Like many others who share my hobby, I believe, I was wary of florals when I started my perfume education. I was willing to countenance many a gourmand or woody amber barbarity, but I avoided flowers — and especially white flowers. I was going through a phase of sampling niche series perfumes — the Comme des Garçons incense fragrances, the Bois line of Serge Lutens — and I regarded white flowers as unsuitable material for such elaboration. Comme des Garçons White, purporting to be a more floral alternative to their original Eau de Parfum, instead smelled quite properly of sour spices and wood, and I viewed Lutens' Un Lys and Tubéreuse Criminelle as singular and humorous experiments, fascinating to sniff on a blotter, I thought, but created with a kind of magisterial, Gallic indifference towards anybody wearing them. As a smell, white floral notes were heady, insistent and complex: in a word, "perfumey". In perfume, didn't that make them too, well... obvious?
But I couldn't help noticing I was drawn to ylang-ylang. I had dried blotters all over my place at that time, and still do: I use them as bookmarks, clothing or car fresheners and post-its. Though I was doggedly wearing my modern roots and resins, my incense and tea scents, I was forced to admit that I stood transfixed when a lush tropical cloud of ylang breathed up out of my reference books, purse or underwear drawer. There were so many facets to the smell: sweet jasmine-like floralcy, spicy clove (eugenol), oiled rubber, a camphorous wintergreen note that could bloom into diesel fumes, a fruity angle ranging from ripe banana to guava, and a creaminess that sometimes read more like skin and Pond's cold cream than custard. Research was required.
The first thing to learn was that this big white floral note usually comes from banana yellow blossoms. (There are rare trees of the cananga species that produce flowers blushed with pink or mauve.) The pattern and spindly length of the tendril-like petals sometimes gives the ylang-ylang flower a nearly creepy resemblance to a sea star,¹ but any impression of vigorous, hungry profusion belies the delicacy of the blossom. Flowers are picked by hand. The name, pronounced in English as a doubled "ee-lang", is usually translated as "flower of flowers" and is derived from Tagalog. Native to the Philippines and Indonesia, this "perfume tree" has been commercially cultivated in other tropical areas, particularly the Comoros islands and Madagascar. Ylang-ylang flowers are steam distilled, and several grades of distillate are produced: the richest, most narcotically floral "extra" comes first, followed by incrementally lighter Ylang Ylang I, II and III. Chemically, the oil is similar to that of several white flowers: tuberose, tiaré, frangipani, a few types of lily. And as Jessica aptly points out, ylang-ylang is "like an eccentric sister to jasmine". I like the weird relations in most families, and even though I now wear and enjoy all kinds of floral perfumes, I'll always be especially fond of Crazy Aunt Ylang-Ylang. So below are five entries for that overdue series: ylang.
Annick Goutal Passion: Probably my favorite Goutal fragrance, Passion was released in 1983 and was the first fragrance Annick Goutal composed for her own use. The notes include ylang-ylang, tuberose, jasmine, tomato leaf, oakmoss, patchouli and vanilla. What I have always admired about this scent is its balance. While odd, it is also easy to wear, as the warm, creamy vanilla base softens a very heady and mentholated floral heart. True to its name, it is an intense and fleshily sensual perfume. With its Vicks VapoRub and milky pudding facets, though, it conjures for me not a desperate love affair, but romanticized memories of childhood illness: resting in a nest of pillows, hushed solitude and the flushed, shining-eyed concentration on the body that the feverish and the wildly in love share.
Gorilla Perfumes at Lush Cocktail: An elegant, silken perfume, Cocktail is one of the original B Never Too Busy to Be Beautiful scents created by Mark Constantine. Even more than Passion, it reveals the rubbery, camphorous side of this flower — it is the Tubereuse Criminelle of the ylang-ylang soliflore. Cocktail is currently only available through the Lush U.K. website, but is worth tracking down.
La Via del Profumo Tasneem: Named after a spring in paradise, Tasneem is a caressingly soft, sweetly feminine perfume that I prefer to the apricot-and-powder-puff effect of Christian Dior New Look 1947. This natural composition highlights an interesting almond facet of a Ylang-ylang No. 2 distillate and creator Dominique Dubrana quite rightly suggests it as a sweet floral for those who normally avoid the genre.
Hermes Vanille Galante: Since it contains salicylates, eugenol and linalool, ylang-ylang is often used in reconstructions of scents that can't be extracted from the flower, notably that of lily of the valley. Vanille Galante features ylang ylang, green notes, spices, lily, salicylates, sandalwood and vanilla, and it smells very much like a banana-tinted, beachy version of a lily soliflore, which was startling to those of us who expected a gourmand. I've grown to love the fresh airiness of this presentation, but those of you looking for a vanilla-ylang with more tropical heft should try Penhaglion's recent Amaranthine, which smells like a floral dessert made with cardamom and condensed milk.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour Le Soir: One of the raunchiest scents I've ever smelled, Absolue Pour Le Soir is the polar opposite of the previously mentioned Tasneem: a combination of pleather, dry erase marker, sweat and ylang-ylang. Highly recommended for the brave.
1. I should point out that I have a five-year-old obsessed with ocean life, so we spend a great deal of time watching The Blue Planet DVDs over and over again. Almost all my nightmares that do not involve breaching sharks are centered on ravenous sunflower starfish eating brittle stars.