In my more crazed moments here I would creep out at night in stealth, plastic carrier bags in hand, to cull the neighbours’ gardenias.
I just couldn’t resist them. And then, often, I would return home, breathless with theft, to find them crawling with bugs, on the quickly decaying petals that I then plunged, to macerate, in oil. With limited success the gardenias subtlely tinged my preparation with their moonly exudate, but so did the little aphids.
In twenty six years of living in England – among roses, bluebells and tulips – I never once encountered one of these flowers. And yet to me, the gardenia is now one of the most alluring flowers in existence. In Japan, in the sweltering nights of summer, these thick, hypnotic white flowers nestle amongst succulent dark green leaves and at night give off a beautiful, ghostly, yet fleshy stench, undercut by a mushroom-like aura glowing from the shadows. Often indistinguishable in perfume – one person says its gardenia, another tuberose – there is quite a lot of overlapping. Both are flush, narcotic scents- hypnotizing white flowers – but if the tuberose is the smell of the sunset on skin, the gardenia is the moon, its lunar coldness less overtly sexual than its solar counterpart. This is why a good few Southern Belle perfumes contain this note – it is considered womanly, alluring, yet somehow more ‘appropriate’. To me, gardenia scents, like the flowers, have a certain mystery, and these perfumes suit those of the more quietly languorous persuasion.
As for gardenia theft, the longer I am here, the more I conform (he says, half-convincingly), and am thus less likely to be pilfering blooms illegally (though this didn’t stop a grave gardenia crime, at night, not that long ago, in the Yamate foreigner’s cemetery, high on the hills over Yokohama. How could we resist them in that light – flourishing and reeking magnificently, next to weeping statues of Mary, as a tree of crows lifted off Poe-like into the night and tomb-guarding cats watched us from the dark…..? Armfuls were stolen: intoxicating, insect-laden….)
This drunken aberration aside, I have largely given up on my mission to capture this fascinating scent by myself, now, and instead merely gaze at them as I walk past on my way home.