For as long as I can remember, I've worn the same scent: Vent Vert by Balmain. It's light, flowery, and I liked the green felt bag it used to be wrapped in. Unfortunately, the little bag disappeared during one of the brand's many remakes (it was first launched in 1947) but the box that replaced it was the same bright, zinging green and though people in the know said the "chypre overtone" had gone from the scent itself, it still smelt pretty good to me.
But then it got hard to find. Liberty in London was one of the last strongholds until they, too, gave it up. "You'll get it on the internet" said various zippy friends of mine, who now charge round websites far faster than they ever sped down Regent Street. So, full of hope, I launched myself on Google, found Vent Vert on a site called The Perfume Emporium and ordered it.
Nearly three weeks later, I was still waiting to see that familiar, and much-missed, box. It must have got lost in the mail said the man at The Perfume Emporium. Well, he didn't say it, because the message came in an e-mail. We agreed he'd send another. That didn't arrive either. "With Royal Mail..." came the message after another couple of weeks waiting. So I asked for my money back.
For me, the sad outcome of this volley of e-mailing is no Vent Vert. The Perfume Emporium has done rather better, since it had the use of my money for 48 days before returning it to my account. But what am I to do? Where do I get "top notes" of galbanum, citrus, gardenia and peach, "middle notes" of rose, muguet, hyacinth, orris and jasmine? And what on earth is the oakmoss that forms one of the base notes of this classic Balmain scent?
We've actually got orris in the garden, because it's made from the root of Iris 'Florentina', a tall bearded iris of pale whitish-grey that flowers towards the end of May. Way back, the Greeks and Romans knew that the rhizome could be dried and pounded into a kind of starch that smelt sweetly of violets. Perfumiers have used it ever since. I can do hyacinth and rose, too, but not together. Muguet (lily-of-the-valley) is here as well, just coming up to flower now in the cool, moist soil between ferns on a shady part of the bank.
But as our children soon found out (though it never stopped them trying) you don't get delicious perfume just by pounding scented flowers round in a bowl. All three of our daughters spent hours in their respective "shops" in the shrubbery of our old garden, squishing primroses, violets, rose petals, mock orange, stocks and wallflowers around in pots and selling the mixtures to anyone who passed by. Usually me.
Scent is vitally important in a garden. This is the first year here, for instance, that I have picked up the smell of Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'. I was wandering up the bank last month and it hit me while I was still yards away from the bush itself. Although it's grown well since it was first planted three years ago, this is the first year it has flowered and it's a gorgeous smell – light, sweet, not cloying. If any perfumier could distill that smell, I'd wear it like a shot.
D. odora is usually considered half-hardy, which means it's supposed to give up if temperatures plunge lower than -5C. We've had plenty of those plunges this winter when night temperatures have routinely dropped to -8C or more. But it's waltzed through the winter completely unscathed. Daphne bholua, too. I planted the variety 'Jacqueline Postill' only a year ago, but it leapt straight into action and bloomed beautifully through February and March.
The pleasure dished out by those two shrubs made me think about the rest of the garden. Can I expect good smells for the rest of the year? If not, why not? There's no reason to do without a pleasure as easily available as scent. So I made a kind of inventory of scented plants and divided it up into seasons, to be quite sure there would always be somewhere for my nose to go while I'm waiting for inspiration on the Vent Vert front. Here are some of the things I put on the list:
Coronilla glauca: yellow pea flowers and attractive foliage.
Corylopsis pauciflora: delicate primrose-yellow tassels which smell of cowslips.
Hyacinths: sometimes over-heavy inside. The blue flowers go off quicker than the white.
Magnolia denudata (yulan): big white blooms smelling of lemons – as long as the frost does not get them.
Rhododendron fragrantissimum: a tender rhododendron with fabulously scented white flowers, best in a cool conservatory.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida'): this form has spidery, pale-lemon flowers with a spicy smell.
Late spring/early summer
Euphorbia mellifera: a handsome spurge with flowers smelling strongly of honey.
Halesia carolina: enchanting smallish tree dripping with softly scented white bells.
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris): a stiff, ungainly shrub but when the heavily-scented flowers come out you forgive it everything.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis): wonderful to pick as the smell is much stronger inside than it is out.
Pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri): as the name suggests, smells of ripe pineapples. Excellent silky grey foliage, too.
Philadelphus coronarius: the old-fashioned mock orange of cottage gardens with richly scented cream-coloured flowers.
Cosmos atrosanguineus: the dark-coloured cosmos that smells of chocolate.
Eucryphia x nymansensis 'Nymansay': late flowering evergreen beauty with white flowers that smell of honey.
Lavender: lightly squeeze the flowerheads as you pass to release the essential oils.
Lily (especially Lilium regale): white trumpet flowers with a rich, fruity scent.
Roses: clove scents in 'Blush Noisette' and 'Fritz Nobis', tea scents in 'Lady Hillingdon' and 'Gloire de Dijon', fruity scents in 'Cerise Bouquet', 'Max Graf' and 'Nymphenburg'.
Stewartia sinensis: happiest on acid soils, bearing sweetly-scented, cup-shaped white blooms. Good bark. Good autumn colour. A beauty, if you can give it the right conditions.
Sweet peas: always check seed catalogues for fragrance ratings. Some modern varieties, bred for the show bench, have little smell.
Trachelospermum jasminoides: a scrambling evergreen that flowers usefully late, small white whirligigs with a heavenly scent.
Mahonia x media 'Charity': architectural evergreen shrubs with erect spires of yellow flower. They smell like lilies- of-the valley.
Narcissus (types such as 'Paperwhite' and 'Soleil d'Or'): gorgeous, easy flowers to plant in a bowl inside.Reuse content