“Consider the lilies…”

Lily of the Valley has inspired mankind for centuries

Lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically

“… Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Always productive and fascinating to smell perfume oils and then return to the original source – the flower which inspired them. The fascination for me lies in discovering how the flower actually smells in the raw, often remarkably different from what we imagined or remembered.

The radiance of the lily of the valley has inspired mankind for centuries. Modern sources sometimes claim it originated in Asia, though Nicolson’s exhaustive 1886 Gardening Dictionary describes it as native to Britain and at that period still to be seen growing profusely (imagine!) in English woods. Medicinal and spiritual qualities (the warding off of evil spirits) are attributed to it, and an extensive folk lore is not the least of its charms. The flower is said to represent Our Lady’s Tears at the Crucifixion; and sometimes named Jacob’s Ladder or Ladders to Heaven – from the Patriarch’s dream of angels, ascending and descending the Divine staircase.

I have a plant before me now: exquisite in form and colour, both the flowers and foliage. With its vivid green silky spear-shaped leaves and pure white bell-like flowers (one of its French names is Clochettes d’Amour) it was a definitive corsage for Edwardian ladies, fashionably pinned to furs or lapels with a diamond clip. As the sun or the heat of the body warm the blossoms, the sweet,fragile yet pungent fragrance arouses almost unbearable nostalgia.

Inhaling it now, the scent is unexpectedly musky, very expensively soapy, verging on the powdery; with delicate hints of jasmine, orange blossom, even rose. Remarkably sophisticated, with a subtle suggestion of spice rather in the style of an old-fashioned clove carnation; complex and bewitching, unmistakable yet paradoxical.

For lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically. A conjuring trick of the highest order but you can see from the other flowers that it references, even from a pot on my kitchen table, how it can be pulled off, if very rarely. Dior’s Diorissimo is one such example: it was the designer’s favourite flower. His funeral took place in a bower, a cascade of lilies. Caron‘s Muguet de Bonheur catches the waxy muskiness of the flower: a salute to the Parisian chic of Claudette Colbert who wore it; and a souvenir of the French custom of offering lilies of the valley as a token of love on May Day. If you are after for the green, airy, spring-like quality try Frederic Malle‘s Lys Mediterranee – a gorgeously fresh garden of white flowers with lily of the valley nestling discreetly but sweetly at the heart.

‘They toil not, neither do they spin’… lilies of the valley earn their place in creation just by being.

Image from Wikimedia commons

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