I ran past a hedge of lilacs this weekend. The wind was blowing just right so that their heady scent washed over me and the smell threw me solidly back to childhood.
Two lilac trees bloomed in the backyard of the house I grew up in and all spring I would smell them while practicing how many cartwheels I could do in a row.
Scent researchers say that our scent memory is our oldest. Does that also make it our wisest?
Our sense of smell not only brings us memories, it also tells us practical things like if food has gone bad and some even say it helps us know if our mate is right for us. And yet, we so rarely pay attention to scent as it happens. (Flower markets and perfume counters excepted.)
Photos have made it so easy to capture visual memory, recording devices, sound. Taste and touch seem to be repeated often and catalogued. (Excellent oysters in France, great massage in Switzerland. How often do you say, “Oh, Kauai, it smells amazing there.” Even though it does.)
But I think part of what makes scent memory so magical is that it comes to us in such a beautifully fleeting way—a whiff of lilac on a salty ocean breeze. One moment, and it’s done.
In my travels in the beauty world, I’ve come across only two products that approximate that smell of fresh lilacs that I associate so strongly with childhood. (One is this Diptyque Lilas Candle and the other is a discontinued Red Flower Lilac Body Wash.) I’ve wondered why this is—how is it that one of my favorite scents from childhood is so hard to re-create? Why is it that some scents, like lavender, seem to come in every possible form, while others are so rare?
To answer this, I spoke with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, a natural perfumer and scent expert based in Boulder, CO. She explained that there are three reasons:
1. Lilacs are fragile. They can’t be distilled like regular essential oils because heat changes the scent, so the oil that’s yielded smells of ‘old’ lilacs not fresh ones.
2. Lilacs bloom for a short time each year and are difficult to grow for commercial use.
3. Synthetic lilac aroma is considered “close enough” for most people.
I guess it’s appropriate—lilacs are fleeting in nature and wily enough to make it impossible to capture their fresh scent, making them beguiling and beautiful when you encounter them for the briefest of time each spring.
Ah, their craftiness just makes me like them more!