Monday was officially the first day of spring. It’s a time of year for scented sprigs and pretty posies – although the garden itself seems to have stalled a bit, in the chilly conditions.
It seems the perfect moment to take a scented stroll around the wholesale flower market where many of them come from, to help you identify which blooms simply smell best. Our ‘guide’? The talented Robbie Honey: the fashionistas’ florist.
Zimbabwe-born Robbie is responsible for some of the most extravagant floral displays in fashion and beauty – for houses that include Valentino, Vivienne Westwood, Armani and most famously Dior. (His ‘rose arbour’ for Miss Dior, at a townhouse in Fitzroy Square, is still talked about today…) Nowadays, Robbie jets between New York, Shanghai, Korea and other far-flung locations teaching floristry – but in between, found time to lead us – by the nose! – around Nine Elms Market, in Vauxhall.
Robbie’s also the creator of a stunning collection of scented candles, all based around single white flower scents, inspired by his favourite flowers: Muguet des Bois, Casa Blanca (lily), Tuberose and Jasmine, which you can read about here.
Robbie, like us, finds it very frustrating that so few cut flowers today are grown for scent. ‘They’ve been bred for longevity in a vase – and that’s often happened at the expense of fragrance,’ explains Robbie, who originally worked right at the other end of the cut flower trade, on flower farms in East Africa. ‘Of course I love flowers that look beautiful – but how much more glorious, when they smell exquisite, too…?’
Some of the following are famously fragrant – but Robbie has some tips for those. Others came as a complete surprise to us. So: here’s what Robbie recommends sniffing out, at your nearest florist…
‘Always buy them closed, because that way you get longevity,’ advises Robbie. ‘And there’s a real difference between the scent of the white and coloured freesias,’ he adds. ‘The coloured ones have that traditional freesia scent that everyone knows – very sweet and lovely. But I get the white doubles; they lack that sweetie punch, but they have an incredible scent of rain and pepper.’ As for arranging them? ‘I like to chop them down and put them in posies next to the bed, in a little tumbler,’ is his advice.
‘Stocks are so summery, with the most wonderful clove-y scent – but be warned: they go right off after about four days and disposing them is really quite unpleasant.’ You don’t need to pay a fortune for good stocks, however: ‘M&S have great flowers – really high quality – and their stocks are fantastic value.’
Robbie was thrilled to stumble across these early sweet peas ‘on the vine’, which would make a stunning display. ‘They’re the scent of hope, to me: a promise of summer to come. Sweet peas love water; they’re easy to grow in the garden but water profusely for the longest-stemmed blooms.’
‘This is a variety called “Sensation”,’ Robbie explained, ‘and it’s one of my favourites. These are forced and so the smell isn’t fantastic yet; it’s better to wait until lilac is in season and buy great bales of blooms. The secret is to bash the stems so that water gets to the flowers – and if you buy Dutch lilacs, do use the little sachet of flower food; that stuff really works.’ An alternative technique to ensure lilacs, roses and hydrangeas take up plenty of water is to sit the stems in a couple of inches of boiling water (in a container that won’t topple over), for a minute or two, is Robbie’s ‘insider secret’.
‘This is a somewhat tender potted plant that you can find readily in florists; I tend to snip sprigs of the waxy flowers to use in wedding bouquets, as it gives off such a fantastic white flower scent. The stems tend to be trained around a circular support; untwine them and trail them up the wall of a shed, and it’ll completely fill the space with the exotic scent.’
‘An utterly indolic smell that reminds me of my grandmother’s hall, tuberose was the inspiration for one of my candles. It’s a real smack-you-in-the-face scent, not to everyone’s liking; be careful if you don’t love powerful floral scents.’ Robbie showed us a newly available pink variety, and added: ‘The scent’s a little softer, less of a sucker punch.’
Not all daffs are scented – but Robbie swooped upon these orange-centred treasures. ‘These are called Martinet, and I’m also fond of a variety called Geranium. They’ve a short shelf life, but smell fantastic.’
‘Lilies might seem extravagant but they last a good two weeks in a vase, puming out that wonderful white floralcy. The challenge is always pollen, which is a nightmare on clothes; I don’t like snipping the stamens so instead, I capture the pollen by sliding a paper towel up the stamens. No pollen, no damaged clothes.’
‘Make sure you buy them closed, and don’t keep them too long; after a few days, the going-over smell of a hyacinth is horrendous, so as soon as they start getting soft and sponge-y, out they should go. I once did the flowers for a funeral in Knightsbridge and had hyacinths all over the church, getting a good price because they were already open. I cleared them away after the service and had them in the back of my van for a while, and was engulfed by the scent. I’ve had a bit of a problem with hyacinths, to be honest, ever since!’
A complete revelation, walking the floor with Robbie, was to discover that many orchids – which we’ve always thought of as scent-less – are, in fact, fragrant. ‘‘Lots of orchids don’t smell, but plenty of hybrid orchids nowadays do have a scent – so always sniff before you buy. These marmalade-coloured orchids smell amazingly of marmalade,’ he pointed out. (And another lime green orchid smelled of… lime!) ‘A single stem in a vase is all you need with these,’ he points out.
‘Phlox are inexpensive and good value. They’re better as part of a mixed arrangement, as an accent flower – hard to arrange, on their own. Many have a scent, but I like the white ones best, when I can find them: the scent’s deliciously honey-like.’
‘Roses are just beginning to be bred for scent again, as well as their beauty. The David Austin roses are amazing, and a company called Yves Piaget is creating some incredible perfumed varieties for arranging. If you’re into scented flowers, you’ll probably need to ask a florist to get fragrant roses in specially for you, though – you won’t find anything with a whiff in a garage forecourt, that’s for sure!’
We’re contemplating a ‘scented safari’ for our Perfume Society readers to Covent Garden with Robbie in early summer, when scented flowers will be at their peak. If you’d be interested in joining us one morning from 7.45 – 9.15 a.m., e-mail us here.
Meanwhile, for more about Robbie – and those candles (which you can see below) – do check out his website.
By Jo Fairley