Scented Garden : Freesia

Freesia cropped

by Elise Pearlstine

Fresh, light, and yet pervasive is the initial impression I got from a potted freesia (Freesia sp.). As I put my nose to the deep orange blooms and concentrate, I get more nuances. Floral? Yes, light and lovely. Green? Maybe a subtle green like violet leaves. Cool? Definitely, but with a touch of richness like a pure floral sorbet melting in a bowl with a touch of chilled caramel at the edges. Before I bought this plant I tested all of the potted freesias at the market for smell and chose the deep orange-red one for its strong, sweet scent. There were also pale lilac and white varieties; both with a light, sweet floral scent but it’s the orange-red one that I brought home. For days I smell the faint sweetness it gives to the air as it sits in my kitchen by the window.

Freesias are members of the Iris family, Iridaceae. There are 16 species of freesia endemic to southern Africa and many varieties are bred for the fresh and potted flower markets. In their native habitat they may grow anywhere from dry sandy plains to river banks and most species require significant winter rainfall. They sprout in the autumn, which is February or March in the southern hemisphere and flower in the winter or during July and August. The freesia seen for sale is a hybrid bred specifically for market and plants are selected that have 7 or more flowers per spike, large flowers on long stems, pure flower colors, a sweet fragrance, and good disease resistance. Leaves are long and sword-shaped. Flowers are produced at the base of the bloom spike and the blooms progress along the spike, all facing in one direction. They produce underground corms which are thick bulblike bases that serve as storage tissue for nutrients. In freesias, the corm is covered by a tunic of netted fibers.

The genus, Freesia, was not officially described until 1866 and soon became popular with horticulturists. It was kept as a potted plant and both yellow and white varieties could be found; a rose-pink one appeared near the end of the 19th century. As many as 500 million cut flower stems are now produced each year in the Netherlands. Freesias are self-sterile which means the flowers must be fertilized by pollen from another freesia. This method of fertilization (out-crossing) introduces variation into the offspring and makes breeding freesias a little bit unpredictable but interesting.

Freesias can be purchased from a variety of vendors as plants or corms. They prefer soil that drains well and a location with full sun. The corms should be planted 2” deep with the pointed end facing up. Plant them about 3” apart and water freely. You can also plant them about 2” apart in pots with good drainage. Commercial bulbs should grow throughout the winter and produce flowers in the spring. Blooms can be cut to bring indoors for their beautiful scent and color. Freesias are indicated for zones 9 – 11 but need cool winter temperatures. In cold areas they may not re-bloom and can be treated as annuals. But don’t worry, like a rich, cool sorbet that may not last nearly long enough, they are worth it.

Photography by Elise Pearlstine.

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12 Comments

  • Tracy Bloom, LMT: I love freesia! Is it used in perfumes? June 6, 2011 at 8:27am Reply

  • Adrienne Wilson: Loved this article. Freesia’s are one of my favourite early memories from having a childhood garden. They are actually the harbingers of the Southern Hemisphere Spring in New Zealand, and one of the first flowers out in September along with daffodils, tulips, crocus, and hyacinths. The perfume was heady and sort of stuck in our nostrils as we buried our faces in them on the way to school each morning. I’ve yet to discover a perfume that captures the magic of those moments. June 6, 2011 at 9:05am Reply

  • Victoria: The idea of it, yes. It is impossible to derive any scented oil out of freesia, so only the reconstructions are used in perfumes.

    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile June 6, 2011 at 9:37am Reply

  • Elise: Yes, impossible to get the scent so I guess we have to enjoy the blossoms while we can. June 6, 2011 at 10:03am Reply

  • Elise: Hi Adrienne – Thanks for reading. I was unaware that freesia’s are more of a southern hemisphere plant until I researched this blog. I would love to smell them in the wild! June 6, 2011 at 10:04am Reply

  • Michael: What results do you end up with from tincturing or enfleuraging freesia out of curiosity? If anyone has tried. June 6, 2011 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi Michael – I haven’t tried either. I’d also love to hear if anyone has. I know the flowers continue to give off scent after picked so that’s a good sign. June 6, 2011 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Ania: I didn’t know it’s impossible to derive oil from freesia, that’s a pity, because it’s one of my favourite scents. The only parfum I know about that is supposed to smell like a freesia is Ofreesia by Diptyque, but I don’t really like it, it’s too soapy. Any other ideas,please:)? June 6, 2011 at 4:14pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi Ania – I don’t really know perfumes so I can’t help you. I seem to remember some descriptions of a freesia scent as soapy. Also crisp, which I don’t get from the flower. Good luck in your search! June 6, 2011 at 7:40pm Reply

  • OperaFan: I love Freesia, and remember in the early ’90s a celebrity was asked about her perfume. Her response was that she loved the flower and discovered Antonia’s Flowers which is based on the scent of Freesia. It’s not a perfect replica but does possess the spirit of the scent. June 7, 2011 at 12:23pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi OperaFan – Thanks for that information. I had not heard of that. June 7, 2011 at 7:24pm Reply

  • *jen: Excellent subject; one of my favorite flowers!

    When I worked at a florist, I was told to sell freesia for bouquets based on not only the pretty colors but the scent, which can be likened to Fruit Loops! Always gives me a chuckle when I smell them. June 8, 2011 at 8:50pm Reply

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