The weather warms, so my gardenia buds open, seeking attention and permeating the night air with their perfume. As I made a study of the fragrance, I decided to write on this nature’s wonder. The common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) has highly fragrant white flowers. In the evening, the opening buds smell slightly green and piquant because of the salicylate aspect. The flowers also smell creamy, recalling coconut and peach skin. There is an unmistakably heady indolic element of jasmine. In ripe blooms, they have a sharp green ‘mushroom’ overtones. Gardenias also share some aspects with lily, lily of the valley, ylang ylang, and a bit of rose.
In terms of composition, (E)-ocimene, linalool, methyl benzoate and a number of tiglates compose the gardenia flower headspace. However, there are likely olfactory variations amongst species. For example, the critically endangered native of Hawaii Gardenia brighamii, as demonstrated by headspace analysis of its gas-phase components, contains 41% methyl benzoate, 13% (3Z)-hex-3-enyl benzoate, 7% indole that recalls ‘white-flower smell’, 7% jasmine lactone that lends the jasminic and coconut touch, and 3.7% (3Z)-hex-3-enyl tiglate that gives the tang of soil fungi and mushrooms to the flower. It is possible to extract the desired fragrance from their flowers by enfleurage as the villagers of Fusagasugà in Colombia have continued to produce gardenia absolute since 1945. However, such enfleurage-derived absolutes are rarely ever produced in industrial scale due to the exorbitant costs involved. And, yet, I have stumbled upon a solvent-extracted absolute of the Tahitian gardenia or Tiaré (Gardenia tahitensis) which can be used in fine fragrances up to 1% of a composition to impart the exotic white-floral quality.
Like many flowers that do not yield the desired quality of their scents or do so at a prohibitive cost of extraction, the smell of gardenia is also the object of fascination in perfumery. Early reconstitutions of gardenia often revolve around a tuberose note and aldehyde C-18 and may eschew styrallyl acetate altogether. Still, most gardenia bases almost always call for it. Such bases rely on its powerful rhubarb-like green note in combination with jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, lilac, and a small amount of orange blossom to render gardenia odour characteristics. But styrallyl acetate is rather harsh, so salicylates may be used to soften it along with aldehyde C-14 and C-18 as modifiers. The top note of such bases may call for aldehyde C-8 to C-12 and citrus oils such as lemon, mandarin, orange, or bergamot. To fix the components, heliotropin, coumarin, musk, labdanum, myrrh, tolu balsam, cinnamic alcohol, and synthetic ambergris may be used. Other aroma chemicals such as the mildly floral ‘gardenia oxide’ (isoamyl benzyl ether) and the citrusy fruity linalyl isovalearate are sometimes incorporated into gardenia compounds. Meanwhile, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, who professes his love of simplicity, draws a more-or-less complete gardenia note with just three ingredients: the fruity sweetness and coconut of aldehyde C-18 (γ-nonalactone), the fresh green of styrallyl acetate (Gardenol), and the Concord-grape sweetness of methyl anthranilate. Indeed, the reconstitution of gardenia is subject to the creative interpretation of the perfumer.
In fine fragrances, gardenia was initially a secondary floral. It formed part of the composition, but was itself not featured. For instance, gardenia found its way into the floral aldehydic L’Aimant (Coty, 1927) via the styrallyl acetate contained in infusions of jasmine, cassie, and tuberose used in the original formula. The green freshness of gardenia pairs well with chypre accords in perfumes such as Bandit (Robert Piguet, 1944), Ma Griffe (Carven, 1947), Miss Dior (1947), Cabochard (Grès, 1959), Coriandre (Jean Couturier, 1973), Michelle (Balenciaga, 1979), and the excellent fruity chypre La Panthère (Cartier, 2014).
Gardenia as main floral theme can be seen starting from soliflores like Gardénia (Chanel, 1925) and Jungle Gardenia (Tuvaché, 1933). If you like your gardenia creamy, Lou Lou (Cacharel, 1987) offers an interesting interpretation of the creamy Tahitian gardenia or Tiaré based on an oriental accord and tuberose. Another very creamy, coconut-like gardenia is Crystal Noir (Versace, 2004). But if you like the company of magnolia and jasmine, the bright gardenia of Un Matin d’Orage (Annick Goutal, 2009) may suit you better. A recent resurgence of the note seems to have produced a slew of gardenias for everyone, ranging from the sombre gardenia of Une Voix Noire (Serge Lutens, 2012), the fruity frangipani and gardenia of Gorgeous Gardenia (Gucci, Flora, 2012), to a full-fledged gardenia offered in the masculine context of Boutonnière No.7 (Arquiste, 2012). But for those who crave a more realistic impression, Gardénia (Robert Piguet, 2014) offers a no-frills flower with minimal contrasts.
As for me, I cannot quite pick a favourite gardenia perfume at the moment. My pot of gardenia has had all the attention from me — perhaps, the only other rivals are the gardenias in my mother’s garden.
Sources: enfleurage.com, firmenich.com, P&F Vol.8 October/November 1983 by Danute Pajaujis Anonis, Perfumery: Practice and Principles; Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, Scents of the Vanishing Flora
- Müller PM, Lamparsky D. Perfumes: Art, Science & Technology. Amsterdam, New York: Elsevier, 1991
- Tamogami S et al. Analysis of enantiomeric ratios of aroma components in several flowers using a Chiramix column. Flavour Fragr J 2004;19:1-5.