on O S M A N T H U S

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There is something almost irritatingly predictable in the annual punctuality of Japanese osmanthus. I will be walking along, and will suddenly catch its fresh, early, blooming in the air, unexpectedly, ( I always forget ), and then, ask myself the date. Ah yes, October first. Or, perhaps, sometimes, October the second.  Always one of these. But whatever the date, the flowers, like Japanese trains, come out like clockwork, and for the next two weeks you are drowsed, almost suffocated, in that canned-peach, alluringly autumnal smell of apricots, orange peel, and delicate white flowers.

Two years ago, post-earthquake, we moved to this house, which just happens to have the biggest osmanthus tree in the entire neighbourhood. If you are an osmanthus freak, then, this is the time to come and stay chez nous. Hard to imagine, now, how extraordinarily excited Helen and I were, fifteen years ago or so, smelling it here in Japan when she first came to stay, clutching its tiny, beautifully scented florets in our hands and marvelling at its existence; but I suppose when you have anything in such huge abundance, even something of great beauty, it eventually loses some of its lustre: I know the smell of these flowers so completely inside out now that I have something approaching osmanthus nonchalance – I simply can’t escape it.

 

 

 

 

 

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– the osmanthus tree in the front garden; photos taken today –

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‘Osmanthus’. The word itself is beautiful, capturing some of the cruciferous clutch of its tightly-bound fleurs, those powerfully scented little blooms that herald autumn here in the East.  It is called ‘kinmokusei‘ in Japanese, and osmanthus is a well loved scent here, used in teas, soft, floral incenses, and in various other scented products such as hand creams, the kind of unobtrusive, yet slyly sensual, perfume the Japanese often love; perfect for autumnal, kimono-clad temple strolls in the koyo, the melancholic contemplation of the turning autumn leaves which is so exquisite later, especially in Kyoto, in November.

In perfume, the osmanthus flower, as a main feature in a fragrance,  has become more prominent in recent years. I remember, after we had discovered that first osmanthus tree and its startling flowers, passing by, then turning immediately back to, the heady apricotiness that rose up beguilingly as we were mounting a hillside by the gaijinbochi, or foreigners’ cemetery in Yamate, we later, Helen and I (coincidentally it seemed), came across Keiko Mecheri’s Osmanthus for the first time at Barney’s New York, Yamashita Park (a fantastic Barney’s, incidentally, that overlooks the bay, Marine Tower, and the iconic skyline of Sakuragicho.) I remember us drinking up the osmanthus notes in the head, but being slightly disappointed by what happened next (often the case for me with Ms Mecheri’s perfumes). I was also deeply disappointed by the Osmanthus that was released later by Ormonde Jayne, a scent to me that smelled harsh, ozonic, floral, like an airline handwash or the ‘complimentary’ body lotions you get given in hotels.

Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan, with its pairing of Chinese tea notes and the floral, pallid watercolours of osmanthus flowers, was certainly far more poetic, and always brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’..

 

 

 

…..and she feeds you tea and oranges

that come all the way from China

and just when you mean to tell her

that you have no love to give her

then she gets you on her wavelength

and she lets the river answer….

 

 

– this famously hyperdelicate work by Jean Claude Ellena a very original, watery thing; brushstokes of evocative, minimalist notes that come together in a diffident, slightly haunting manner. The perfume still doesn’t quite work for me personally ( I always feel it is lacking that essential something) though I intuitively know that I would love to spend an afternoon with someone who it suited. A girl like Suzanne, perhaps.

As a straight, and beautifully rendered literal osmanthus, The Different Company’s take on the flower, Osmanthus, by the same perfumer, is unbeatable I would say, having all those delicate, but enticing, mood-balmingly light, petalled apricots and a gentle, hay-laced dry down – a perfume so unthreatening as to verge on boring, but which any osmanthus lover worth her salt categorically needs in her collection. Personally, though, I think I prefer to smell an osmanthus note interwoven with other materials, cushioning the essence in a mixed media scenario to bring out more the flower’s intrinsic mystery. Fig tea, by Parfums Nicolaï, is a brilliant, but not much talked about, delightful eau fraîche that pairs jasmine, osmanthus and tea notes in a subtle but arresting manner that makes it the perfect scent for spring and summer. Fresh, yet enigmatic. Serge Lutens’ extravagant voluptuary Datura Noir melanges the jammy, apricotted flowers with coconut, poisonous blooms, and other aphrodisiacs to intriguing, almost tropical, effect; a perfume that seems to smell differently on me each time I try it ( which is why I have never committed). My favourite osmanthus perfume, though, is probably one that you might not associate with the flower: Patou’s almost grimly beautiful 1000 ( particularly in its stunning vintage parfum form, which is like nothing else in terms of ingredient quality and peculiar, inspired execution. Odd, wistful, green notes in the head (coriander, violet leaf), dwell alongside a very natural osmanthus absolute, while further down in the heart is a bewitching, shimmering well of animalics, geranium, jasmine, rose, patchouli and sandalwood. Here, osmanthus really comes into her own: she is given deeper, more spellbinding powers we did not realize she had; reigning intuitively above those elegant cloud formations below, the immaculate orchestration typical of classical French perfumery that make this scent, for me,  one of the most effortlessly poised ( if snob-drenched), perfumes ever created. Here, the osmanthus becomes a queen.

 

And a queen who is perhaps not as predictable as we had thought.  Because, this year, in fact, she is late (off with her head!!!!) It was October the fourth yesterday, and although I had seen orange clusters forming slowly on the tree outside my window, it wasn’t until walking down the hill towards the station yesterday that I suddenly felt assailed by orange musks: by an intense, floating veil of apricot-tinted flowers (it sometimes feels, synaesthetically, as if the very air were hued differently when the osmanthus flowers are in bloom..) There was a group of school girls walking down by the hydrangea temple, Meigetsuin, and at first I thought it must be them, that their mothers’ perfume had somehow infiltrated into their school uniforms, but then, I realized, yes! It’s out. The Osmanthus. Where is it coming from? ( I love that game; be it jasmine, lilac, hyacinths: when you know, as clear as day, that the flowers are blooming somewhere, even if other people can’t smell them, and just to be proven right you have to go off and locate them…)

 

Yes. So the next couple of weeks here in Kamakura will all be about osmanthus. The train doors will open at night and I will walk right out into it. Drifting on the air like ethereal marshmallows, insinuating iself into every Autumn nook. Gorgeous, sense-adultering loveliness………but finally (and every year this happens) it becomes almost sickening, one is osmanthus’d out; as though the goddess Amaterasu, on peachy whim, had drained a cannister of osmanthus/apricot-scented airfreshener out into the universe, celestial fingertips lazily and unconciously pressing sssspray, while we mortals feel it descend from the blue, tantalizing us with its subtle, billowing softness; then, gradually, feminizing us out of male consciousness til we yearn for some air; then; one’s wishes granted, the autumn storms come, right on cue, washing the tiny little petals in great unfinished showers onto the street; pools of osmanthus, detached, scattered, like frantic, unwedded confetti. You watch these disembroidered flowers falling like twirling sycomore seeds to the ground, and know a particular season, a specific time of year is over. Another year passed; eyes now towards Christmas, New Year. Not that long, now, til the narcissus.

67 Comments

Filed under Flowers

67 responses to “on O S M A N T H U S

  1. Beautiful review. And I love the Leonard Cohen association. It fits Osmanthus perfectly. I once painted a picture from those very same lyrics, and they totally evoke those lingering, gentle, October days. I love how you write this in cycle with the season’s change, and the picture of the tree taken today!. Love Patou’s 1000 also. Must try Fig Tea! Gorgeous to read. xx

    • Thanks Nina.

      I think a five hour karaoke bout last night with Duncan and our old Japanese teacher Ms Hiramura was a great, cathartic clearing out.

      I woke up today and felt ready to embrace October. And these flowers are already really filling up the air. Do we get them in England? I am sure I had never smelled them until I came here.

  2. Fantastic. Nothing like a night of karaoke to clear the cobwebs! And it strikes me as one of the most wonderful things about Japan, but also the beautiful flora and fauna.

    They’re not native to England and don’t grow here, so we probably only get a sense of the smell through perfume, and not the actual flowers. I can’t recall whether I’ve smelled the flowers or not, probably not, but something about Osmanthus is conjuring something familiar. If I have, it’ll have been in some Thanet pensioner’s greenhouse or a botanical gardens. Perhaps at the Italianate Greenhouse in Ramsgate or Tropical World in Leeds…? One of those beautiful Victorian hang-outs for cold British winters. I think you only get the actual plant in Japan and China.

    Anyway, love this review. Thanks for sharing something of the beautiful Kamakura October xx

  3. emmawoolf

    I am also loving the seasonal theme – just right for October, although we’re getting a bit of an Indian summer right now, causing a personal inter-seasonal perfume dilemma (not to mention a fashion one). What are your thoughts on Fleur D’Osmanthus by Roger & Gallet? Too lightweight? I’m quite fond of it (and a huge fan of their soaps) x

    • Have never smelled it!

      Description please!

      • emmawoolf

        I couldn’t really remember it that well, had only tried the bath products, but in the interests of research (and because I’m a nice person, I always aim to place), I just tried some of the eau fraiche in Norwich’s premier perfume emporium, Jarrold’s (seriously: there’s a new perfume hall containing Annick Goutal, all the Guerlain oldies, Miller Harris, Artisan Parfumeur, etc etc – it is now excellent). It starts out OK, you definitely get the citrus peel, and a bit of a woodsy note, but then descents into M&S peach talc hideousness (as worn by my Auntie Judy in the 80s) rather than Tresor (although I’m not keen on that either). In a word, you needn’t bother x

      • Ah, but you have me at the M + S Peach Talc. I used to LOVE that. I actually me and George having a fight with it in my room in the first year at Pembroke. That talc, EVERYWHERE. Another friend, Chloe, knocked on the door while it was going on, walked in, and didn’t know what to say..

  4. Stephen

    Beautiful essay! This is my favourite flower scent, and one I only became familiar with in the flesh so-to-speak when I lived in Guangzhou, where, if I was lucky, I would walk through faint tendrils of the scent near the Eastern train station. For such a fruity scent, the bush, to me, was always a disappointment. Difficult to believe that such a nondescript looking bush could produce such a gorgeous smell. As a result I became quite addicted to ‘guihuacha’, osmanthus scented green tea, which was the obvious inspiration behind Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan, a difficult thing to brew-too much heat in the water can deaden the scent, whilst too little, and there is no scent at all!

    • Stephen

      I love your writing by the way, and check your blog everyday for new postings. You have a very real gift for words that I am truly envious of!

    • how divine this all sounds. you also have the gift of description,my friend.

      agree about the boredom of the appearance, which is why I don’t mind wrecking the tree and grabbing the flowers. the rains always do it soon enough in any case.

  5. Such a beautifully written post (but then it always is!!!).
    I am envious of your tree, I love osmanthus, but I’ve never experienced the real thing.

  6. I always wondered what the name of that flower was! It smells divine. I love the way you don’t always SEE it but you can’t escape that lovely smell. You’re right, just as I flipped my calendar over, that smell was in the air.

  7. I love your post. I will have to wear my vintage 1000 today!

  8. Rafael

    I have a vintage bottle of 1000 that I wear when I want to give the impression that I’m going to behave myself. The reality however is, and I paraphrase Mae West here, that I wear it when “Tomight I feel like a 1000, but I’ll settle for one at a time.”

    • !!!

      You are right. It’s such a libidinous perfume, inherently, despite its pearls and pumps. A raunchy, secretly filthy scent for those with airs and graces. Have you ever had the vintage parfum, in the faun velvet box and jade green bottle? That is STUNNING

      • Rafael

        Nah, I have a great, big, vulgar bottle of 1000 extrait. It’s quite base really. Whenever someone dies, after I say “That’s too bad. God bless.” I ask “What are you doing with her/his perfumes?” It’s in the worst possible taste, but not astoundingly, when they start clearing the old gals stuff out they remember me and call. I’ve got quite a cache of ill-gotten gains as a result. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Too late now.

      • Oh I’m not judging.

        Just envying.

        Tell me more tales of extraits: they thrill like nothing else.

  9. Beautiful and informative post. Thank you.

  10. Tora

    I have never smelled osmanthus, nor seen the tree, nor any perfume with that as a major ingredient. I am quite lost even imagining this flower except for the vague idea of peach, apricot, orange peel, and white flowers. Most white flower perfumes and I do not get along. And I sort of find the smell of peaches just too much. Except maybe grilled with a balsamic glaze and a bit of honeyed mascarpone. Anyway, the idea of having the biggest tree blooming predictably as a seasonal marker is something I can relate to and appreciate. Surrounding our pool is a veritable bower of 20 or so gardenia bushes, that over the years have grown together to form one solid mass on either side of the water. But the timing of it’s blooms is not so predictable. In the last 10 years, Florida has seen some regular hard frosts, which have disrupted the blooming cycles of everything. But when I see that first blossom from my kitchen, I get so excited. For the next 3 weeks the house is covered in bowls, martini glasses, and vases full of gardenias. Then there are just too many blooming outside, and many are rotting on the ground and the smell of indolic decomposing flowers is quite unpleasant. But a year goes by, and I forget all that, and my heart still leaps with excitement when I spy my first blossom. Thanks Neil, again.

    • No, thanks to you for this extraordinarily vivid description of gardenias, a veritable Gommorah of poolside, white flowered bliss.

      They proliferate here in Japan in May, but politely, in private hedgerows ( I ADORE them), but, like magnolia, they look gross and unwanted when they start going brown.

      The osmanthus is a heavenly smell if you love apricots, but must be truly hellish if you don’t! Imagine thick, velvety floral apricots and you’ve got it. I think we are very lucky to have the tree, but I know I would be more excited by banks, bowers of gardenias ( did you read my ‘gardenia crime’) post? That sheds light on my love for those flowers…

  11. Dearest Ginza
    I can’t help but feel that familiarity hasn’t turned truly into nonchalance, never mind contempt.
    This encyclopaedic glossary of osmanthus in scent is a delicate and beautiful paean to the flower that enchanted you when you first arrived in Japan, and, it sounds to the humble Dandy, still does.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  12. Ginza, what an exquisite piece of writing. From a seasonal standpoint, my take on osmanthus is different; I grew up in Louisiana where osmanthus started our fragrant year, often in January in the southernmost areas but certainly by February. Any time there was enough sun out to fall on a sweet-olive bush, that haunting scent would begin to waft. Before I ever had a chance to get tired of it, the little tazetta narcissi would start to bloom, followed by one lovely smelly thing after another leading up to the crescendo of azaleas and, a little later, magnolias. I wish that I could write about it the way you do about the scents of Japan. I’d love to hear more sometime about the scents in England that sensitized you as a child.
    Have to mention that the Mona di Orio Oud combines oud and osmanthus in a fascinating way. It also costs a skillion dollars, so I am waiting for a split to slowly fill (if it ever does) so that I can lay hands on it again. Will let you know if I ever have any. Meanwhile, I have sniffed very few osmanthus fragrances, so I have my work cut out for me.

    • OO I have a sample of that, actually, and loved it. Hadn’t realized it was osmanthus, but having smelled the osmanthus absolute at Tree Of Life in Tokyo ( VERY animalic.. ) I can see how some barnyard couplings with Oud could work, actually.

      Love the descriptions of your own flora; I love how we all titillate each other on these fora with our own, tantalizing, indigenous species。

      As for the childhood stimulations, that would make a good post. What comes to mind instinctively is : rosemary; flowering currant; roses; pinks and carnations; peonies, and especially hyacinths.

  13. flittersniffer

    Wow, I had never seen an actual osmanthus before – it looks a bit like a peach coloured sharon fruit, and I am not even sure about that name. 😉 Beautifully evocative post – I have smelt vintage 1000 parfum once on a friend who wore it on her 40th birthday, but I don’t think my nose was attuned enough to have spotted the peachy aspect at the time.

    • Sorry, that IS a Sharon fruit/ persimmon (‘kaki’ in Japanese), a fruit that is season right now ( I love them). I just made an arrangement with the osmanthus for the autumnal associations.

      • Also, 1000 is such an insidious, complex orchestration that it would be hard to pick out the apricot aspect: you would smell more the patchouli, rose and jasmine, civet and leather: the osmanthus is like a beckoning satin cushion on top, an invitation to enter the atrium..

        Did it smell elegant on your friend? I love the idea of truly great perfumes been truly ‘worn’ on special occasions like that.

  14. Laurels

    Let me add to the chorus of praise for this piece. Evocative, elegantly written, and igniting a desire to smell both the flower and the perfumes. (Also, “Suzanne” is one of my favorite songs. I now feel an actual need to try Osmanthus Yunnan.)

  15. Lilybelle

    What a lovely, lovely read, Mr. Ginza. It must be wonderful to have an Osmanthus time of year. 🙂

  16. Katy

    My Husband and I were at the Norfolk Botanical Garden(Virginia)yesterday, watering and fertilizing the small collection of Bonsai that make their home there. I kept getting the most intoxicating whiffles of something apricotish, orange blossomish. There, at the end of the display, right across from the Japanese Snowbell, was what I had assumed was a 15 foot tall Holly but was in fact an Osmanthus Fortuneii! Me and my beloved sniffed and admired. So here, on the other side of the world, we share a beautiful Autumn moment with you.

  17. jennyredhen

    Thank you Osmanthus people..I have a shrub of Osmanthus Delavayii in my garden which flowers in spring and smells truly divine. It has small white flowers.I will now seek out the Osmanthus Fortuneii that flowers in Autumn and have it as well!!!!

  18. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    It’s early, really early, but the osmanthus is unmistakeably blossoming somewhere, gorgeously, tonight. There are strong balmy winds, the tailblaze of somebody else’s typhoon, and there is a buffeted, cottony slip drift, somewhere, of apricot, floral steaminess.

    The Autumn most certainly does have its compensations.

  19. I don’t have much to add to all these wonderful posts, but now I feel like going home and spraying some 1000 or the Different Company Osmanthus.

  20. Jeannette

    Just came out of lurking to tell you that you are the best writer of scent in the online universe. I just blind bought a bottle of Chanel no.19 for the reasons you did not write about it and I am looking forward to the day that you do.

    • You have just completely made my day. Thank you.

    • I am hoping that it goes without saying that it was the vintage parfum, that it was a good batch, and that you are revelling in the fierce and beautiful prowess of its structure. The base accord is unparalleled.

      • Jeannette

        Unfortunately, I cannot hunt down vintage editions(i live in a remote location). However I did get the edp which still has the oakmoss in it ( pre IFRA? on the ingredient list), I haven’t spent that much time with it yet but I am loving what I smell so far; galbanum, powdery iris, a little leather, vetiver, sandalwood and musk. Thank you.

  21. Oh and I do revel in the remarkable structure, the registers are so delineated.

    P.s. You are so spot on about Osmanthe Yunnan, I own a travel size bottle and is on my FB list. I am a JCE fan.

  22. nocturnes

    I will share with you how I like my osmanthus…if not straight up then paired with yuzu essential oil on the top, pink and white lotus essential oil mid and palo santo essential oil at the base…the drydown is for me reminiscent of a coconut note….for conventional perfumes I like the osmanthus note in Ineke’s Evening Edged in Gold which pairs it with angels trumpet, midnight candy (not a made up note…it is a real plant), and saffron…and nuanced with a leather note…gorgeous when sprayed on a scarf or inside leather gloves…. i

  23. Sounds wonderful, I will have to look up Ineke. Thanks.

    • nocturnes

      Ineke is a lovely indie or niche company ( not sure which category it would fall under) based out of California…very affordable and the packaging is as aesthetically appealing as the fragrances…also, I would suggest you purchase the sampler set (beautifully presented with each very generous sample in its own box wrapped in tissue paper). Not sure if they are still doing this but when I bought the sampler for $25 you got a coupon which allowed you to deduct that dollar amount off of a full size bottle…..I have also had fb of derring do and field notes…but EEiG is my favorite of the line…..

    • nocturnes

      Jeannette
      here’s the link http://www.ineke.com
      they still offer the deliuxe sampler with free shipping but the coupon is no longer worth 25 dollars but rather 15…still not bad as if you purchase a fb you basically are paying ten dollars for the sampler…..

      also , try Angel’s Trumpet if you like Evening…..I love that one in the spring/early summer….

  24. Glorious writing about one of my favorite aromas. I really need to try and plant a tree in my yard, I must. Until I do though, I will spritz some 1000 de Patou…heavenly.

  25. Alexis

    I just moved to Japan this year and have been enjoying your blog! You truly have the amazing ability to describe scents so vividly (And I really love the visuals. Somewhat old school…vintage-like…).
    When I read this and realised I wasn’t the only one noticing the smell of osmanthus in October, I knew I had to drop you a line. It reminded me of nectarine blossom and honey by Jo Malone and I kept turning around thinking there’s someone wearing that fragrance stalking me!

    • Oh but the Jo Malone is so synthetic and shampoo like in comparison, no? ( I do actually like that scent though and have considered buying it as a work perfume).

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

  26. So glad you reposted this, Neil. Wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. Loved:
    ” . . . the autumn storms come, right on cue, washing the tiny little petals in great unfinished showers onto the street; pools of osmanthus, detached, scattered, like frantic, unwedded confetti.” I would love, for once in my life, to be osmanthus’d out. We grow very few florals of fragrant note here on the west coast of BC; sweet pea, viburnum, honeysuckle (Japanese, invasive, unfortunately), azalea, dianthus, daphne, lilac, rose and narcissus are just about it, so anything “exotic” gets me going. Fortunately, we import cut flowers from around the world — tuberose notably; I understand this is a rare thing in parts of the US — and potted plants — gardenia, jasmine — but I’ve never smelled real osmanthus. Such a pity.

    Yes, I think apricot jam really is the best.

    I adore Osmanthe Yunnan: the ethereal end of the osmanthus spectrum. And you many know that I’m one of 1000’s biggest fans. I love how the edt in particular pulls the leather out of the flower — or adds its own — and, of course, the vintage parfum is the star. I have a couple of good and full jade bottles with red caps (somehow the perfect colour choice, evoking something of the far east), in the old gold satin-lined boxes.

    You mention Datura Noir; what do you think of Lutens’ other osmanthus, Nuit de Cellophane? And Amouage Journey? The last is overwhelming to me at close range, but magic happens at about two feet from the source . . .

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