What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Yesterday I discovered that the building where I teach my spring quarter class is surrounded on one side by a multitude of blooming magnolia trees. There are three different types of magnolia, all variations on the deciduous “Japanese” magnolia. The star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, has pure white, delicate-looking flowers and the most delicate scent. It smells sweet, clean, and moist, with only a hint of the spiciness that’s present in the larger magnolia flowers.
The saucer magnolia, Magnolia soulangeana, has the largest flowers of the deciduous magnolias, in colors that range from pure white to pink. The fragrance is also sweet, clean, and moist, but with a distinct spicy note. I think the other trees must be hybrids that are intermediate between the saucer and star magnolia, with flowers that are between the two in both appearance and fragrance.

Most of the magnolias that grow in the Pacific Northwest are the deciduous kind, but every so often I see a nice specimen of Magnolia grandiflora, the evergreen magnolia. I have vivid memories of a Magnolia grandiflora tree that grew in front of one place we lived when I was a child. The tree itself was intimidating with its blackish trunk and branches, its wide shiny leaves, and the fact that nothing else would grow under it. Despite the imposing bulk and sinister appearance of the tree, I loved the heady scent of the huge white flowers, a clean, sweet scent with camphorous and spicy notes. My brother and I, together with other kids in the neighborhood would throw the magnolia “cones” at each other, pretending they were hand grenades.

A subgenus of the magnolia family is Michelia. One of my favorite essential oils is Michelia alba, which has some of the same sweet, camphorous and spicy notes as magnolia grandiflora flowers. I’ve used it in several of my perfumes to add a light, spicy, green-floral note.

There’s also Michelia champaca, used to make a floral absolute with a sweet scent that’s a little like green tea with honey.

Magnolias are primitive plants, with fossils dating back to the days of the dinosaurs, and I think that gives them a special mystique. To smell a magnolia flower is to smell the ancient world that existed before we humans were in the picture.

[All flower photos from Wikimedia]


  1. Thank you for describing the scents of these magnolias. It never occurred to me to stop and smell the magnolias! I will take time tomorrow for those now blooming in my garden and remember when I see others in bloom to enjoy the ancient scent. By the way, I also remember some very large and beautiful grandifloras from my childhood years in Florida. The ones I've seen here never seem to be as robust. Probably just a little too cold in the PNW? Or are they different variety of grandiflora? Gail

  2. Gail, I was actually surprised by how much fragrance the Japanese magnolias have. While I was sniffing them, I noticed a student also doing so, kind of furtively looking around to see if anyone was watching. I hope he was relieved to see me smelling the flowers, too!

    The ones at my house haven't bloomed yet, as it's at a slightly higher elevation than the university, which is on the water.

    I don't know whether the grandifloras that grow here are a different variety, but I suspect that all of the cold, cloudy, wet weather damps their enthusiasm somewhat.

  3. The star magnolias are the only ones blooming in my garden right now. We are at approximately 400 ft. elevation. The soulangeana bloom later here too. Gail

  4. I love the scent of saucer magnolias but have been unable to identify any perfume with that fragrance note. Do you know of any? Thanks!