Orchid Buds

Little flowers with big meaning

For many years, I've been trying to coax my orchids to do a rerun of their showy display of flowers. Instead, these freeloaders sit in their optimal orchid-growing corner and demand their bi-weekly attention of watering and nutrients, prayers and begging and show nothing in return aside from not letting their green leaves die (at best).

If like me you've experienced the frustration of an orchid lover's failures, that should be enough of a background story to explain my utter surprise and delight when in early December of last year, one of the orchids revealed a little stem of green buds... Two months later, and the buds have grown into blooms which are still as beautiful and seductive as ever.

This is such a memorable event that I've been not only secretly allude prophetic meaning to it (something good is going to happen soon, if it's not happening already...); but also tempted to create a new perfume inspired by it...

Sambac jasmine is one of my favourite notes among all flowers and especially white florals. It is exotic and reminds me of fragrant green tea and gardenia (both of which I adore). In previous perfumes creations I've used it either to create a gardenia effect (GiGi, Charisma, Fete d'Hiver), or as a supporting note to jasmine grandiflorum (as in Yasmin and Moon Breath). Tamya and Fetish are the only two perfumes I've created in which it plays a star role - in both I've harnessed the intoxicating sweetness of its high methyl anthranilate content to create a fruity if not almost gourmand fragrance.

In this orchid-inspired perfume, sambac jasmine is the star of the show. I've paired it with cardamom before in GiGi but here this effect is magnified and exaggerated. I was reminded of how much I enjoy this unusual combination when I was running the solid perfume workshop with my Floriental Week students. The following week I ventured into my lab and was looking for different ways to treat jasmine sambac that I have not thought about before. I played with pairing it with cool, medicinal top notes and also incorporate a material that is new to me: mandarin petitgrain. This is a petitgrain that is very rich in methyl anthranilate (also present in the sambac), but also has a cold soil and leafy qualities. To add to my challenge, I've tried to stay away from ambery notes, even though I love them and know they work with sambac jasmine. The amber base is a natural tendency of mine and sometimes I just need to try something new. In this case, I focused on musk and woods.

I've been wearing this orchid-inspired perfume for over a week now and I'm surprisingly pleased with the result... But as always, when things go smoothly on the composition front, a name for the perfume escapes me (or the one I think about turns out to have a certain connotation that I prefer to avoid).

Florientals & White Florals

White Camelia
I spent the last two weeks teaching two courses back-to-back: Oriental Week and Floriental Week. So naturally I'm a bit obsessed with white florals right now... This fragrance category is arguably the most popular of all florals, even more than roses. So now seems like an aptly timing to discuss them and shed some light on this concept.

As with most perfumery terms, the name is borrowed from another realm or sense - in this case vision. Most of what we call "white florals" originate indeed in flowers whose colour is white, such as jasmine, gardenia and orange blossom. However, it is not their actual colour that determines whether or not they belong to this category; but rather their chemical makeup and character. Some white flowers don't belong to it, such as lily of the valley, which is actually "green"; while others don't have a scent at all, as the camellia pictured above (taken at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown). Other flowers which belong to this category but are not necessarily white are ylang ylang and jonquille (the first is a creamy yellow-green, and the latter is as bright yellow as its relative the daffodil). Lilies are another great example – even though some lilies are pink or orange (like the tiger-lily), their scent is so heavy and narcotic they would be considered white florals as well.

White florals are characterized by a complex chemical makeup that is experienced as heady, narcotic, heavy and animalic all at once, at times also creamy. On the natural perfumer's palette this includes natural absolutes or enfleurage extractions of jasmine, tuberose, ylang ylang, gardenia, tiare, orange flower, narcissus, jonquile, etc. While the animals component of these flowers can vary from leathery to fecal, they all seem to possess a sweet, fruity, heavy, grape-like quality due to the presence of methyl anthranilate in some amount or another, and they all have benzyl acetate in common, which is an overall light, white floral, pleasant but rather ethereal molecule, and according to Jean-Claude Ellena are reminiscent of bananas. I think it also smells a little like acetone.

In his book "Perfume - The Alchemy of Scent", nose Jean-Claude Ellena defines the characterisic of "white flowers" as relying on the combination of methyl anthranilate and indole, and includes honeysuckle in this category (which is not altogether inappropriate, but to me honeysuckle smells more soapy, fresh and aldehydic). He classifies Ylang Ylang under a "Exotic of Spiced Flowers", alongside lilies and carnation - notes that are characterized by the combination of benzyl salicylate and eugenol. I don't completely disagree with him, but don't agree either.

As a visual representation of the various nuances among the white florals, I like to arrange them in my mind as a circle, each sharing a key quality with the two essences on each side. This is what I like to see in my head:

Narcissus - the greenest of all white florals, and with unusually mushroomy quality. It is floral and even a bit spicy. Very dark and complex and difficult to find and easy to get lost in a composition if not well-proportioned. The animalic aspect here comes from the purring leathery molecule paracresol. There is also an underlying note of coffee and hay which give it a surprising richness and allure. The main constitutes of narcissus: benzyl acetate, methyl benzoate, p-cresol, phenethyl alcohol and indole.

Jonquille - Very similar to narcissus, but a tad more honeyed and sweet. Richly indolic, powdery, animalic and sweet, somewhat green as well.

Tuberose - The creamiest of all white floral, also with green and fungal (mushroomy) aspects, and therefore I like to place it near the narcissus notes (narcissus absolute and jonquille, which by the way, are also tuberose's botanical relatives). The animalic aspect here is paracresol - an acrid, dry, with an almost leathery quality. Tuberose also has distinctive medicinal components, such as methyl salicilate (reminiscent of wintergreen) and camphoreous, eucalyptus-like notes. Alongside the methyl anthranilate grapeyness, it's no surprise many associate it with cough syrup.

Ylang Ylang - Creamy as well, and also shares the paracresol as its animalic aspect with tuberose, as well as the medicinal nuances, but is also more fruity, with banana esters being the most prominent. Ylang ylang also has some spiciness to it, from eugenol. Ylang ylang is also very similar to lilies, which I would place in close proximity to the tuberose and gardenia as well.

Gardenia - very similar to jasmine sambac, but less orange-blossom-like and more creamy and milky fruity qualities.  This is of course in relation to gardenia absolute.

Jasmine Grandiflorum - Jasmine shares the fruitiness and jam-like qualities with ylang ylang - only instead of bananas I'm smelling peach and apricot. There is some of the leatheriness of paracresol but it's far more subdued in comparison to the dominant fecal notes of indole and skatole.

Jasmine Sambac - Shares many aspects with jasmine, but with a far more dominant methyl anthranilate quality to it. The indole and skatole are very muted in here. Jasmine sambac is intensely fruity, juicy and exotic, reminiscent of gardenia but far greener.

Orange Blossom Absolute - Methyl anthranilate can really jump up here, but so are other more typical citrusy-floral elements such as linalyl acetate (present in bergamot and petitgrain, among others)

Orange Flower Water Absolute - This links nicely between the orange blossom and back to the narcissus absolute with started with - because it has more green and earthy qualities.

P.s. I've been asked several times since posting this, about which of my perfumes are white florals. So here's a short list of all: GiGi, Moon Breath, Narkiss, Schizm (a Chypre Fantasy), Tamya, Treazon, White Potion, Yasmin, Zohar

Jasmin Full

Sunset @ Sunset Beach

Montale's take on jasmine is a tropical night-time fantasy. Like most of the jasmine fragrances I've been reviewing for this July Jasmine feature - this is from a sample that was sent to me via a swap on one board or another. And like most of the jasmines - I felt underwhelmed when I initially smelled it. With this particular one, I even put it aside completely because I found it to be way too synthetic and chemically smelling.

Let a few years go by, and wait till summer - things are thankfully improving for this perfume. I find summer in general to be THE season for white florals. Something about the heat and humidity that simply brings out the best from such scents. Perhaps its no coincidence that this is their blooming season as well.

Worn on a warm summery Sunday afternoon, Jasmin Full is a creamy, full-bodied white floral that makes my mind wander to the beach-side resort around sunset. Sand lilies are in bloom and nearby jasmine and honeysuckle vines give off their best perfume, filling the night air with magic and anticipation. My skin smells like I've spend most of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing, and probably wearing one or another of those tropical-smelling sunscreens that I love to indulge in: a sunscreen lotion that reeks of juicy mango, papaya and pineapple, laced with tiaré and plumeria and underlined with sweet and creamy coconut. And then there is also Guerlain Terracotta Eau Sous la Vent - to which this perfume is almost identical to, but a bit darker and warmer, to make it bikini-tailored to a night time beach party.

Jasmin Full is not particularly jasmine-y, and if anything is more similar to turberose - so I'm not sure I would have called it Jasmin Full. It's also very similar to Songes, but more tropical smelling (a tad of coconut, perhaps?), and is also similar to the original formulation of Tiaré by Comptoir Sud Pacifique. But it does bring to mind a full moon, beach, summer, tropical white florals, and is an all-around fun and easy to wear on a summer night (or afternoon).

The Many Colours of White

Gardenias, originally uploaded by Jim-AR.

"Dear Ayala,

First, I would like to say that I very much enjoy your perfumes (Fête d'Hiver is my favorite!) and your blog, and that I hope you are having a blessed holiday.

I know that you are an expert on perfumery, so I would like to ask a question that would settle a debate I am currently having. The question is: Is Lily of the Valley considered a white floral? My friend insists that it is, but I have never thought of it that way. To me, a "white floral" has always meant the heady scents of tuberose, orange blossom, and jasmine, with those wonderful, indolic aromas. Lily of the valley doesn't seem to fit there. I have always thought of it as a fresh floral note.

Thank you so much in advance,


Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you so much for your email – I am very pleased to hear you love Fête d'Hiver and are enjoying my blog!
I hope you have a wonderful holiday too!
As for the floral debate - you are right - Lily of the Valley, although white in colour, is considered "green" in terms of its fragrance.
The langugage of perfumery borrows terms from other art forms (i.e.: the “notes” of music) and senses, such as taste (sweet, sour…) touch ( textures such as soft, sharp, powdery) and sight (colours such as green and white).
Green florals tend to be heady and piercing, sharp, with a crystal-clear association to fresh flowers and greenery (as in the flower shop). Lily of the Valley is one of the best example for a “green floral” note. The reknown perfumer Edmund Roundiska described his perfume “Diorissimo” (in my opinion the most true-to-nature rendition of Lily of the Valley) as depicting not only the flower, but also “the forst where it grows”.
Other floral notes of the green floral category are hyacinth, linden blossom (which, like lily of the valley, is high in its farnesol content), neroli (orange flower essential oil), violet leaf, boronia and freesia. Although some of those are still "heady" and some may even have a fair amount of indole, they have very strong fresh and green elements which render them green rather than “white” in that context.

White florals are the indolic, narcotic, heavy and heady floral notes, at times also creamy – jasmine, tuberose, ylang ylang (even though its colour is yellow!), orange flower absolute, narcissus, jonquile (again, this flower is yellow in colour), etc. Lilies are another great example – even though some lilies are pink or orange (like the tiger-lily), their scent is so heavy and narcotic they would be considered white florals as well.

Warm regards,

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