DAFFS

daffs

The daffodils have been late in coming this year. In one of those strange warm non-winters earlier this century I noted on my calendar that they were in full blow in the London parks on February 9th, which makes them now two months behind. But in the supermarkets and flower stalls they’re freely obtainable, wonderfully cheap and you can turn your home into a glowing golden glade with minimum outlay. At Easter I filled a room with bowls of hyacinths, narcissi and six vases of daffs, spending no more than on a moderate bottle of wine. The cream and tangerine narcissi smelled as pungent and heady as tuberoses, while the daffodils sprinkled motes of pollen in the sunbeams which lit up every shade of yellow in those petals like silky waxed paper.

Daffodils are such accommodating plants – cheap and easy to grow, long lasting when cut – that they are often underrated and taken for granted. Over the centuries they have been bred and developed from a modest wild flower to showy flaunting beauties. Pilgrims to Wordsworth’s lakeside daffodils are often taken aback by their delicacy, miniatures in beige or sepia rather than the giant blooms of the horticulturists in every colour of sunshine and sunset, fire and flame, pink grapefruit, raspberry and orange. Even my Tesco’s three dozen, opening slowly in a sunny cold room, attained a remarkable size. They were rightly marvelled at as though,with their frilled trumpets, weird subtle fragrance and slender jade leaves they might have been sulphurous canary cattleya orchids against a sky as blue as that of Brazil.
Hence the acuteness of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Daffodils” which delicately probes this ambiguity in a tale of a school mistress’s past.

The scent is wonderful, though easily missed and not a little strange. You have to be looking out for it; like that of many flowers it is perhaps not quite what you imagined. Daffodils smell dry and green and slightly peppery; a trifle rough and lightly feral – gorged with pungent raw spring pollen. They smell of growing and pulsating life, the urgent uncontrolled resurrection of the spring; of rubber gloves and gas and crisp chilled white wine. For many of us this is the first garden fragrance of the year, especially if you can no longer get down on your knees to smell the honeyed snowdrops and musky, fleshy, powdery violets. It’s a colder, fresher, more bracing scent than the swooning jasmine odour of vibernum, or the piercing sweetness of hyacinths which for some people is unpleasantly redolent of cat world – a touch of domestic civet in the herbaceous border.

Daffodil is only occasionally used as a note in perfume, sometimes peeping from older twentieth century creations. I think the flower’s familiarity works against it psychologically; it seems lacking in exoticism though rich in scent. Like the blossoms of potatoes, beans both broad and runner, wallflowers, gorse, pansies and petunias the daffodils are maybe perceived as too humble to mingle with ambergris, ylang ylang and gardenia in a crystal flacon or sprayed on ivory shoulders. For perfumers who have dared to experiment it has yet yielded effective results. Bronnley once made a delicious cologne, perfect for splashing around after a bath, sweet and naïve and refreshing. Daltroff used daffodil to add a sly faux-innocence to the top notes of Narcisse Noir, and it turns up in Jean Patou’s devastating Adieu Sagesse of 1925.

One of the dozen corkers later marketed by Patou as “Ma Collection” Adieu Sagesse (and what a name!) is a worthy sister of such weird masterpieces as Chaldee, Colonie and Moment Supreme. It was coming to the end of its long story when I knew it, one of its fans being Prime Minister’s wife and poet, Lady Mary Wilson. The Wilsons owned a house in the Scilly Islands and no doubt the scent of the warm daffodil air of the isles chimed with Lady Wilson’s favourite perfume. “Is she fragrant?” as a contemporary High Court judge famously asked of quite another political spouse of that era. This was a time when Prime Minister’s wives often seemed vague and remote; the charming, enigmatic and discreet Baroness perhaps reveals as much about herself in this lost musky floral as she does in her poems.

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We shall all be changed…

Nathalie Priem and Wooden Horse's egg for The Big Egg Hunt

Eastertide is upon us with all its symbolism of change, rebirth, metamorphosis and immortality all neatly symbolised by the ancient symbol of the Egg. The Cosmic Egg from which some believe the whole universe was hatched; the fertile Egg for which Good and Evil fight for possession; and the humble hen’s egg which Carl Faberge turned into a impossibly luxurious celebration of the Orthodox Easter for the delectation of the last two Russian Tsars. Enamelled in pink, yellow, mauve, blue and emerald; encrusted with jewels on frameworks of gold and platinum; these gorgeous toys celebrated the Easter miracle with an extra symbolic twist – the touch of a tiny switch or rotation of a pearl would reveal a surprise, an interior wonder: miniature portraits, orange trees in flower, the Trans-Siberian Express, cathedrals, laying hens would rise up or burst forth from deep within the egg, a glittering child-like metaphor of rebirth + resurrection.

Theology, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales of every culture celebrate change: of form, of circumstance, of luck, of fate. Classical mythology abounds in tales of luckless individuals who for punishment, reward or escape from suffering, danger, old age or death are changed into statues, kingfishers, fountains, frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers, lizards and spiders, peacocks and sunflowers. Gods assume other forms to court mortal maidens: a white bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Girls pursued by these lecherous gods become laurel trees, rivers, heifers and heavenly constellations. Goddesses (like fairy godmothers and angels) turn themselves into old crones to test the piety and charity of mortals: I used to work with a girl who was always very very careful to be nice to any battered old lady who came near the counter lest she turn out to be a fairy in orthopaedic shoes; or an angel unawares, soliciting a free sample of Houbigant. We all remembered Grimms’ Diamond and Toads: it should be mandatory reading for all in the retail sector. A peasant girl speaks soft and sweet to a beggar-woman: her reward is to have roses and diamonds pouring from her lips with every utterance. Her malevolent sister, envious and rude, is doomed to spew out vipers and toads for eternity.

Brilliantly coloured and scented plants are natural inspirations for tales of transmutation. Scarlet anenomes were said to the blood of Venus’s lover Adonis, sprinkled with nectar by the grieving goddess. I’ve seen them in the deserts of Jordan, springing up from the brown wastes in warm February sun and there, rather than on the florist’s street stall,the legend seems entirely plausible. Lilies of the valley sprang from the Virgin’s tears at the Crucifixion: white violets from the deathbed of St Serafina; the bread in St Elizabeth’s apron was changed into roses. Hyacinths are all that remains of Apollo’s beautiful Spartan lover, accidentally slain by a discus: think of the shape of hyacinth flowers and then the arabesque curls of hair on an antique marble head. Cupid’s wounds of Love left by his arrows become sweet-smelling rose buds, while the self-obsessed cruel Narcissus turns into one of spring’s most fragile flowers, forever gazing into ponds and streams.

Good comes out of evil + pain; beauty and renewal from death. The fragility of humanity is compensated for by the perpetual cycle of the natural world, like the seamless shape of those cosmic eggs: no beginning and no end. And with just a little imagination we can also see perfume as a symbolic part of this cycle: look at oud, a perfect example. A great forest tree becomes infected by a parasite and in its death-struggles exudes this fragrant resin which breathes its own life and mythology. Again, with ambergris, foul waste matter is turned into something precious, mesmeric and aphrodisiac: it promotes life. A roomful of dying rose petals yield a few drops of precious vital essence. The Roman poet Ovid tells us the tale of Myrrha, the Eastern princess who conceived a monstrous passion for her own father and found escape in her metamorphosis into an incense tree, weeping bitter-sweet tears of myrrh for eternity.

“A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me: he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.” The erotic connotations of the resin in the Song of Solomon then transmute into manifestations of Divine Love in the Christian tradition. The costly bitter perfume is offered at the Nativity by the Three Magi, a Zoroastrian caste, said to have been devoted, incidentally, to the cult of the Egg. This foreshadows Christ’s embalming 33 years later by the Myrrophores, the Three Marys who bring myrhh to the Holy Sepulchre during the three days in the Tomb.
Note all the 3’s : one of the great symbolic numbers of religious numerology.

All of which helps to explain why the patron saint of perfume and perfumers is St Nicholas, one of the most famous saints in the calendar though not usually in this context; he is better known in his stocking-stuffing role as Santa Claus. His tomb at Bari was said to drip with aromatic myrrh, a sure sign of holiness and the resistance of a pure body to decay. The odour of sanctity, in fact. All perfume lovers owe him a lighted candle.

Wishing you all a very happy and relaxing Easter: rest up for renewal!

Image of Nathalie Priem with Wooden Horse’s egg from thebigegghunt.co.uk