‘Did you ever sleep in a field of orange-trees in bloom? The air which one inhales deliciously is a quintessence of perfumes. This powerful and sweet smell, as savoury as a sweetmeat, seems to penetrate one, to impregnate, to intoxicate, to induce languor, to bring about a dreamy and somnolent torpor. It is like opium prepared by fairy hands and not by chemists.’ ― Guy de Maupassant, 88 Short Stories
Orange blossom is surely one of the most universally appreciated fragrant ingredients, beloved by perfumers for composing sunshine-filled ‘solar’ scents – a newly emerging category of perfumes within the fragrance families, and a word we’ve found is increasingly used to describe those fragrances which aren’t merely fresh, but attempt to bottle sunshine itself. So prevalent is the term, in fact, that we devoted our high summer issue of The Scented Letter Magazine to the subject, in Solar Flair.
But where does orange blossom come from, why are so many perfumers obsessed with it, and how can we use this bottled sunshine to prolong our summer memories year-long?
It’s the bitter orange tree we have to thank for these heady white blossoms – one of the most benificent trees in the world, for along with orange blossom it also gives us neroli, orange flower water and petitgrain – all unique in smell, from verdant to va-va-voom depending how they are distilled and the quantity used in a fragrance.
Originating from Asia, the bitter orange was introduced to North Africa by crusaders of the VIIth century, and now it’s just six villages in the Nabeul region of Tunisia that provide the majority of the world’s crop. Women do most of the harvesting, the pickers swathed in headscarves climbing treacherously high-looking ladders to reach the very tops of the trees, typically working eight hours a day and gathering around 20,000 (approximately 10kg) of flowers.
When the blossoms are hydro-distilled – soaked in water before being heated, with volatile materials carried away in the steam to condense and separate – the extracted oil is called neroli, and the by-product water that’s left is orange flower water: widely used around the world to flavour sweet pastries, as a fragrant hand wash, to treat upset stomachs and as a beautifying facial toner.
Long steeped in bridal mythology, and within the language of flowers carrying a meaning of ‘chastity’ and ‘betrothal’, when Queen Victoria married her beloved Prince Albert on 10 February 1840, she chose only one flower for her wedding ensemble: orange blossom. She decorated her dress with sprigs of it, carried it in her bouquet and even wore a circlet of the blossoms fashioned from gold leaves, white porcelain flowers and green enamelled oranges in her hair.
Victoria cherished her love of orange blossom through the years, with Albert later gifting her a precious necklace, brooch and earrings crafted to resemble delicate sprigs of her favourite flower, and which she proudly wore for every wedding anniversary. When Victoria elected to wear that one blossom to mark her marriage, she firmly planted the fashion for blushing brides being associated with orange blossom – a tradition that continues to this day.
But while the primly perfect buds might visually convey a sign of innocence, their heady scent can, conversely, bring a lover to their knees with longing. In his novel The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa chronicles crossing an orange grove in full flower, describing ‘…the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed the rest as a full moon does a landscape… that Islamic perfume evoking houris [beautiful young women] and fleshly joys beyond the grave.’
A marvelous depiction of the animalic naughtiness orange blossom absolute can evoke, because it’s the kind of floral that might signify sunshine and gauzy gowns in one moment and then, used to full effect, veritably snarls with sensuality the next. Similar to the narcotic addictiveness of jasmine and perhaps with something of tuberose’s potency – orange blossom nonetheless posesses none of that cold, grandiose standoffishness of some white florals: it radiates warmth all the way.
Master Perfumer Alberto Morillas associates the scent of orange blossom with his birthplace of Seville, and something of a signature of his is the way he infuses sunshine into the fragrances he composes – a sparkling play of light that captures dappled shadows juxtaposed with the radiance for an extra sense of depth.
‘I’m from Seville, and really when I’m creating a fragrance, all my emotion goes back to my home,’ Alberto told me, when talking about his own house of Mizensir and the inspiration for Solar Blossom. ‘You have the sun, you have the light and the water – always a fountain in the middle of the square – and “solar” means your soul is being lifted upwards, you’re looking up from the cool shade of a courtyard to the sun, so powerful, above.’
Oh, how we need that bottled sunshine as the summer fades and we sense autumn flitting, just out of sight; an almost imperceptible shifting of the light that harkens misty morning and bejwelled spiderwebs and the sudden need for an extra layer.
Why not try some of these light-filled fragrances to swathe you in warmth and help you huddle against the oncoming gloom? I love wearing them year-round, to remind me those sunny days will come again, and to bring an immediate smile every time you spray. And I have arranged them in descending order to showcase the spectrum of orange blossom: from sparkling to the downright depraved…
Mizensir Solar Blossom Luminescent, life-affirming, a shady Sevillian courtyard with eyes and hearts lifted to the glorious sun, ripples of laughter and birdsong. £175 for 100ml eau de parfum harveynichols.com
Sana Jardin Berber Blonde A shimmering haze of Moroccan magic, orange blossom diffused by dusk, a languid sigh of inner contentment. £95 for 100ml sanajardin.com (Or try a Sana Jardin Discovery Set of all their fragrances for £30)
Stories By Eliza Grace No.1 Waves of warmth giving way to fig tea sipped beneath the shade of whispering trees, bare feet on sun-warmed flagstones, fingers entwined, forever dancing. £50 for 15ml eau de parfum elizagrace.com
Shalimar Soffle d’Oranger A flurry of white petals in the Taj Mahal’s gardens, the creamy warmth of sandalwood swathed skin an embrace you’ll want to prolong throughout the seasons. £79 for 100ml eau de parfum selfridges.com
Maison Francis Kurkdjian APOM Femme A golden halo of comfort, sunshine diffused through honeycombs, your lover’s neck nuzzled, licked, bitten. £150 for 70ml eau de parfum johnlewis.com
Serges Lutens Fleur d’Oranger Softly soapy at first, then sultry, writhing with unabashed decadence: a pure heart gone wonderfully awry. £110 for 100ml eau de parfum libertylondon.com
L’Artisan Parfumeur Séville à l’Aube The molten wax of church candles delicately dripped on to eager skin as virtue meets vixen. £115 for 100ml eau de parfum artisanparfumeur.com
By Suzy Nightingale