The Phantom Jasmine
First the old, reliable route: south through Laurel Canyon, windows rolled down, heading in from the Valley. It’s not there. But maybe that’s just the time, the tides, the sun, the heat, the wonky growing cycle of island plants brought to desert climes. So, onward. West along Mulholland Drive to Malibu, then east, around Griffith Park and down through Silver Lake. Not a trace. Somewhere in our gleaming metropolis the air must still be sweet and heavy, somewhere the night-blooming jasmine must be sending out its heady fragrance — its thin petals greenish white under the streetlights, its dark leaves rustling — but I can’t smell it. Farther south, then, crisscrossing Koreatown and Leimert Park and Culver City. Nothing. The other city scents are still there. The sharp, pungent whiff of eucalyptus that doesn’t quite match its silvery tendrils of peeling bark; the faint, sickly-sweet rot of old wood and fallen fruit; the sunny, slightly medicinal chaparral and sagebrush that waft in from the Santa Monica Mountains; the sticky salt mist of sea; the honeysuckle and oleander and magnolia; the agapanthus and bougainvillea, all just barely perceptible yet very much there.
But it’s the overpowering night-blooming jasmine that should hold it all together. I grew up here, deep in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, and didn’t realize how tightly my sense of Los Angeles was bound up in that nighttime scent until I left, and came back, again and again. Home is the place that waits for you, its familiar smells always within reach.
When I meet Tristan Brando (no relation to that Brando), who created the culty Monyette Paris perfume and is now working on a series of scents based on Los Angeles streets, it seems possible to capture the elusive scent of this city at night. Brando’s father used to own a plant store on Sunset Boulevard, right where the Mondrian is today, and she grew up with a keen sense of the city’s botanical history. Of the fragrant plants that we now associate with the city, only a few are native. The chaparral is entirely of this land, a tough undergrowth that persists through drought, flood and fire. Australian eucalyptus was introduced by Venice fantasist Abbot Kinney in the late 19th century. Jacaranda trees came in from Brazil, trumpet vine from Mexico and magnolias from the American South. Ours is a constantly changing olfactory landscape; each generation of Angelenos grows up sniffing a different city.
“You know,” says Brando, “the night-blooming jasmine in L.A. isn’t really jasmine.” It’s from a different family of plant, she explains, but the scent is very close to a true jasmine, with the added headiness of gardenia. Turns out that night-blooming jasmine isn’t even night blooming. Instead, its bloom cycle operates on an internal clock that isn’t affected by the sun. Tristan has been experimenting for years with jasmine essences from Tunisia, Egypt and France, mixing in hints of vanilla or ylang-ylang to add a lush creaminess. “But it’s still not exactly there yet,” she says. A kilogram of jasmine oil needs millions of petals and can cost more than $10,000, making perfumery a game for the meticulous and the obsessed, or the very, very rich. I am none of those.
Next, I meet Alexandra Balahoutis (stepdaughter of Jerry Bruckheimer), a young, Venice-based perfumer with a Hollywood clientele and a taste for the ?esoteric. At her Abbot Kinney Boulevard boutique, Strange Invisible Perfumes, Alexandra creates custom “scent portraits” that evolve from long conversations with clients. What if Los Angeles came to her for a scent portrait of itself? She doesn’t hesitate: “Jasmine, with magnolia to richen it and sweeten it, then to lift it just a little bit, orange blossom and lemon, not even a perceptible amount, but enough to give it crispness. For the base note I would do honey and a hibiscus seed to give it a pale musk quality, and over it I’d want a veil of wildflowers.” Alexandra, dedicated to botanical perfumery, created a line that doesn’t use synthetics or fixatives. There is something deliciously feral, almost obscene, about this; pounds of flowers are crushed and mixed with liquid from the musky perineal sacs of animals that we would never let into our backyards, much less our walk-in closets.
Smell is our most primal sense. The olfactory bulb is nestled right inside the limbic system, that reptilian brain that is our earliest thinking mechanism and the seat of emotion and memory, where we make split-second decisions to flee or fall in love. More than the scent itself, it is that summer-night feeling I want to re-create, that moment when all is right in the world and anything might happen, when the fragrant evening breeze is a cool reward for suffering the heat of the day. There is something so romantic, pure and not at all innocent about perfumery. But in the end it’s too contained for me. I want the nighttime scent of Los Angeles to be accessible, but unbound.
I turn to Nancy Goslee Power, an East Coast transplant who designed the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Sitting in her gorgeous home garden, Nancy starts by calling off my quest. “Oh,” she says, “I don’t have night-blooming jasmine here. It’s too strong. A few houses away is close enough for me.” Instead, her ideal scent garden would have ginger, rosemary, freesia (though only in spring), Burmese honeysuckle, polyanthemum and the infinitely more subtle star jasmine. And, she adds, there would be a hint of the Santa Anas. “There’s a weird kind of fragrance with that wind. It’s snappy. It brings the smell of mesquite down from the hills.”
Nancy may not want any night-blooming jasmine in her garden, but she does know its true identity: Cestrum nocturnum, a member of the nightshade family, a relative of tomatoes, eggplant and tobacco. And, more menacingly, belladonna and henbane, two plants beloved by witches. Nightshades, including Cestrum nocturnum, contain scopolamine and atropine, hallucinatory alkaloids that produce a sense of flying when ingested. Ancient moon worshipers and practitioners of dark arts made a salve of the plants and, as the legend goes, applied it with a broomstick, leading to the whole flying-witches mythos.
Cestrum nocturnum, then, is a trickster of a plant, the perfect flower for a city that’s full of secrets, where the land can never be laid flat, even on celluloid. It might smell sweet, but it’s a toxic, head-spinning sweetness. Maybe smell is like desire. Try too hard to grasp it, to examine it, to catalog it, and it slips away in a haze of unseen molecules. Close your eyes, let the kiss come and it is perfect, delicious, seductive; turn on the lights and suddenly it’s all teeth and lips and tongue and saliva.
Tristan Brando’s Monyette ParisScent Bar 8327 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 782-8300 or www.luckyscent.com
Strange Invisible Perfumes 1138 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 314-1555 or www.siperfumes.com
Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 821-3222 or www.arboretum.org
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