November 4, 2012

I've been told that my taste in perfume runs uncomplicated, sweet, relentlessly floral. So it's probably not too unexpected that my favorite scent is magnolia, specifically michelia alba (a k a white champaca or white sandalwood). It reminds me of being a kid. Old ladies from the countryside carried flat baskets of these long, thin flowers to sell in the city. Even years later, during summer visits to Shanghai, my mom and I always bought them in sets of two, bound with a little silver wire shaped to loop around a shirt button. At the end of the day, their perfect off-white petals would brown at the tips, and they'd take on the slightly sour smell of overripe fruit, like perfume that shed its top notes to degenerate into something more overtly sexual.

When my parents moved, my mom insisted on buying a michelia alba tree for the backyard. Their first attempt to cultivate one in a large container killed it, probably because of too much sun or too much water, so the second time around my mom wised up and put the new plant directly in the ground. For some shade, she also stuck right next to it an old garden umbrella whose cloth was a translucent, orange-hued tarp that kept the magnolia tree in perpetual half-sun. One night during the Santa Ana winds of 2011, the umbrella disappeared. Using its power as a giant sail, it had somehow escaped over the chin-high red brick wall on the other side of the yard. She called me in New York, laughing, telling me that now she didn't have to worry about uprooting the thing to put it out with the trash.

The tree is big now, as tall as me. It produces hundreds of flowers every year and had a banner week a while back during the heat wave.

My favorite fragrances:
Robert Piguet 'Fracas' (1948)
Tom Ford 'Champaca Absolute' (2008) -- irresistible, so special
Hermes un Jardin sur le Toit (2011) -- smells like a vegetable garden
Acqua di Parma 'Magnolia Nobile' (2009)


  1. Oh no, we could never be perfume friends. Relentlessly floral is pretty much my worst nightmare.

    The rooftop garden one sounds interesting though - I might have to check that one out!

  2. We have two in our front yard. Planted out of nostalgia. Started out as precious plants and now have become two large, unruly monsters. I used to pluck a few off everyday and leave it in my car as an air freshener (like the taxi cabs in Taiwan).

    Are any of the scents you've linked true to THIS magnolia? I find that they tend to smell more like the large white blooms that are more common in the US.

  3. I don't think the resemblance is that literal, but I really like Tom Ford's Champaca. His Black Orchid is also really great, but I don't think it smells much like magnolia.