I grew up in Virginia, and I wonder if there’s a state with more magnolia grandiflora trees? (Mississippi...Alabama...Louisiana...South Carolina...I know you have your share!) When I think back, it seems every house, regal or modest, every college campus, farm, mall, gas station, had its own magnolia tree…or trees. Magnolia grandifloras are from an ancient family — they were Earth's first flowering plants; magnolias are beautiful in many ways: they produce heavy/stiff leaves, ‘lacquered’ dark green on one side, suede-like, sometimes "furry" and brown, on the other; gem-like fruits; noble seed heads — not to mention their huge, glorious-looking (and heavenly scented) flowers. No matter their location, parking lot or plantation, magnolia grandifloras are grand.
I’m betting one of the first floral smells to imprint itself on me was magnolia. How else to explain my writing a piano composition in seventh grade titled Magnolia Whispers? (My piano teacher made all her students write an original piece of music for our annual recital.) I even illustrated the sheet music with tiny drawings of magnolia blossoms. (I wish I could attach a soundtrack to this article so you could get a good laugh.) I never wrote a musical ode to other favorites — gardenias, roses, poppies or marigolds…magnolia reigned supreme.
No matter how many magnolias I encounter, in Virginia, California, Italy, Mexico, wherever, I pay attention to them, and if they are in bloom I sniff their blossoms. The first thing my partner and I did when we bought our own piece of land was to plant several magnolia trees, including one magnolia grandiflora; we enjoy it year round because it keeps its leaves in winter and produces months of flowers.
All this prelude leads to the fugue: I. Know. What. Magnolia. Grandiflora. Smells. Like. I also know I've never smelled a perfume that replicates its aroma. So, I wasn't excited to hear Australian florist Saskia Havekes had released two magnolia gandiflora perfumes under her Grandiflora company name: Magnolia Grandiflora Michel and Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine. But, as often happens, perfume samples arrived and I wore both fragrances.
Perfumer Michel Roudnitska developed Magnolia Grandiflora Michel,1 and upon sniffing this perfume, I realized either A. Roudnitska has never smelled a magnolia grandiflora, unlikely, or has confused it with another magnolia species (the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae, has seven genera and approximately 223 species2) or B. he phoned this one in. Maybe he doesn't like the scent of magnolia grandiflora, because Magnolia Grandiflora Michel is a jasmine fragrance, and a jasmine fragrance with nothing new to say. When I wear Magnolia Grandiflora Michel, I detect sweet jasmine, sandwiched between citrus and light versions of other florals (not terribly distinctive but rose-y, and with a mild "tropical" twist — ylang-ylang?) This type of sweet floral fragrance (with little development after the first 15 minutes) using non-indolic jasmine does not appeal to me; I find Magnolia Grandiflora Michel cloying and rather dull to wear. Magnolia Grandiflora Michel may appeal to those who love what I don't, so give it a sniff if you enjoy jasmine perfumes; this one has good lasting power and sillage.
After wearing the “Michel” version of magnolia grandiflora, I approached perfumer Sandrine Videault’s interpretation3 warily (well, not really…I popped the sample vial’s cap and boldly applied half the contents on my arms). By “warily” I mean: with the idea it would be no better at bringing to nose magnolia grandiflora than Roudnitska’s fragrance had been. I was wrong.
From my first sniff of Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine, I imagined Videault spent much time and energy thoughtfully experiencing the scent of magnolia grandiflora blossoms.4 Many of the flower's scent traits are present, especially its cheerful, fresh-as-can-be lemon aroma (grapefruit is also there in Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine, clear and sparkling). Along with the "fresh" elements of a newly opened magnolia grandiflora blossom is the essential "creaminess" at its center...still smelling of citrus but citrus whipped into a froth (this is a "midday" magnolia blossom). Also present are hints of tea, acidic rose, melon rind (no doubt supplied by the "fresh garden" or "marine" notes). Smelling the opening of Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine was great fun for a southern boy who has had his nose buried in magnolia flowers since (almost) birth.
Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine becomes quieter (and less magnolia-like) the longer you wear it but keeps the floral-fruit notes "active" throughout its development. There are two things missing from this magnolia grandiflora interpretation — both are detectable in a "late afternoon" blossom: the scent of rubber eraser and, most importantly, a fecal element (which heightens the beauty of the other smells). In Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine, a musk, on the mild side, substitutes for the latrine. I wish Videault could have taken her composition to another level of development and added some "decay" in the base notes. But that would have required working with a really nerve-y partner...maybe the OLD Comme des Garçons?
I would describe Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine, using art, not as a black and white photo of a magnolia, nor a digital, full-color image, but as an instant Polaroid snapshot — the essential elements are present...but not all the details. I really enjoy this perfume (and at times it reminds me of a higher-quality Barney's Route du Thé); I might have even bought a bottle if it came in a smaller size. Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine is unisex, but veers towards the feminine; it has mild sillage but good lasting power.
Though magnolia grandiflora blossoms barely last one day, my tree blooms here in Seattle from April through October, and sometimes into early November. Thankfully, my year is full of magnolia grandiflora scent...and the four or five months I have to wait each year to smell the blossoms again whet my appetite for the flowers' complex aromas. And when I want to relive a moment from my past, I sit next to, or lay under, my tree when the wind is blowing and listen to it "whisper."
1. Listed notes for Michel: lemon, bergamot, grapefruit, jasmine, ylang-ylang, rose, magnolia, vetiver, patchouli and musk.
2. Magnolias: A Care Manual, by Graham Rankin, Laurel Glen, 1999.
3. Listed notes for Sandrine: citrus, grapefruit, dry woods, pepper, fresh garden accord, marine notes and musk.
4. Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine was Videault's valedictory perfume creation; she died last July.
Note: top image [cropped and altered] via Wikimedia Commons.