O, the exquisite torture of cultivating a magnolia tree! Fatally easy to grow in the English climate and a cliche of every suburban garden, its beautiful flowers are nonetheless peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of our weather. Ruin can come upon you within hours. Last year the great moon blossoms opened overnight in a burst of late March warmth, only to be nipped within the week by a savage frost which reduced the white velvet petals to rags of brown shrivelled canvas. These unsightly tragedies clung to the tree for weeks, like traitors’ heads on old London Bridge, enough to make you weep and a grim warning against the vanity of human hope. This year’s cold late spring kept the magnolias back another month and my tree escaped the frosts only to fall victim to the winds. But a respectable number of flowers have survived, weirdly late in the season, and the fallen petals look wonderful on the grass, glowing and gleaming in the gloaming. Strange they should be so fragile. These trees have been on the planet since the end of the Jurassic Period: their blooms were among the first flowers to appear on Earth. But a chilly English night is still too much to ask of them.
If you own a magnolia you’ll maybe wonder every spring if it’s worth the agony – this huge anticipation of a few days of loveliness; and hopes so often dashed. But then, which spring flowers and shrubs do last? Lilacs and guelder roses, cherry and apple blossom are all the more exquisite for their fleeting appearances. An uncertain two week flowering period is the norm and the brevity is surely part of the bitter sweet appeal, a mordant metaphor of the human condition.
“Man that is born of woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow and continues not.” Job had it right.
Do we want anything to last for ever? Mythology tells us of Anchises, father of Aeneas, who was granted the gift of immortality by the goddess Aphrodite. But he forgot to ask for the complementary blessing of eternal youth and grew unimaginably shrivelled and decrepit over the centuries until the goddess, unable to withdraw her divine favour, turned him into grasshopper,crazily chirping – and easily squashed, one supposes.
Everyone thinks he wants a perfume that will last indefinitely on the skin; to me this sounds a nightmare comparable to other putative perpetual sensory experiences – a meal that never ends; a concert with no finale; eyes that never close. Spring is so emotionally demanding that we cannot bear too much of its verdant reality, its explosive bursting into life. And fragrance, like flowers, should catch the nose, delight the brain, dissipate – then come again, alternately dying down and reviving like a plant, all the more enchanting for its transitoriness.
In Rome, fifteen years ago, I made a chilly spring pilgrimage to the gardens of the Villa Borghese only to find them closed so I never did see the famous magnolia avenue. However we can all smell an impression of it in Eau d’Italie’s cool and stylish fragrance Magnolia Romana. The scent of a magnolia will vary according to type; but it’s a cool, white perfume which fits the look of the flower perfectly. Soft, clean, mellow – something like the very finest soap but without undue sweetness. Slightly reserved, discreet: you’ll not usually find the smell by lingering near the tree. You need to poke your nose into a low-growing flower, like a pollinating bee. (Or questing beetle, since bees did not exist when magnolias first evolved). Magnolia Romana catches the fragrance wonderfully, weaving together accords of hay, basil, cedar and watery lotus
into a fresh newly-washed perfume which has a faint damp green earthiness beneath the petals. The new grass and the spring rains shine through the petals. Quite simple, quite delicious. And no Angst at all.