Perfume Trees

Sarina's Kitchen, a restaurant in nearby Mersing has a terrific aspect. The dining terrace, it's architecture and decor inspired by owner Mariam's vacations in Bali, takes full advantage of this with a stunning view of her property full of mature trees as it slopes away to the sea in the distance. Mariam pointed out a Nutmeg tree and then a Bunga Chempaka or Michelia Champaca tree. It was surprising to make that shift in perception from something you know only as something dried, ground, extracted, processed, and generally found in a bottle to something real, alive and whole.

I can't exactly recall if the flower was pale yellow which could mean it is a Michelia Champaca Rajiana or as the photo on the left seems to imply that it was white- in which case it would be Michelia Champaca Alba. Sensing my interest, she points out another large shrub- Bunga Kenanga or Cananga Odorata or Ylang Ylang pictured on the right. The blooms share a similar delicate spidery look.

Michelia Champaca is used in the renowned perfume Joy by Jean Patou. That single blossom in the pic that Mariam very kindly picked to show me scented our journey back home- it was amazing how powerful the scent was in the closed confines of a car. Although floral and perfumey it had an exquisite fragrance, one I would love to be able enjoy more regularly- I'm definitely on  the lookout to own one of my own. The Ylang Ylang, on the other hand, not so much, it was strong and cloyingly sweet. Chandler Burr the NYtimes scent critic describes it as having almost a kerosene quality. It is however a popular component in many perfumes, most notably Chanel No 5.

Despite the fact that these trees are native to the region, sadly, to find them in a garden is rare. One reason is that fruit trees trump them, space is more likely to be accorded to a tree that can provide Mangoes or Jackfruit. Or, garden design here tends to routinely follows two paths- a 'chinese type' garden where there will typically be small ornamental trees like plumerias or pomegranates or a 'modern tropical' idiom of tropical foliage so its usually large palms and assorted 'bulk' foliage trees.

An unusual reason, as Mariam, explained is superstition- perfume trees are thought to attract spirits and unwelcome otherwordly creatures so they tend to be avoided. Eschewing all this, she enjoys  as you can imagine the South China Sea air blended with these natural perfumes wafting in through the windows of her home. Her garden had many other delightful things which I must go back to investigate again - a couple of noteworthy ones- ceramic pots full of Centella Asiatica that she collected from the wilder parts of her property and a large posse of free ranging chickens some of whom were napping in the orchid pots.

I am keen to discover more of these fragrant floral and spice trees to see what they look like, what they smell like in reality as opposed to something in a bottle. There's a garden in Penang called Tropical Spice Garden and there's a Herb and Spice garden in Singapore on Sentosa Island  that I must visit but otherwise the theme of perfume and spice gardens is surprisingly absent from most of the local botanical gardens despite its strong historical significance.

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