There is an accepted story in perfumery that the first abstract fragrance was Houbigant’s Fougère Royale (£105 for 100ml EDP) created by Paul Parquet in 1882. Since ferns (fougères in French) are scentless – so went the argument – Parquet used his imagination to create an accord by blending the synthetic material coumarin (a compound found in many plants) with citrus, lavender, rose geranium, amber, musk and oakmoss. I don’t find myself around ferns very often, so I accepted the conventional wisdom and admired Parquet’s genius.
But last year I had a revelation. An Estonian friend, who has long tempted me with her eloquent descriptions of Baltic woodlands, whisked me off to her family cottage set on the edge of a fairytale forest. The light diffused by the evergreen canopy cast a soft glow onto the golden tree trunks and the quilt of emerald mosses. I noticed the scent of pine balsam and damp foliage. I lowered my face to a cluster of ferns and they too had a scent – loamy earth and hay.
Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity to smell any fern that crosses my path, and I’m discovering that not only do ferns have an aroma, but that it varies depending on the species. The gigantic tropical ferns at the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken in Belgium smell like waxy caramel. The ginger fronds in my grandmother’s garden have the bitterness of thyme. The hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula, is appropriately named – it smells deliciously of sun-warmed grass. Is it possible that Parquet too knew the scent of fern?
In the more than 125 years since Fougère Royale’s birth, the fougère family has evolved dramatically, but all its members have the mosaic quality of the original scent. In his authoritative Fragrances of the World classification, Michael Edwards places fougère in the centre of the perfume wheel to reflect its multifaceted nature – floral, citrusy, herbal, mossy, ambery. Parquet created both a beautiful scent and a recognisable accord, a combination of several materials that future perfumers could explore in different contexts.
And explore they did. Fougères can be brusque, but curvaceous beauties in the shape of Revlon’s Jean Naté for women (£14.99 for 887ml After Bath Splash), dreamers like Yohji Yamamoto’s Yohji Homme (£45 for 50ml EDT) or dandies à la Histoires de Parfums’ 1725 Casanova (€155 for 120ml EDP). But by far the most popular avatar today has a leather jacket and chest hair and traces its origins to Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (£24.99 for 100ml EDT) and Davidoff Cool Water (£24.99 for 75ml EDT). Such perfumes comprise a large portion of the blue-tinted offerings, labelled “Pour Homme” lest anyone be deceived. Penhaligon’s Sartorial (£88 for 100ml EDT) is one of the more interesting examples.
My scented-fern fantasy revealed itself in Parfums Delrae’s Eau Illuminée ($135 for 50ml EDP). The perfume’s surprise is orris, its scent reminiscent of violets and frozen carrots, and when this is inserted into a fougère accord it creates a curious illusion – once bergamot and lavender quiet down and mossy woods linger on my skin, I smell ferns from a rain-drenched Estonian forest.