FEVERFEW

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When we were young the lilacs seemed to bloom all summer: nowadays they steal away so quick and crafty, like a thief in the night¤. One day, a froth of snow white, purple or mauve; the next, a creeping brown withered corruption.  But o! that brief enthralling scent: so addictive in nature, so rare in perfume. This is one of my favourite weeks of the year in the garden. Not only the lilac, heaped up like ice cream on green spear-shaped dishes, but the bearded flags in fragrant flower and the roses just about to pop – very abundant buds, this June, nourished with Lincolnshire horse manure. For a backdrop, the azaleas and rhododendrons in flagrant pink, apricot and crimson splendour. The thick powdery drunken scent of the may, the cow parsley and the new meadow grass combine with the more genteel herbaceous smells. Things seem to be coming right at last. The sweet smell of success.

I was poking about in an allotment sale looking for a cutting of feverfew to pot up. All the stall holders were talking about this weird horticultural year and the sense of disheartenment creeping in among their members: maybe more than that, almost a sense of dread. The times seem morbidly out of joint. Everyone’s patch ran mad during and after the warm damp non-winter and the slow cold coming of spring.

There’s nothing like a garden consistently failing to awake a sense of cosmic unease; it’s the tiny part of the universe you can be held accountable for. It is a miniature mirror of the greater world; and when it goes wrong panic may set in. We feel like our father Adam, confronted by the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and requiring an explanation. For we cannot control vegetation, only encourage and protect, advise and warn. This spring we’ve all been afflicted with late frosts, prematurely early lily beetle¤¤, an invasion of sinister and pernicious ground elder. Tulip and Dutch iris bulbs have been eaten by ‘A Something Underground’. You’ll have heard, no doubt, of the warning of an invasion of “slugs the size of rats”¤¤¤. Oh, and the clothes moths are back – in a big way¤¤¤¤

So….anyway!….this feverfew: it’s a modest plant, very ancient, of great prettiness and interest. It has brilliant green feathery leaves and white daisy-like flowers which go on and on all summer. For centuries the intensely bitter-scented foliage has been brewed as a remedy against headache, migraine and upset tums. It grows like a weed once you get it going, but of course, “c’est le premier pas qui coute” – and CAN I establish feverfew in my thick clogged unforgiving clay? I cannot. And the allotment gentlemen were unable to help me. A charming and very knowledgeable gardener said, “You’ll find no feverfew here!” And for a very interesting reason. He was highly allergic to it. His wife is a herbalist and had tied bunches of feverfew to dry on the clothes rack in the kitchen. My friend returned home at the end of a long day, came over funny and passed out. Next day: still sick and wonky. Tests were made by Doctor. It was the sour scent of the feverfew, which seemed to bring on the very symptoms that it normally cures. A kind of short-circuiting. I was enthralled – though I left the market empty-handed.

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My other little adventure was with this wide-eyed racing pigeon which stopped off in my garden for a rest. Being a high-toned, delicately-reared bird it didn’t understand bread: I gave it sunflower kernels and some oats. But as the pigeon was still voracious I then crumbled some bread very fine and mixed the crumbs with the house budgie’s Trill. This pleased the visitor up to a point, though not wildly so. I laid the dish aside. Hours later: I am warming some baked beans for tea and find the dish of crumbs. “These will make a tasty topping” – I pop them into the mixture with a little olive oil. A surprisingly crunchy texture! I had quite forgot all the Trill. Well, no harm done – and an interesting new eating experience.

This pigeon kept making sorties like Noah’s raven and dove: finally, like the dove, she returned not. I hope she made it safely home and was warmly welcomed back into the loft. But I am never quite sure about the comings and goings of strange birds: I was brought up to see them as auguries. Well, we shall see.

Welcome to June!

¤ and apple blossom is even more fragile and transient: one of Dame Nature’s most delicious scents but the flowers are as fleeting as the lightest cologne.

¤¤ exquisitely pretty, like polished coral beads – but so deadly, cunning and merciless. A pair of beetles will destroy a fully-grown lily within hours. Squashing them is the only option.

¤¤¤ you can sometimes catch them with alluringly fragranced traps of beer or hollowed out orange rinds. A “honey trap”, indeed.

¤¤¤¤ take all your clothes out of their storage spaces. Bake them in the sun: either in the garden or at a sunny window. This kills the moth eggs. Moths and their progeny loathe and fear hot clear sun. Shake, shake, shake. Scour all your closets and cupboards. Repeat the process then lay garments up with appropriate herbal moth repellents such as artemisia, lavender, rosemary, thyme, patchouli. Camphor, too, if you can get it. Keep shaking, airing and checking at regular intervals. The whole business is so time-consuming and so nerve-wracking that you might consider excluding pure wool from your wardrobe or – at any rate – severely limiting it.

How Are Your Roses?

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Early summer slips like your fingers like running water: you stretch out your hands to grab all the loveliness, the flowers and the blossom, but Time gallops on remorselessly. The laburnum, the may, iris, lilac, bluebells and lupins wither and perish at a heartbreaking rate beneath his scythed chariot wheels, like a speeded-up David Attenborough feature. May and June really are the months when you must force yourself to stop, stare and smell before Nature devours herself. My blue bearded iris have lasted barely a fortnight but their scent is more delicious than ever in its brevity, seeming to have something of a rich golden dessert wine in its translucent, powdery depths. At dusk, as the bats flit overhead, half dozen plants scent the entire garden.

This year I’ve fought a hard battle with the aphids: I think the long dry spell in March and April encouraged them. Myriads made desperate incursions into my herbaceous border so that I lost precious early flowerings; my tight green rose buds were caked with them. Proprietary bug killer discouraged the creatures but it also scorched plant leaves. Some experts recommend the slow and messy process of scraping the aphids off by hand in a squashed pulp; the trouble is you always miss a colony or two. You can be strictly organic and collect ladybirds and introduce them to their favourite food; but even Our Lady’s Little Beasts (as the Dutch call them ) have limited appetites.

Then a French cousin in Aquitaine sent me a tip which I pass on to you: it seems to work. You mix up a mixture of water, soap and olive oil; add a few cloves of garlic, leave to macerate and then spray onto the infected areas. The oil allows the mixture to adhere to the plants even after rain. The aphids quietly suffocate. The plant is unharmed. The only thing is, do not spray downwind on a breezy day – as I did. You will find yourself pungently and aromatically garlic-scented.

Ironic though that one of the most beautiful roses I’ve seen this year is on a patch of cinders in our local Tesco car park. Obviously a relic of an ancient lost garden, this tough old plant is untended, unloved but blooms in a fumey dusty desert like an Old Testament prophecy. No aphids there. This yellow rose of Tesco smells cool, rich and redolent of the finest tea. I attach a snapshot: judge for yourselves.

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How appropriate that the auctioning off a long-forgotten Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting should be scheduled this month. It has a wonderful name: ‘The Triple Rose’ ( good name for a perfume, by the way). Expected to fetch upwards of a million pounds, this is a study of three flame-haired sisters draped in red & entwined before a rose hedge. Their mouths – those unmistakable carved Rosetti lips – are like pouting buds about to burst into full erotic bloom. If I were to choose a perfume to complement this gorgeous panel I’d go for Papillon’s Tobacco Rose to be unveiled exclusively at Les Senteurs this June. The creation of the astonishing Elizabeth Moores, Tobacco Rose has all the sultry overblown quality of a Rosetti, the sultry sensuality and the hypnotic intensity. Beeswax, hay and amber cast a spicy veil over blended rose oils while superb oakmoss works its own arcane dusky magic. Pervasive, bewitching and all-encompassing, Tobacco Rose unfurls its petals to reveal a heart of darkness.

Find Papillon on Twitter @papillonperfum

Coronation Chicken

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It must have been in the early summer of 1963 that we found the official souvenir copies of the Coronation. These included the full order of the Abbey service ten years before, and heavily retouched portraits of all the royal ladies which struck us children as highly comic. Princess Margaret’s face was enamelled like a waxwork and much stuck about with roses, her mouth the very image of Swinburne’s venomous flower. The Queen Mother’s throat looked weighed down with giant rubies like jam tarts. My grandfather had died the year before and his old trunks were filled with fascinating relics, these books among them. His things smelled earthily of camphor, leather and the past; there was a framed list of faded autographs, mostly in pencil – his comrades in the trenches at Ypres. He had been the only man of his platoon to survive.

We had just moved to a new house and decided to reconstruct the Coronation in the garden. Everyone wanted the key role of the Archbishop. We discovered that pilfered rolls of kitchen foil were ideal for creating a facsimile regalia. Fragile crowns were easy, stuck with plasticine gems. The Sceptre was a bamboo rolled around with foil topped with a golden bird from the Christmas tree ornaments;  the Orb a silvered tennis ball. My grandfather’s old apple cart was a godsend: perfect as a tumbril for games involving the French Revolution or the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (Wendy from next door), it served here draped in old curtains as the Irish State Coach. My mother and grandmother in deckchairs were the silent London crowds and somnolent congregation.

Our top lawn was bordered on one side by a small orchard, full of Beauty of Bath apple trees and one gnarled old Victoria plum. In the late summer this was a heaving drunken wasp orgy of golden ripped flesh, oozing juice and bursting purple skins. The insects rolled around in the grass, scrapping like sailors in a Portsmouth gutter. Under these trees my father kept hens; their bran mash, doled out hot and steaming, had a unique sour smell which hung around the humid nesting boxes and echoed in their droppings. There was a huge mauve rhododendron behind the hen house. This we plundered recklessly for Coronation bouquets and garlands.

There was also a purple double lilac bush. It was smelling a lilac this morning that brought back all these memories. I stuck my nose into a great frothy ice cream cone of blossom and it was as though I’d been hit with a tiny petally thunderbolt. It was like the time the Duke of Windsor’s former nurse – a woman of remarkable healing powers  – touched my forehead and I recoiled involuntarily against the wall as though electrocuted, charged up with purging energies. Fifty years rolled away with one inhalation of lilac. I was back in that apple cart.

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That scent! And it’s never the same twice over; like a rose, lilac plays hundreds of variations on a theme. This was an intense dewy morning sweetness – like Vimto, cherryade or pear drops – with a green muskiness in the depths. In its fruity hints I caught a waft of Guerlain’s heavenly (and now discontinued) Parure which blessed a mauve powderiness with a touch of plum blossom. Lilac scents are rare. Perfumers are cautious of a flower whose aroma can be overwhelming, with a certain grubbiness at its heart when scientifically reconstructed. And besides, lilac is unlucky in a house: we were never allowed to bring it indoors. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make a fresh and delicious Persian Lilac line; the The Body Shop a penetrating White Lilac oil – in those wee plastic bottles, do you remember? I once wore it into the papery dryness of a Learned Society’s library, with devastating results. It was like letting loose a fox in a chicken coop.
If you love lilac as I do, try Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant: just a suggestion of the flowers as borne on a breeze. White, cream and palest green, faintly wheaten and with a cooling suggestion of cucumber. Green grow the lilacs,o! – miraculously, on your skin.

Magnolia

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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.