a journey of the senses by FLACONNEUR
The intoxicating spicy scent of the gardenia flower will be forever synonymous with the word unique. This delicate, swirling, wax like flower is native to China and has been cultivated for more than 1,000 years. Gardenia is a member of the Rubiaceae family of plants and is most commonly found in very humid tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, southern Asia, Australasia and Oceania. The gardenia genus is plentiful, having over 142 accepted species to experience. Many of the plants display flowers in the white to light yellow color range. The plant is an evergreen shrub, growing from two to twenty feet in height on average. The leaves are glossy, dark green and leathery in texture. The basic flower shape ranges from single flowers to multiply double petal arrangements. Regardless of their individual differences, the gardenia produces a spicy, rich, heavily sweet scent that is like no other flower. It is distinctive and detectable, regardless of your botanical knowledge.
The naming of this distinctive flower is an interesting story. It was a collaborative effort involving the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carl Linnaeus and a British merchant and naturalist John Ellis. Linnaeus and Ellis had another friend in common across the pond in the American colonies. Linnaeus and Ellis would receive parcels containing birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants from this gentleman. He was a Scottish physician and naturalist, living in Charles Town by the name of Dr. Alexander Garden. Dr. Garden arrived in Charles Town in 1754 as a partner, working in a busy medical practice. He was also the owner of Yeshoe plantation. His plantation grew indigo, producing dye for export to England. He also managed to dedicate some time to his other passion, collecting and studying flora and fauna. In the same year, Dr. Garden discovered Linnaean classification, where Linnaeus established three kingdoms, the Animal, Vegetable and Mineral kingdoms. In a correspondence with Ellis, Dr. Garden writes of his neighbors in Charles Town, “there is not a living soul who knows the least iota of Natural History.” His correspondences to Linnaeus and Ellis were necessary in furthering Dr. Garden’s naturalistic pursuits. While Dr. Garden sent many magnolias and Gordonia specimens to London for Ellis to observe, and wrote detailed descriptions of the Stillingia and Fothergilla genuses, the subsequent naming of the gardenia has nothing to do with these efforts by Dr. Garden. It was by Ellis’s encouragement that led to Linnaeus giving in and naming a new Cape jasmine, after Dr. Alexander Garden, calling it Gardenia jasminoides. Dr. Garden was forced to leave Charles Town after the American Revolution. He returned to London, where he died in 1791.
My own experience with gardenia was not as historically significant as Dr. Garden’s but interesting nonetheless. It began with the person responsible for introducing me to this usual botanical gem, my mother. Her personality was complex, spirited, soft and sentimental, and I find her love of the flower truly a perfect match to her uniqueness. My mother was married in the spring of 1941. I remember her talking with great enthusiasm about the bouquet she carried on her wedding day. She explained how the flower’s sweet and spicy scent permeated the midwestern May air. Even today, gardenia continues to be a popular flower for weddings because of the flower’s striking beauty and amazing olfactory notability. My mother shared all she knew about her beloved gardenia. She made sure to warn that touching a gardenia would make the pearly white petals turn brown. She also knew much about their care and how this tropical plant loved humidity but did not like overwatering. My mother had many perfumes. These perfumes were not expensive, and she loved them regardless because her precious gardenia was always a featured note. Jontue by Revlon, White Linen by Estée lauder, Timeless by Avon, all took up permanent residence on the mirrored and brass tray centrally located on her dresser. Regrettably, I never got the chance to engage her on the subject of other perfume choices she might have made as a young adult. Perhaps she might have owned Le Nouveau Gardénia by Coty or Gardénia by Chanel, maybe even Le Gardénia by Isabey, finances permitting. Many of the perfumes I have in my current collection contain gardenia and would have thrilled my mother’s senses but she never got the chance to experience them. On the day of my mother’s wake, while observing the room, I realized that there was something dreadfully wrong. I saw arrangements including beautiful roses, lilies, chrysanthemums, orchids and carnations but not one single gardenia in the bunch. I decided to remedy the problem by ordering a corsage, composed of only gardenia flowers accompanied by its deep green leaves. Not many knew my mother’s fascination with gardenia but people certainly commented about the flower’s fragrance, which stood out above and beyond any other flower in the room. At the end of the night, I noticed the flowers on her gardenia corsage had turned brown. I heard my mother’s stern words of warning from so many years ago. The gardenia flowers eventually tuned brown from visitors touching the flower with their noses as they smelled its captivating scent.
In San Francisco, Rod McLellan’s creative invention and floral business first, called the gardenia corsage, arrived on the scene in 1937. McLellan was keen to recognize the value of gardenias to the corsage trade. The pungent little white flowers became the company’s primary harvest. McLellan’s company was the nation’s leading gardenia grower with 80,000 plants being grown by 1935. There were thousands of gardenias being airfreighted daily to as far as New York. McLellan’s gardenia product became even more established with the increased demand for corsages during World War II with 3,000,000 gardenias being shipped annually by 1945. The fanciful arrangement was shipped to prom attendees and brides alike using unprecedented paper cartons and cellophane wrapping. The company had a modest start as a seven acre farm growing roses, carnations and chrysanthemums and in 1900 had over 324,000 square feel of greenhouses, the largest west of the Mississippi. The gardenia would never be thought of in the same way ever again.
During the jazz age, gardenia was given an elevated star status by singing legend Billie Holiday. Holiday adorned her hair with the precious flower during performances, and its presence there became her signature. Amazingly, this particular choice was a happy accident of sorts. As the story goes, just before a performance at Kelly’s Stable, Holiday burned her hair with a very hot curling iron. A fellow jazz singer by the name of Sylvia Sims was in the room with Holiday when it happened. Sims ran to a club down the street, where a coat check girl was selling flowers. Sims purchased a large white gardenia as a suitable coverup for the accident. Sylvia Sims’ remedy for Billie Holiday’s unfortunate circumstance has now been etched into our memories as part of her persona. Serge Lutens has used the smoke-filled clubs of the jazz age, Billie Holiday and her iconic gardenia as inspiration for the creation of Une Voix Noire. This perfume is described so eloquently in the words of its creator, “The stars rise in chorus. The night sky is filled with the light of the moon.” You have to admire Serge Lutens’ skirting the issue approach when describing the notes for his perfumes, “Jazz, drinks and the night, and, beyond all that, a troubling line of white, gardenia-scented smoke.” I’ve been trying to get my hands on a sample of Une Voix Noire since its release in 2012 but no luck thus far. Unfortunately for me, this perfume is a Palais Royal collection exclusive, only available at the Paris Serge Lutens store.
Many famous people proclaimed their affection to this strangely scented flower, but one in particular was the Austrian neurologist, now known as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud mentioned to the poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, otherwise known as H.D., in a correspondence to her dated December 20, 1933, proclaiming his admiration for the flower: “Now as for your flowers, it is true I admire orchids, especially some queer and atrociously looking, odorous one like the Stanhopea, but I like no flower better than the frail and charming Gardenia. It may be impossible to find Gardenias in Vienna at this time of the year. So let me thank you for the exquisiteness of your intention and as the Secret is out I hope you will drop it.”
Some Hollywood stars, past and present, wore perfume containing the scent of gardenia flower, just to name a few:
Aerin Lauder – Tuberose Gardenia from the Private Collection by Estee Lauder
Emma Stone, Jennifer Tilly and Sojin Lee – Gardenia by Chanel
Linda Evangelista – Gardenia Passion by Annick Goutal
Joan Crawford, Jungle Gardenia by Tuvaché
How about a gardenia cocktail? The drink is not made with real gardenias of course but the flower was inspiration nonetheless. The Mystery Gardenia cocktail was born at the famous Don The Beachcomber, otherwise known as the original “tiki bar.” Opened in 1933 in Hollywood, California by Ernest Beaumont-Gantt, Don’s Beachcomber as it was originally referred to, was a popular watering hole for movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. The original Don the Beachcomber is no more but the creatively inspired cocktail lives on and could be worth exploring.
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce gardenia mix (see below)
1 1/2 ounces white Bacardi rum
1 dash Angostura bitters
4 ounces crushed ice
GARDENIA MIX: Cream together equal parts honey and softened sweet butter. Prepare just prior to making drink, as mix must remain at room temperature. Do not chill.
Blend all ingredients at high-speed in a blender for 30 seconds. Strain through a wire-mesh strainer into a cocktail glass.
While the gardenia is irrevocably associated with romance, it has never been so spiritedly celebrated as in the country where the gardenia is known as the national flower, Pakistan. As part of a Pakistani wedding celebration, you will find carefully engineered bands of beautiful flowers, gardenia among them, strung artfully and with great care, decorating the mehndi stage. Mehndi is a pre-wedding ceremonial art form, originating in ancient India, where temporary henna tattoos are applied to the hand and feet of the brides. In some parts of India, the groom is also decorated in the same fashion. The mehndi patterns are very intricate and applied with great care and precision. The amazing designs themselves are presentation of the sun, the source of life. For more than five thousand years, henna has served as a symbol of good luck, health and sensuality. Gardenia may also be the flower of choice for use in wrist corsages for the lovely bride-to-be. You will find abundant strands of floral bangles cascading from the bride’s hair. Flowers are even fashioned into earrings and rings for the finger. These beautiful sets are known as gajra jewelry. The mehndi stage and gajra jewelry set are not the only reason to utilize the national flower of Pakistan. The bridal boudoir is usually lavishly decorated as well, dripping in endless strands of aromatic flowers, enveloping the bride and groom. The heavenly scent of gardenia is a perfect and logical choice.
In the French culture, gardenia has traditionally been the flower of choice for men’s boutonnières. The boutonnière is usually a spray of flowers worn in the button-hole of the lapel in a man’s blazer. Many a Frenchman is found sporting gardenia for a fanciful Parisian black-tie night on the town. There is even a modern-day perfume commemorating the French convention called Boutonnière No. 7 by Arquiste. This lovely creation highlights the scent of a gentleman’s gardenia boutonnière, intermingled with the masculine aromas of bergamot and lavender cologne.
Gardenia is generally not extracted for essential oil, concrete or absolute for the purpose of perfume production. One simple reason, the sheer volume of natural materials that are required for its production is astronomical and just too expensive. For example, if you wanted to produce about 1 ounce of absolute, it would require about 307 pounds of gardenia flowers. For this reason, the gardenia’s scent is generally reproduced by the use of synthetic and natural isolates. This process seems to be an adequate replacement for the real thing.
Many perfume houses have created gardenia perfumes to satisfy the cravings of the female gardenia lover, such as Cruel Gardénia by Guerlain, Gardénia by Chanel, Gardénia Passion by Annick Goutal and of course Jungle Gardenia by Tuvaché. Gardenia can swing both ways sometimes, appealing to both men and women. Here are a few unisex suggestions for your gardenia pursuits: Velvet Gardenia by Tom Ford, Gardenia Grand Soir by Parfumerie Générale and Fleurs de Gardenia by Creed. For the manly man, I can recommend only one perfume specifically geared towards the male persuasion: Flowers for Men – Gardenia by Neil Morris Fragrances. This fragrance is very popular with us fragrance enthusiasts as considered in some circles as the perfect men’s gardenia.
From its cultivation in ancient China, to its use in the latest perfume trend, gardenia has remained a flower of fascination. Gardenia is unique; its delicate nature and characteristic looks make it easily recognizable. The gardenia scent is strong, sweet, curious and romantic, giving the flower the power and ability to mesmerize and sometimes clobber the senses. It has a long, rich tradition well worth the investigation. So, if you haven’t already become acquainted with the gardenia, I suggest you waste no time doing so. Thank you for accompanying me on this floral tangent.
Cover photograph “White Gardenia flower” by User: Erin Silversmith – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons