
I think that part of the problem is that while both linden and lilacs smell heady and rich in nature, they smells far paler and well, more stupid, in perfumery. Nothing can turn a good perfume trite faster than an ill-judged drop of freesia and it is difficult to make a lilac soliflore without making people think of Marks and Spencers’ lilac toiletries or grandmothers. And yet, on the tree or bush, linden and lilac are simply exquisite – heady, intense, and almost indolic in a late-summer-afternoon kind of way.
One of the things I miss most about Montenegro is the smell of the lilac trees and bushes that covered every spare inch of green in our city block neighborhood. The scent they released into the air was at first fresh, green, and Spring-like, but as the weather got hotter, the blooms would start to collapse, filling the air with a thick swarm of indoles – from innocence to decay in a matter of weeks. I loved this, it felt like the lilacs were sending out scented weather updates to us as we walked beneath them; “Hey, it’s Spring!” and then “Get ready, the heat is a-coming!” turning finally to “Damn, it’s hot out here for a lilac….”
En Passant by Olivia Giacobetti for Frederic Malle captures the fresh, watery scent of lilac blossoms in their first blooming. A well-placed cucumber note floods the lilac blossoms with rainwater, giving it almost the same petrichor effect as in Après L’Ondee, but somehow skips the gentle melancholy that the violets and iris give that fragrance. This is a happy, innocent kind of perfume, one to wear while out picking spring flowers with one’s children on a blustery spring day. However, its paleness can get a little tiresome after a while, and the cucumber-lilac pairing sometimes gives off a hint of plastic sheeting. It’s a well-done lilac, but if I were going for a lilac soliflore, this wouldn’t satisfy me 100%, and if I were looking for a sheer, light scent from the expensive Malle range, I’d choose the beautiful L’Eau d’Hiver.
Opardu by Puredistance is not a lilac soliflore by any means, but it comes closer to my idea of an ideal lilac, which is to say, something that captures the heady, almost fetid aroma of lilac blossoms when they are overripe and hanging heavily from the trees. Strangely enough, the floral richness I love in lilac is not coming from the lilac note itself that has been used here – a strangely soapy, old-fashioned lilac – but rather the sumptuous, sensual textures and aroma molecules it borrows from the tuberose and gardenia.
The opening is green, fresh, and dewy – pure lilac blossoms as their buds begin to open on the tree, therefore more woody twigs and leaves than actual bloom. As the essential soapiness of the lilac (in perfumery at least) rises to the top, there is a heavenly intervention from below by tuberose and gardenia (mostly gardenia, actually, to my nose). There is a single-cream-strained-through-peanut-shells quality to the gardenia that infuse the chaste lilac with a milky sensuality, followed with a salt-lick chaser. It has the type of serene beauty that gives me a lump in my throat.
Funnily enough, although I am far more of a floral oriental girl at heart, there is something about well-done, dewy florals approaching scary levels of verisimilitude that moves me. These are florals that I mostly prefer to smell from vials, though, as opposed to wearing, as I find soliflores to be exhausting. There is something about their single-minded truthfulness that I find too literal to support for more than an hour or so.
But Opardu is not a soliflore – it is a floral concerto with the strings, bass, and wind all pulling in the same direction. And yet, like Ostara by Penhaligon’s, its large range of different floral notes somehow, magically, mysteriously coalesce into the scent of a single bloom – here, in Opardu, the scent of a lilac bloom captured at the bud stage but then carried through a shortened olfactory life cycle to full-out, sensuous flowering, thanks to the subtle nudging by the gardenia. Creamy and cool, it would suit a young lady who is very beautiful but also modest. If you know someone like that, buy it for her!
Perhaps one of the best lilac fragrances I have had the pleasure of smelling is Desarmant by La Parfumerie Moderne. It is every bit as disarming as the name suggests. The story behind the scent is a tiny vial of perfume that the founder of La Parfumerie Moderne, Philippe Neirinck, came across one day in the Royal Picardy Hotel in Le Touquet when he was a small boy, in the 60’s. The smell of this unmarked vial of perfume haunted him until he met Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the perfumer behind Parfum d’Empire, and commissioned him to create the perfume he still smelled in his head. Who knows what the mystery perfume was, or if it even contained lilac? Philippe seems to think so, since this is a lilac-focused perfume. I have another theory….but first to Desarmant.
The opening of Desarmant smells like the fruity, wet-paint undertones of true lilac blossoms – a gorgeous, full smell that reminds one that flowers can smell both of themselves, authentically, and also of household things like latex paint, sticky tape, rubber tubing (hello tuberose!) and lemon Pledge (hello every single Taif rose!). It is a true-to-life lilac note, so outrageously so that I laugh out loud.
But this isn’t some one-trick-pony. Desarmant takes that wet-paint lilac note and nudges it through a kaleidoscope of other notes that somehow just add to the beauty of the lilac without detracting from it – oranges, black tea leaves, apricot, a faint lipstick wax note, apple peels, and a liquorish note, like apricot schnapps. It somehow reminds me of the exuberance of I Miss Violet in all its fruity, tannic, over-the-top fun. Both are fragrances that make me feel like I could tip back my head and drink them; they seem delicious to me. It might be the osmanthus note that I find so compelling in both.
The heart section of Desarmant is all about building a dark, slightly sharp suede layer to ground and anchor those flighty floral notes up top. The austere leather note – styrax perhaps – reminds me of another fragrance from La Parfumerie Moderne, namely Cuir X, which is something I’ve developed a mild obsession with. The slightly bitter suede is needed here, for gravitas.
Desarmant evolves even further in the basenotes, morphing into a heavy floral musk with a hint of something animalic like ambergris or civet. It is slightly green-inflected now, as if there is sun-dried hay mixed into the musk. It is at this stage that I am surprised to draw a clear parallel between the drydown of Joy Eau de Parfum and Desarmant – they are practically twins, with their sharp, slightly nostalgic floral musk and complex textures.
The Patous, especially 1000 and Joy, as well as the old Dioressence, all share a certain green, pungent floralcy, almost old-fashioned/grandmotherly, that hides a rip-roaringly animalic streak in their tail. That this duality is present to a degree in the drydown of Desarmant makes me wonder if the perfume that Philippe Neirinck smelled all those years ago was, in fact, Joy? Or perhaps it was 1000, with its dusty, greenish osmanthus note, casting its vintage-era, peachy glow over the other florals.
Now on to linden, or lime blossom as some call it. I think that linden is largely a German or French thing, because I don’t remember smelling or seeing it while I was growing up in Ireland. But I was always attracted to the notion of linden tea, especially after reading Swann’s Way, where Proust so memorably gets hurtled back through time in his head after inhaling the aromas of madeleines dipped into linden tea.
The first time I actually smelled real, live linden blossoms, however, was when I stepped out of a car in a square in Uzes in Provence after a 19-hour journey to get there. Hot and tired, I stood on the pavement while my husband performed one of his usual thousand maneuvers to get the car parked straight, closed my eyes against the late afternoon sunlight, and breathed in the fresh air. Just then my nose was hit with the wonderful smell of linden blossoms – fresh, almost citrusy at first, but then leafy, green, and almost oaked later on, like a vin jaune redolent with honey, straw and cork. When I had the chance to smell them up close, the blossoms, I noticed, also smelled like a light, raw honey, which lends an almost syrupy character that contrasts so well with the green, citrus, leafy side of linden.
Of course, being the idiot I am, I explained all of this to my husband, who pointed out that the linden tree (lipa) is practically a national tree in Montenegro and that the honey I ate every morning was from bees pollinating lime blossoms (med od lipa – linden or lime blossom honey). But I had never before noticed the trees or their aroma – I think it is because they are not grown thickly, in rows around town squares as they seem to be in France, so I had never smelled them in unison.
I haven’t smelled that many linden-based perfumes, I’m afraid. But the three that I have smelled are pretty nice examples.
Actually, the first isn’t a perfume at all – it’s a shower gel that I picked up in TK Maxx one day and have been furiously restocking ever since. It is called Gel Douche Tilleul and is by La Compagnie De Provence (Tilleul meaning linden or lime blossom in French) and it costs €9.99 for a huge 1 litre bottle of it. Honestly, this shower gel, along with my Mitsouko soap, is what’s giving me life these days. Showering with this is a sensory pleasure – it smells fresh, green, slightly citrusy, but also honeyed-floral, and of course, very, very French in a way I can’t really explain. I’d give anything to find a perfume that smelled like it.
Tilleul by D’Orsay comes very close to replicating the smell of linden I smelled in Provence that day, with its honeyed sweetness balancing out a fresh, hay-like note. Some people are bothered by the watermelon note they see listed for this, but I swear the watermelon is only there to infuse the drier, more herbal side of the linden with a sweet, “red” pulp or juice. Simple, beautiful, and somewhat affecting, I’d seriously consider a bottle of this for summer. Many point out a remarkable similarity to Annick Goutal’s Eau de Ciel, but I’ve never smelled that one and I believe it is not as easy to find as the D’Orsay scent.
L’Ete en Douce by L’Artisan Parfumeur takes the linden blossom away from the honeyed/hay-like properties of the tree and along a cleaner, more linen-fresh direction. While this might sound boring, especially to those who fear “laundry-fresh” or chemically-clean musks, let me assure you that this is far more interesting than it at first appears. Here the linden note seems to be paired with an ambrette seed-driven musk, which to my nose can sometimes smell like bread flour or Grappa when paired with iris and rose (Chanel No. 18), green apple peel or hard pear liquor (I Miss Violet), or bread-like cumin when paired with other types of musks (Musc Nomade).
Here, though, when paired with the green, leafy linden note, the ambrette musk displays a watery, vegetal nuance, like dill or cucumbers. It is this striking gripe water note that connects L’Ete en Douce, in my mind at least (if in no one else’s) to the baby’s breath-like innocence of L’Eau d’Hiver, first, but even more so to Santal Massoia by Hermes Hermessence, 10 Corso Como, Bois Farine also by L’Artisan Parfumeur, and Santal 33 by Le Labo. In those other fragrances, the gripe water note floats up from the dill-like, sweetish properties of sandalwood mixing with milky or lactonic accords on the one hand, and the dusty/sawdust-like textures that come from cedar and other woods.
In L’Ete en Douce, the watery cucumber or dill-like note merges with the green, leafy linden and a puffy white musk to create something more like a fluffy white towel straight out of the drier. It smells clean, cool, slightly aquatic, and indeterminably green. I like it very much, because there is something childlike and innocent about it. It must be the gripe-water angle – somehow Victorian in smell, like old-fashioned British nannies and the like. It’s also very much in line with the Helmut Lang EDP, although that is far creamier and more openly sensual. In fact, L’Ete en Douce and the Helmut Lang EDP are the only instances where I consider it acceptable to smell like a freshly laundered soft toy.
Is it true to the smell of linden? Not so much, in my opinion. But it’s a good example of a perfume that uses linden in a prominent role but manages to steer it to a non-linear, non-literal interpretation.
How about you – do you have any favorite linden or lilac perfumes? What should I try next, in your opinion?