is for Gardenia
I’ve been thinking a lot about brains lately, curious about what triggers thoughts and memories, and imagining synapses being tickled and chemicals released that somehow open the drawers of filing cabinets and pull out relevant facts upon request.
Like many people, scent can be a great memory activator for me. And I thought about that last night as I was pouring some scented elixir into a bath. I thought about how such activity has long been part of my life – originating in my early years by gifts from my grandmother. She’d proffer boxes that contained little packets of bath powders. It was exquisite torture trying to decide which of the scented envelopes to choose – jasmine, tuberose, and gardenia were my very favorite.
Nowadays those seem like particularly old-fashioned scents, but I hold them with great fondness. And seeing as today I’m visiting the letter G in this abecedarium, Gardenia seems like the perfect flower to honor.
Gardenia is a member of the Rubiaceae family of plants which includes coffee as well, and was native to China where it’s been cultivated for well over a thousand years. The flowers are delicate, somewhat wax-like, and prone to bruising so care needs to be taken handling them. But it’s the spicy intoxicating scent that is so appealing.
Billie Holiday wore them as her signature adornment; Frida Kahlo grew them in her gardens, and later a huge market for gardenia corsages developed. By 1945 over 3 million gardenias were being shipped annually, and worn by brides and prom attendees.
While primarily valued for its scent, gardenias are also used for their healing, culinary, and magical properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, gardenia is prescribed for yin deficiency, for cooling blood, and soothing burns. Gardenia fruit contains yellow pigments that are used as a spice and coloring, often substituting for saffron.
Gardenia essential oil is rare and extremely expensive as it takes so many petals to distill. So likely, any gardenia fragrance you come upon that’s not from sniffing an actual flower, is synthetic. If you do grow your own flowers, they can be infused into an oil which is lovely as well.
Gardenias were sacred to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, because of their intoxicating scent. It was believed their scent was able to transport one to Elysium.
That may well explain why I love gardenias so much. I would certainly plant them in my garden if I lived in a more tropical clime.
Are you a fan of gardenias? Have favorite scents that are linked to your childhood? Enjoy your encounters with Morpheus? Do tell – you know I love to hear.