“Interesting Without Being Vulgar”: The Wily Tuberose

Tuberoses are dangerous demonic flowers. Their oil is one of the great classic natural ingredients of perfume, easy to extract but hard to handle with skill. Tuberoses are said to deflower virgins and heat the blood; they camouflage the scent of death and the dying. Louis XIV planted them out in the gardens of Versailles in Sevres jardinieres; Marie Antoinette’s perfumer relied on them; in her ineffable “A.B.C” Marlene Dietrich told us they not only smell good, they taste delicious. Part of the mystery of the tuberose is that relatively few British people still know precisely what it is. It was unknown in Europe until the seventeenth century when it was introduced from South America and Asia by the British and Spanish colonial fleets. The name which sounds so exotic confuses the unwary and I fell into this trap myself when I first read Gone With The Wind at school and imagined the tuberoses in the girls’ hair at the Atlanta Ball to be tiny tightly coiled rosebuds – or “tubular roses” as you sometimes hear the muddled say. The name is simply French for “tuberous” – a flower grows from a tuber. A disappointingly mundane title for this exotic member of the lily family; but in fact its implications links the flower to the orchid, the avocado, the onion, mandrake, potato and many other plants which because of their growth pattern have graphically sexual connotations.

Orchids and avocados are named because of their supposed resemblance to human testicles; asparagus is explicitly phallic; lettuces and onions bolt in a mad spurt of upward growth, the lettuce exuding a milky juice in the process. Every flower and plant known to our ancestors was imbued with magic, not merely because of its scent and healing or destructive properties but because it symbolised eternal life and reproduction. It died and came again with the seasons; its unstoppable budding, flowering, stalk, leaves, roots and fruit were all illustrative of the human cycle of fertility and reproduction. If it exuded a rich perfume in addition to a suggestive shape it was used as the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Maybe too the popularity of tuberose in modern perfumery is partially explained by its being such a relatively new scent to Europeans: like Australia and America it is raw, new and still developing, still having the corners knocked off it. We are still coming to terms with it, like vanilla and patchouli; equally ubiquitous oils. Rose, jasmine and iris have had thousands of years for us to get our noses and brains around: tuberose is still to be fathomed. It is a metaphor for the choosing of a perfume in a shop: we keep nipping in day after day for another sniff, still not convinced that we like it but hooked on something in the formula; like moths attracted not to the light but to the deep softness darkness behind the light.

Far too extravagant and showy for all but the most recherche tastes, tuberose was used sparingly by the great perfumers of the early twentieth century: Guerlain and Caron came to it very late in the day. Germaine Cellier first put it on the map with Fracas in 1946, a Robert Piguet scent whose legend continues to glow and evolve. Fracas was said to be an olfactory incarnation of Rita Hayworth – the screen image, not the tragic private personality (“They go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me…”). Fracas is a dazzling pink champagne burst of fruit blossom, jasmine and tuberose sweetened with vanilla, tonka and musk. Like Rita it is lithe, sinuous, unpredictable and intensely glamorous; unlike her, it has a frilly, girlish side maybe on account of its intense sweetness which set the trend for tuberose perfumes for decades to come. As I write I am wearing the spectacular new Madonna Truth or Dare which releases cerise clouds of thickest tuberose so sweet it seems to be working from a base of Lyons Golden Syrup. There are also fruity hints which seem, as so often with this school of scents, to suggest strawberry tarts or summer jam just beginning to roll to the boil. If you smell pure white tuberose flowers in a hothouse or sheltered garden they are deliciously intense and, like gardenias and tiare, faintly reminiscent of coconut milk, but the ersatz perfumery sweetness is absent. And I rather miss that. I find it brings out the escapist and slightly insane quality of the flower, the bloom from another dimension. Maybe I am simply buying into its magical heritage of tuberose folk lore legend: and I fancy that Fracas and its many successors have done the same. The Gantier offering – Tubereuse – adds another element: a sleek sable animal quality, a damp pelt covered in just-melting snow which suits it to winter wear and the Christmas party spirit: a dance on a volcano spurting black and rosy lava.

Carnal Flower is tuberose re-invented for the 21st century: uber-green tuberose, leaf and loam and all. This is tuberose stripped bare, reconstructed, throwing Fracas and her syrupy sisters out of the pram. Carnal Flower shakes off the more sinister aspects of the fragrance while preserving the erotic: this is a cool morning tuberose full of fresh air, warm rain and dew. There is nothing of the funeral parlour or the exhibitionist actress about it, those aspects which Billy Wilder exploits so brilliantly when he has Norma Desmond boiling with claustrophobic tuberose in Sunset Boulevard. Carnal Flower is the plant dissected with the botanist’s scalpel and reassembled as geometric perfume. On the skin it slowly grows and glows, like the opening of a wild orchid in a marshy field; its movements are delicate and unexpected, sometimes hard to follow: a sensory revolution. Maybe this presentation of an open air wholesome glowing tuberose is the secret of its success: while it continues to mesmerise and enthral it lacks the beaded curtain and Tiffany lamp oppressiveness of its predecessors. Tuberose pruned back and growing fresh from the root: a walk in a morning garden rather than crawling into bed between old-rose velvet draperies. It could almost be bridal, a first for this type of fragrance. Nonetheless, the essential spice of danger still lurks in the title: making you think of those obscene scarlet veined gamboge pitcher plants waiting in boggy meadows for unwary insects. Tuberose is a flower which must always be handled with discretion.

Image from Wikimedia commons

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Down in the Depths…

Mermaid, by John Reinhard Weguelin

Mermaids have always rather given me the horrors. How would you imagine one: Marina from Stingray? A pretty little cartoon in a cockleshell bra? Glynis Johns waving a prosthetic tail in the bath? A manatee in a dim light? Or are you seeing and smelling something unnatural, sinister and highly disturbing. I’m thinking about the ship-wrecking Lorelei, Scylla and Charybdis; and the terrifying heart-breaking selkies, beautiful women who come from the sea and marry mortal men but who are really seals. They keep their seal skins about the house – sometimes having asked their mate to lock it away for everyone’s peace of mind – but one dark night no matter what precautions her poor husbands take, the selkie’s longing for the sea becomes too great. She steals back her fur pelt and is away to the ocean forever. A terrifying story for child or adult – the ultimate parable of total abandonment, worse than death. A concept of eternal separation that links up ancient Celtic myth to “The End of the Affair”.

Old Breton folk tales tell of maidens snatched from the shores by lustful tritons and Matthew Arnold’s poem the Forsaken Merman develops this, having a mortal woman marrying the Sea King and raising children by him; yet that favourite Victorian theme, the awakening conscience, supervenes and the wife returns to the upper air and the Church which shuts out her sea family for ever –
“Come, dear children,let us away;
Down and away below…”

And what of Hans Andersen’s dreadful tale? The sea witch suckling serpents, the splitting of the mermaid tail into legs, the agonising pain as though walking on knives, the blood, severed tongue, proposed murder (“that instrument of death…”) and dissolution into sea foam. Lord knows what it reveals of Andersen’s inner tortured psyche and sexual hysteria. You also think a bit about the motives and mentality of those who keep stealing the statue from Copenhagen harbour: an object of fixation like the Mona Lisa. But the story is completely in keeping with the ancient beliefs that what lurks in the sea is monstrous and alien, incompatible and obscene.

Funny that, seeing that like perfume and cucumbers our principal human component is water. Water and dust, we are. Life crawled from the primeval oceans (probably more than once) and so much of our modern escapist fantasy, therapy and relaxation is centred on sea and water – from swimming and hydrotherapy to birthing pools and boating. Most of us still see holidays in terms of sea, sand and sun – the environment in which our ancestors spawned. We feel an close affinity with water, it soothes and stimulates us, and yet we project onto it our deepest subconscious fears: that another form of life may come creeping out of it to challenge and subsume us.

That other life is always thrithing and gliding and thrashing around down there in the depths – a mass of uncontrolled impulses and desires that have been sanitised and reined in by the land people, but given personified and incarnated in the realm of water. Grimms tales warn us that these horrors even invade country ponds and pools – nixies who make off with unwary children, witches who live at the bottom of wells. To the Tudor mind mermaids were soulless seducers, prostitutes, wreckers of ships and men: Marie Stuart, after the murder of her husband, was tormented with banners depicting her as a bare breasted mermaid with loose hair and crown. Men who offend Heaven may be seized abruptly by beasts from the sea: the serpents who asphyxiate Laocoon and his sons; the monster sent by Poseidon that brings about Hippolytus’s dreadful off-stage death in Phedre. This is by no means a concept that has left us with the glory that was Greece: “Jaws” and all its spin-offs, “Extreme Shark Attacks” and the like show how powerful, eternal (and popular) a metaphor this is. Only this week prime time television news bulletins (and You Tube, naturally) went crazy over the story of a man wrestling with an alligator stranded in an American ditch, presented as comic horror, like Punch and Judy. “Sharks very rarely venture inland” Dame Edna used to say. But secretly we most of us fear that they might. Our only weapon is a laugh.

Mermaid scent then must be a weird erotic disturbing perfume, complementing the barnacled jewellery of the drowned, a corpse-like pallor and as Hans Andersen tells us, bivalves affixed to the tail as a badge of rank. “This is like eating a mermaid” says Don Draper as he wolfs down the oysters; but eschewing salty, marine scents, I smell Caron’s Tubereuse – sweet and waxen and the perfect coronet for a head of streaming green hair above nether regions glistening with opalescent sequin-scales. Tuberoses (“dangerous pleasures”) are such strange wicked hypnotic flowers, not quite of this world; the Spanish won’t wear them, associating them with death. I fancy their creamy sultry on-the-edge-of-decay fragrance would even exude here, against nature, at the bottom of the sea, mixed maybe with floating ambergris and exotic fruits and vanilla orchid, wrecked cargo of some Spanish treasure fleet. “A ceiling of amber, a pavement of pearl”. Golden scent in oily rays in the dark waters, mermaids sinuously laving themselves like eels.

And what of the scent of the shipwrecks mermaids would cause? The inimitable Pierre Guillaume has crafted that for us in Bois Naufrage: a scent of salt, figs, coconut, beaches and wood so dry it would turn to powder beneath your feet.

For your chance to win a bottle of Bois Naufrage, please comment below with how you imagine mermaids to smell. By commenting, you are giving us permission to contact you via your email address should you be successful.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons