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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Softest of Greens: Fern Notes in Perfume

By Donna

I have always had a special fondness for the aroma of ferns. Growing up in the country, I spent a lot of time in the woods and fields, only coming home reluctantly when dusk began to fall or hunger called. One of my favorite things was the fragrance of the ferns growing on the forest floor. In spring their pretty unfurling was a sure sign of life returning after the long winter; in summer they smelled fresh and cooling, and as autumn arrived and they began to turn a golden color along with the tree leaves above, they gave off a wonderful hay-like sweetness.

A few years after I left country life behind I found a perfume that smelled so much like the gentle ferns of my childhood that I fell in love with it on the spot. It was called Frond, by an obscure maker, which was then called Vincent, and it purported to be the aroma of the wild ferns, heather and wildflowers of the Irish countryside. I have no idea now if it was actually made entirely from materials sourced in the Emerald Isle, but it surely did smell like it. I love green scents, but sometimes a change from the usual exhilarating sharpness of galbanum, mint, lemongrass, and other materials commonly used in green perfumes can be nice. For the tenderest green effect imaginable, look no further than fern, and Frond was just like walking along a dew-drenched Irish hillside. Something reminded me about this one not long ago, and I decided to see if it was still around. I did locate it, but it's in a new style of bottle and is stated to have rose, sandalwood and ylang ylang in it, which I certainly did not remember from the original formula. It is being made a by a company that seems to cater mainly to the tourist trade and has changed its name too; the Web site has this a nice story about how the new owners of the brand came to be in the perfume business. I decided to look for an online auction, and lo and behold, there was one bottle of the old style for sale. I won it (for less than five dollars, one of the perks of being a fan of obscure fragrances), and when it arrived I was amazed to discover that it was in perfect condition, and smelling damply and deliciously of ferns and mosses. I have been wearing it a lot and I can see myself splashing it on even more as the weather warms up.

(Another feminine perfume from the same house was called Ilaun, and it shared the ferny, mossy aspect of Frond in its base. Both are made by the Burren Perfumery in County Clare, Ireland. Has anyone tried either one of these in their current formulation, and are they any good?)

Not everyone can find a vintage bottle of Frond, so what else is out there? I recently got a sample of a delightful fragrance called Wild Fern by Geo F. Trumper; It's meant for gentlemen, indeed the fougère style scents are almost exclusively found in masculines now, which I think it a pity. It is very green, refreshing and not too sweet, just a nice hay-like coumarin character along with the green, and has just a hint of something that might brand it as a “manly” fragrance, but that should not stop women from trying it by any means. If I had a full bottle of this I would have no trouble keeping it in frequent rotation all summer long. Another nice thing is that this line is very affordable, even after making the necessary conversions from English pounds sterling to USD; they are based in London and seem to have just about everything a man could want or need in the way of fragrances and grooming products.

Now that I have tried the Wild Fern, I am curious about Penhaligons English Fern, though I understand it is quite heavy on the lavender. Penhaligons' perfumes and I have always gotten along just fine, but I have not really explored their masculine fragrances the way I should have done. If I want more ferns in my life I will probably have to smell a lot of men's fragrances anyway.

So many men's fragrances that are fougères do not actually have much in the way of green “ferniness” to them and they usually have various aromatic elements such as lavender, sage, woods and other notes that keep the green character from expressing itself. They also tend to lean more toward the coumarin, or hay aroma, than the greener aspect of fresh fern. I love both kinds but I would seek out these greener versions if I knew more about which ones fit the description. (The original scent that gave its name to the genre, Houbigant's Fougère Royale from 1882, had lavender and other herbals in it; and it is supposedly being re-released sometime in 2010, but from what I know of Houbigant's recent history, I fear that the new version will not be up to par, since the house is only a name now with no connection to its origins. I would love to smell this the way it once was.)

Another ferny fragrance is the lovely Champaca Bloom & Fern by Voluspa, a house that is better know for its excellent home fragrances and candles. It is one of the softest perfumes I have ever smelled, and the champaca is perfectly matched with the green notes. It is like a whisper of fresh, moist magnolia without the soapy character so often found in commercial fragrances said to have magnolia in them. These are synthetic compositions that often disappoint people who are looking for a true-to-life magnolia perfume. I have a generous vial of this that I received in a swap, and I am trying to hoard it, but I like wearing it so much that it's not going to last much longer. It's one of the few feminine scents I have run across that feature fern in a starring role, and I wish there were more of them. Of course, since it's by Voluspa, it also comes in room spray, diffuser oil and a candle.

So, does anyone else have a favorite fern scent? I would love to explore more of these gentle green perfumes, but they are not exactly trendy or cutting edge, and fern is usually relegated to either a supporting role or as the base of very traditional men's products. For me they are restful, soothing and a most welcome alternative in the spectrum of green fragrances.

Image credit: Polypody fern growing wild in the Burren region of Ireland, from

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Blogger Ines said...

I tried Burren's Ilaun and Frond 2 years ago, and I liked both, but Ilaun is the one I plan on ordering but somehow end up postponing. And it's not really expensive, 50ml for 35,50 euros.

4:11 AM EDT  
Blogger Anatole Lebreton said...

Thanks for this one. I'm so tired of reading that ferns don't smell! As a kid I used to build huts with ferns and wood and loved the smell of it from green to dry. Especially the kind that grows in Britany/bretagne in early spring: if I remenber well my chemistry lessons, it's the smell of an ester "strawberry" like, green, fresh and fruity. For me fern smells like strawberry leaves.
So I'd be happy to find a real fern scent, " a gentle green perfume" as you say, but really, I'm not found of Fougère perfumes, the lavender+ coumarine type, especially since dihydromycenol came on the scene.
The more aproaching I could think of is Papyrus de ciane by Parfumerie Générale.

2:08 PM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

I don't -- but I WANT one! I love the way they smell.

4:17 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Ines, they are indeed very reasonably priced! I have not seen Ilaun for a long time, and it was also very good, so I hope it still is.

10:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Anatole, I am happy to see another fern fan here! I would suggest that you try the Wild Fern by Trumper, it is really nice and soft.

Papyrus de Ciane is definitely on my list of perfumes I want to try!

10:42 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Ducks, I know the feeling! :-)

10:43 PM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...


Penhaligon's English Fern is very nice, but it's more soapy lavender than it is fern.

I would love to smell one that's real fern..

11:50 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks Tom, that's good to know, I think I will stick with the Trumper stuff, it's awesome!

2:27 AM EDT  
Anonymous eleven european mystics said...

Ferns, forest undergrowth...I have been craving something that is ethereal, earthy and green...To one of Tom's reviews I owe the winter version of that craving, satisfied by Filles en Aiguilles. Sadly, English Fern by Penh. is one of those fragrances capable of draining the self from all sensuality, converting one into an anhedonic in no time. Thanks for the names you suggested, and do please drop as many more names as possible.

5:41 AM EDT  
Anonymous Marian said...

I recently purchased an EO called "Sweet Fern" hoping to experience what, as a person who's lived in a big city all my life, I imagine ferns smell like. I should have done my homework because it turns out that Sweet Fern is not a fern at all :-( It smells sweet and resinous with hints of hay and seltzer. Thanks for the fern suggestions. I'm sure any of the examples you mention would have been a better choice.

9:36 PM EDT  
Anonymous Mimi Gardenia said...

The Voluspa Champaca and Fern is lovely- I nearly did buy it from Anthropolige last weekend !

12:03 PM EDT  
Blogger Solander said...

I think Penhaligon's English Fern does have something of that sweetish, licorice-like quality of ferns - though perhaps that's the scent of fern roots rather than fern leaves (There's this tiny fern that grows on mossy stones that's called "stone-sweet" or "licorice-root" in Sweden because the root is sweet and tastes like licorice, though it's not "true" licorice root like the one you make tea from, and I find that the roots of other varieties of fern smell vaguely licorice-like as well.) At least English Fern isn't at all the more common sharply green lavender-herbal composition you find in fougères. I also tried the discontinued L'eau du Caporal from L'Artisan Parfumeur but I didn't like it at all, it was way too sharply herbal for my taste. Fern smell is soft. I'm excited to try to hunt down the fern scents you recommended!

4:19 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice article! Thank you!

5:43 PM EDT  
Anonymous Delaney said...

anatole! I did the exact same thing as a child! The smell of ferns has always captivated me!
I cannot wait to try Burren's Ilaun. I saw it on the website the other day and totally looked over it.
Ill be sure to order some!

D Delaney

9:38 AM EDT  

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