Cherry blossoms may be the flowers most strongly associated with Japan, but the peony is another beloved bloom. If you visit Tokyo in late spring, you can spend your days wandering the most beautiful peony gardens. Tokyoites might suggest viewing peonies at the Ueno Toshogu shrine located in Ueno Park. Others swear by the exquisite collection at Nishiarai Daishi Sojiji temple or recommend making a train journey to the nearby city of Tsukuba to see its splendid Peony Garden. Wherever you go, you’re bound to discover a riot of colours, textures and, of course, scents.
The most striking peonies are the ones called botan in Japanese, or tree peony. They indeed appear as if they’re growing on trees, and their flowers are much larger than the more familiar stem peonies known as shakuyaku. So varied are their aromas that when I look over my notes from a visit to Tsukuba’s Peony Garden, I see honey and jasmine mentioned next to tobacco and cinnamon. I arrived convinced that all peonies smelled like a rose diluted in green tea, and left with a much more nuanced understanding of these elegant blossoms.
Peonies in perfumery tend to have a close relationship with the rose. Both share a citrusy, fruity fragrance, but while rose can be distilled, peony has to be recreated using a perfumer’s imagination. For this reason, perfumers start with a template of a rose and then build up their own version of a peony. It can be made vibrant like Stella McCartney’s Stella Peony (£42 for 30ml EDT), a flower intensified with notes of mandarin, patchouli and amber. Or peony can be interpreted as effervescent, like Berdoues’s 1902 Pivoine & Rhubarbe (€25 for 100ml EDT) and Louis Vuitton’s Attrape-Rêves (£185 for 100ml EDP). Attrape-Rêves, in particular, explores the rose-like freshness of peony, and it evokes the delicious fantasy of being caught in a shower of flower petals.
Just as “one poem / per blossom is not enough / for a peony”, in the words of the Edo poet Ryumin, the same goes for peony perfumes. The variety of peony accords is as diverse as the scents of blooming botan. One of the least conventional is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Dzongkha (£105 for 100ml EDT). Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour used an accord of peony to build up the opening notes of his composition and complemented the peony’s radiance with cardamom and lychee. While the drydown of Dzongkha is dark and velvety, rich in leather and incense, the shimmer of peony and the cool touch of iris keep the composition airy. The contrast between peony and incense reminds me of flower gardens on temple grounds.
In Japan, peonies symbolise elegance, honour and bravery, and for a fragrance that likewise combines refinement with self-confidence, I couldn’t find a better selection than Parfum Satori’s Black Peony (¥12,000, about £87, for 50ml EDP). It’s all the more fitting because Parfum Satori is a house created by a Tokyo native, Satori Osawa, who uses her Japanese aesthetics and thorough understanding of French techniques to compose distinctive and polished perfumes. In a beguiling twist, Black Peony peels back the gauzy petals to reveal that the most opulent of spring blossoms has a spicy, smouldering heart.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.