Olfactory Pursuits

Mar 16, 2010
*Special to asia!

If the Earth laughs in flowers, then it spreads cheer through their perfumes. The myriad plant scents from the forests and fields of Asia, some subtle, some robust, evoke emotions as different as night and day.

It’s not just the scent of flowers that makes the heart beat in jungle rhythms or feel as calm as a well-fed cat basking in the sunshine.

Sometimes it’s essences drawn from the fruits, sometimes the leaves, and sometimes, amazingly, the earth-covered roots of the plant. Perfumers mix them and voila, a cloud of enchantment is born.

Tracing the origins of the plants that perfumers use is an armchair journey to little-known places where there are adventures to be had, beauty to be admired and scents to be indulged in. This is the first installment of a series.



While the essential oil is used in perfumery, dried osmanthus flowers are used to flavour desserts and tea.

While the essential oil is used in perfumery, dried osmanthus flowers are used to flavour desserts and tea.

Photo credit: UBC Botanical Garden


On trees nestled amongst the fabled limestone hills of Guilin in the Guangxi province of China bloom tiny four-petalled flowers whose allure is woven into legend. The precious osmanthus laces the autumn air with the scent of apricot, leather and smoky Chinese tea. Though the osmanthus is also found in Japan and in isolated spots in Malaysia, it is only in China that it is specifically grown for the perfume trade. For the perfumer, the osmanthus is prized for its elegance and sensuality. It is both feminine in its fruitiness and masculine in its leathery muskiness. Perfume expert Brigitte Bourny-Romagne says: “Like China, the osmanthus seems to oscillate between the feminine and the masculine, the yin and the yang.”

The osmanthus tree flowers in September and October. Shanghai’s Guilin Park attracts thousands of visitors during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many come specifically to bask in the fragrance of hundreds of blossoming trees and take home osmanthus perfume sold in the park as a souvenir. Children are told the legend of a rabbit that made an elixir of immortality in the shade of an osmanthus tree growing on the moon.

In an interview with Vogue magazine, perfumer for the house of Hérmès Jean-Claude Ellena, said he caught the smell of osmanthus on the breeze that blew from the Imperial Palace in Beijing in the autumn of 2004 and so developed Osmanthus Yunnan. Osmanthus absolute costs $400 per 100g.


Perfumes: Osmanthus Yunnan by Hermes, La Prairie, Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden, Osmanthus by The Different Company



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vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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