Lilac : Perfume Note That Smells of Almonds and Roses

My childhood smelled like crushed strawberries, dirt caked fingers, freshly baked sugar buns, sun dried linens and lilacs. Those few days in the spring when the lilacs would bloom profusely and fill our house with their heady perfume were enough to leave a lasting memory for years. So whenever I see a lilac bush in bloom, I can’t resist burying my face in the thick foam of its tiny blossoms.  Lilac smells of roses, milky almonds and green leaves. The first whiff is citrusy and fresh; a deeper inhale reveals its haunting accent of decay and mothballs (indole, the same aromatics that give jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom their seductive timbre).

To make a lilac, perfumers use one of those tricks that never fail to make me feel a certain child-like delight. It’s almost magical when it works. You put together rose, lily of the valley, and almond notes, add a hint of clove, and suddenly the mixture will smell of lilac. Of course, the devil is in the details—the proportions need to be perfect, the balance has to be worked out, but since lilacs can’t be processed for their scented oil (at least, not on a commercial scale) this is the next best thing.

In the context of classical fragrances, lilac can hold its own next to other more revered flowers like rose, jasmine and ylang ylang, even though it rarely stars solo. Lilac, like a beautiful ingenue on screen, can add a romantic flair to the main plot. The entire Caron classical collection, from Fleurs de Rocaille to Or et Noir, uses lilac in this manner. Farnesiana treats it softly; intertwined with mimosa and violet, lilac suggests a salty breeze and dew drenched flowers. In En Avion, lilac is warm and inky, a perfect ornament to the brooding darkness of this mossy citrus composition. When I wear Guerlain Après l’Ondée, I find that lilac complements the tenderness of this violet and carnation bouquet.

As a lover of both lilacs and perfumes, I’m out of luck these days because this note is considered old-fashioned and dull. Most fragrance development managers will complain that it smells like a household product. Since the main ingredient used to create a lilac accord, terpineol, has been a common fragrance note in cleaning and air freshener products, there is some truth to this. But it hasn’t stopped me from searching for lilac and discovering the beautiful modern compositions that play up its almond kernel sweetness.

When I crave sheer and radiant lilac, I turn to Frédéric Malle En Passant. It blends the airy freshness of wet leaves, rain soaked blossoms and green almonds to create a fragrance that smells like a walk after a May shower. Gucci Guilty for Her is an effervescent confection that pairs lilac with earthy patchouli and juicy peach. Estée Lauder Pleasures uses a touch of lilac to enrich its green rose heart, while a similar accent in Love, Chloé creates a suave, velvety sensation. I was so accustomed to these plush lilac interpretations that I didn’t recognize right away that Gendarme cologne has a fair bit of lilac. Its delicate sweetness lends a pleasant soft note to what could have been an austere citrus and incense fragrance. So who said that lilac is only suitable for Glade?

Do you enjoy lilac (on the branch or in the perfume bottle)? What are your favorite lilac fragrances?

Images: first photo by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved. Second is a painting by Mikhail Vrubel. Lilac (a fragment from the original painting). 1900. Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. wikipedia.org, some rights reserved.

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65 Comments

  • Andy: I love lilacs in all forms, branch and bottle alike. Though I haven’t gotten around to smelling many of the fragrances you’ve listed, I personally point anyone looking for a simple, pure lilac fragrance to Pacifica’s French Lilac. It is very simple, but to me is a dead ringer for lilac. My mother loves the body butter, and though most complain that Pacifica’s scents have poor lasting power, it seems to last the whole day on her. This spring I’ve been bringing lilacs inside, which creates such a pleasant atmosphere, filled with fragrance. May 7, 2012 at 6:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I was enjoying the lilacs at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens a couple of weeks ago, and I noticed how different varieties had different scents. It never occurred to me before. Are there lilacs at the Longwood Gardens?

      Andy, I am trying Pacifica’s collection at your recommendation, so I’ll add French Lilac to my list. I liked their Jasmine very much. It’s a simple jasmine, but very pretty. May 7, 2012 at 10:09am Reply

      • Andy: Longwood has some lilacs, but not in any particularly great amount—their lotuses and waterlilies, however, are a notable fragrant delight in the summer. In any case, what I can appreciate about Pacifica is that their products carry simple, easy to wear scents for an unbeatable price. My fragrant tastes lead me towards simple, natural-smelling fragrances, and I usually crave single, distinct scent notes at a time, rather than complex, unidentifiable accords. Pacifica fragrances aren’t masterpieces, many are very solid for the price (I also love
        their Nerola orange blossom and Mediterranean
        fig fragrances). May 7, 2012 at 5:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: I know what you mean about enjoying simple, nature-like perfumes. I think that they are very few of those that are done perfectly, so whenever I find one, I remain loyal for a long time. Annick Goutal Neroli has been one of my most worn perfumes for this very reason. May 7, 2012 at 7:00pm Reply

      • behemot: I second Pacifica French LIlac fragrance.
        Lilac is my favorite scen, associated with my childhood and Grandma’s house, although I have yet to find a perfect fragrance..
        SL Un Lys has an opening which reminds me a bit of lilac. May 7, 2012 at 5:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ah, how I could I forget Un Lys, which is really a lilac fragrance rather than a lily! One of my favorites from Uncle Serge. Not a complex, intricate blend like Chergui or Tubereuse Criminelle, but still special. May 7, 2012 at 6:59pm Reply

  • Kurt: Lilac Mauve from Yves Rocher, well crafted and deadcheap! Love it. May 7, 2012 at 7:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Yves Rocher perfumes are so good, especially for the price! May 7, 2012 at 10:09am Reply

  • Amer: I used to enjoy lilac much more as a kid as recently I have noticed it has a headache inducing quality (to me). When cut and placed in a vase the scent changes pretty soon to unbearably indolic. As a male I didn’t have much chance to try it in perfumes and I can’t identify it on others very easily although Love by Chloe and Flora Nymphea from aqua allegoria line smell unmistakeably like Lilac to me. I have bought both of these as gifts because I thought they were well ballanced and easy to like and I think this is why Lilac is so common in functional products.
    A few questions came to mind when I read your article. a)Why is it that the natural scent of Lilacs can’t be extracted? It sounds so odd since the scent is so powerfull. b) Isn’t there any Ylang Ylang used in the synthesis of Lilac? It seems to me that it has a striking resemblance sharing the green, heady sweet and airy facets. c) Isn’t lily of the valley simply a mix of jasmine and rose? May 7, 2012 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: There was another lilac in Guerlain’s AA collection, Angelique Lilas, it was nicely done.

      I think that these days lilac extraction is just not commercially viable, since it can be reproduced by blending. The yield is quite low, and the character isn’t what people now think of as lilac. You can make lilac in several different ways, with jasmine, ylang-ylang or any other ingredients, depending on how rich you want it. The most important ingredients for a lilac accord are terpineol (tangy green), phenyl ethyl alcohol (rose) and an almond note (heliotropine). Lily of the valley can be a base or a lily of the valley aroma-material. May 7, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

      • bluegardenia: interesting. i love lilac and find there really aren’t ANY scents i know of that capture the spicy clean white indolic floral smell of my childhood backyard. i’ll keep searching! ps. can lily of the valley be extraced? i’ve always heard it can’t. May 31, 2012 at 3:14am Reply

  • Camilla: Toujours Moi – vintage, lovely and well dosed with Lilac! May 7, 2012 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Mmmm, sounds wonderful. The older perfumes really had a big dose of lilac! May 7, 2012 at 10:16am Reply

  • Suzanna: I’ve had a bottle of En Passant for ages, but I always wonder why I love the scent of lilac but don’t necessarily want to wear it. I, too, grew up with the bushes (lavender, pink, and white) and the smell is intoxicating.

    One day, I decided to wear the EP and it was glorious from start to finish, with its wheat note providing a wonderful dryness to cucumber wetness and the sweet lilac. If there were a more endearing springtime scent, then I don’t know what it is. May 7, 2012 at 9:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I know exactly what you mean. I need to be in a mood for En Passant. It’s a beautiful, delicate fragrance, but sometimes it’s too delicate and too romantic. And then I realized that for me, lilac is romantic and a bit nostalgic, and I don’t always want to pine for the days long gone. As much as these bittersweet recollections can be pleasant, on most days I focus on the present. 🙂 But I still like lilac in the spring. May 7, 2012 at 10:24am Reply

  • Elisa: I think it’s so interesting that cloves (i.e. eugenol) are a component of so many floral scents and fruit flavors. It’s not something I would have picked out of rose or lilac or raspberry before I started obsessing about this stuff.

    I’ve been sticking my face in lilac bushes for the past month too. I find En Passant to be the most realistic lilac fragrance I’ve smelled. I do notice the lilac in Love, Chloe, but thus far I’ve found L,C to be totally overwhelming to my nose, like suffocating in powdered honey. Maybe, paradoxically, I’ll prefer the “Intense” version?! May 7, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Maybe, the Intense version might be more floral and less powdery. That’s often the case with these “more intense” editions.

      Elisa, try cherries macerated in some red wine and a hint of clove. Cherry also has a bit of clove to it, and it really comes out beautifully when you add a little bit of spice to the pie filling, compote or pickle. May 7, 2012 at 10:26am Reply

      • Elisa: That sounds wonderful! May 7, 2012 at 10:33am Reply

        • Victoria: Also, star anise is delicious in cherry compotes. It makes cherry flavor even more intense. May 7, 2012 at 5:29pm Reply

  • kjanicki: I love lilac! En Passant is my favourite, but I also love the lilac in Diptyque’s Jardin Clos. May 7, 2012 at 9:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t smelled Jardin Clos in ages! Thanks for reminding me of it. May 7, 2012 at 10:27am Reply

  • Irem: I have never fully appreciated lilac in perfumery I guess, but I do love it on the branch. We have a pair of old lilac bushes in front of our den. When we open the windows – and the weather cooperates – the whole house smells divine during blooming season. However, these last two years the weather has not been on our side. Our lilacs got ravaged by rain. Their fragrance got almost entirely washed out. Now you have to bury in your nose into the flowers to get any smell. The effect is very different. Closeup the decay is much more pronounced, overpowers the initial whiff of ‘lilac’, I don’t want to keep smelling. But when the fragrance is diffused it really creates a very pleasant, happy atmosphere. On a last note, I haven’t visited En Passant for quite some time, but the lilac bushes in the rain description is spot on: it’s almost a ghost of lilac. Pretty but very week, almost sad if you know that lilac can smell happy, too.
    Thanks for a great post! May 7, 2012 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve put it so well: “almost sad if you know that lilac can smell happy, too”–that’s exactly why I don’t wear En Passant that often. It’s a melancholy scent to me, and as much as lilacs have a nostalgic connotation to me, I still find it a bit too much so. But it’s still very beautiful. May 7, 2012 at 5:19pm Reply

  • Jackie: I love the scent of lilac in a perfume! They are my favorite flowers. To my nose, Ineke “After My Own Heart” has a bright note of lilac, and also Dior “Addict To Life” has a powdery note of lilac in the drydown. May 7, 2012 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Addict to Life didn’t catch my attention, but since you mention that it has lilac, now I must smell it. May 7, 2012 at 5:20pm Reply

  • iodine: We’re having the weirdest spring in Milan, this year and I sort of missed lilacs in bloom! I could just bury my face in a shrub once, quite early at the end of March, while we were having a heatwave (wisteria was in full bloom, too), then the temperatures dropped for the whole month of April and all those beautiful flowers were gone… too bad!
    Ineke’s After my own heart is a nice lilac fragrance, with marine accents- unfortunately I can’t bear aquatic notes, so it doesn’t work for me.. May 7, 2012 at 12:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s too bad! I hate these cold spells late in the spring, because they tend to kill all of the blooming flowers. We had a beautiful week of blossoms a couple of weeks ago, and now it is back to rain and cold winds. May 7, 2012 at 5:21pm Reply

  • maggiecat: I alos grew up with lilacs blooming in the spring and love the scent, though it can be a little too much on its own. I haven’t found the perfect lilac perfume yet – I was so happy to catch a whiff of it in Gucci Guilty, but sprayed on my skin, it simply shouts PATCHOULI! in loud tones. I wish I could find a lilac-based scent and plan to try En Passant as soon as possible. May 7, 2012 at 12:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t mind patchouli, but I agree, Gucci Guilty is very patchouli heavy, which is surprising after the lovely, soft floral opening. If you like lilac, I definitely recommend En Passant. May 7, 2012 at 5:23pm Reply

    • Deborah Lane McGuire: If pure lilac is too much, you might want to try Guerlain’s AA Angelique Lilas. The greeness of the angelica helps to temper the sweetness of the lilac. I think it’s a real winner! I am waiting for a sample of Ineke’s After My Own Heart which I hear is quite nice, too. January 3, 2013 at 7:48pm Reply

  • Dionne: We have a very large lilac bush that grows outside our kitchen window, and it was blooming the weekend we first looked at this house. I joke that it was half the reason we bought the place, as the windows were open and it permeated the house.

    After My Own Heart was my very first indie perfume purchase after falling down the rabbit hole, and although it’s not one I reach for much anymore, it’s perfect at this time of year. And very close in smell to the lilac outside my window. May 7, 2012 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a beautiful vision, Dionne! My husband and I keep driving by a house that has several lilac bushes around it, and we keep joking that we want the house just for the lilacs. So, hey, I can relate. 🙂

      After My Own Heart is so airy and pretty. Did you just get tired of it, or does it have too much competition from your other favorites? May 7, 2012 at 5:27pm Reply

      • behemot: I am on vacation in Krakow and we had a week of a hot weather and, the rain fell. Each house on my street has at least two big lilac trees in different colors, but the light purple flowers prevail. I walked to the park after the rain and the smell was intoxicating. It was so intense, so gorgeous, and so wonderful. When I walked, I thought I have to share this story with Victoria and BSJ Readers. May 7, 2012 at 6:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much for sharing this story! I was working in Krakow (and Warsaw) one summer as a grad student, and I had so much fun there. I was there in the early summer when everything was in bloom. Your story reminded me so poignantly of my visit.

          I hope that you enjoyed your vacation and had some delicious food. May 7, 2012 at 7:03pm Reply

          • behemot: Victoria, How wonderful, I did not know you have been here! The food is really good, especially, if you know where to go eat. ( I can help all readers with good recommendations)
            There is also a new and beautiful niche perfumery in town, Galilu, with Justyna, a wonderful and very professional SA. They carry L”Artisans, Byredo, Diptyque, PG, Miller et Bertaux, Mller and Harris, Santa Maria di Novella, SL, FM Editions de Parfumes, Penhaligons , Heely, and Ecctrentic molecules, Yoy can buy samples and prices are very reasonable. A pleasure to visit. May 8, 2012 at 6:24pm Reply

            • Victoria: I would love some recommendations from you, because I have to make a return trip soon. My Krakow’s memories are so great. I loved the architecture, the churches, the beautiful winding streets. Every turn had a revelation of some sort.
              And now you’re telling me that it has some great perfume shopping! 😉 May 9, 2012 at 9:57am Reply

              • behemot: I will do that with pleasure. Let me know when you decide to come to my hometown!
                (I now live in beautiful Pacific Northwest in WA State ) May 9, 2012 at 2:28pm Reply

                • Victoria: Thank you!
                  By the way, I’ve enjoyed traveling through the state of Washington. If we didn’t live on the East Coast, that’s where we would have liked to move. The nature there is spectacular, and the smell of evergreen trees was like a presence in itself. Now, you’ve made me remember all of these wonderful experiences… 🙂 May 9, 2012 at 2:34pm Reply

                  • behemot: I am glad you liked it 🙂 May 9, 2012 at 2:45pm Reply

      • Dionne: It’s more competition than being tired of it. Also, I crave lilac smells in the spring, but where I live spring lasts all of a month after a long winter, and then summer comes full-bore, and my cravings turn to fig, cassis and verbena. May 8, 2012 at 1:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: You wrote, “fig, cassis and verbena,” and I’m thinking, “hey, that would make a great summer dessert.” 🙂 And of course, great summer perfumes! May 9, 2012 at 9:58am Reply

  • Nikki: Wonderful lilac memories! I also love lilacs, all kinds from white to lilac to the double purple ones! My grandmother got married in 1933 with a white lilac bouquet. I like Rochester Lilac which is a true lilac scent. May 7, 2012 at 1:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: Do you have a picture of your grandmother? I can just imagine how beautiful she must have looked (and smelled,) even though that decade was so tough. May 7, 2012 at 5:28pm Reply

    • behemot: It must have been
      a wonderful bouquet May 8, 2012 at 6:26pm Reply

  • Dain: I so appreciate your doing a piece on lilacs. I’ve been craving one, but I find most compositions lean too heavily on heliotrope, which, as much as I like it, isn’t what I want from lilacs. So, I agree with your fondness for En Passant.

    What do you think of Highland Lilac? May 7, 2012 at 8:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also prefer rosy, sheer lilacs, rather than sweet and powdery ones. I haven’t tried Highland Lilac, but it sounds interesting. I also just learned that Rochester NY is the Lilac capital of the world. Who knew! 🙂 May 7, 2012 at 9:25pm Reply

    • bluegardenia: i agree. i find the pacifica lilac very almondy (heliotropin i’m assuming). let’s see, what else have i tried? the camille beckman lilac is nice (sort of soapy i think) but a bit cheap smelling, caswell massey’s lilac pretty good but not amazing, jardin clos too dull and watery, un lys more of a spicy and vanillic casablanca lily, en passant beautiful but not sweet enough. the body shop had a lilac in the 90s that wasn’t bad but also wasn’t remarkable. and crabtree and evelyn had a really nice ‘persian lilac’ lotion that i stockpiled at one point (i ran out long ago). i remember santa maria novella had a lilac but it’s gone now, and diptyque had the also-discontinued lilac room spray which i loved (i still love the candle). i need to try after my own heart as well as i profumi di firenze’s lilac soliflore. and i really must try highland lilac again if i can find my sample.
      i grew up near rochester and once went to their annual lilac festival which was really stunning. it was less of a ‘festival’ than a huge rambling park filled with purple, dark purple, and white lilac bushes of all shapes and sizes and scents. pretty much like being in heaven. May 31, 2012 at 3:49am Reply

  • Moi: I was born and raised in Albuquerque and always knew when spring had finally arrived by the riot of color and scent provided by our neighborhood landscaping staples: Spanish broom, bearded iris, and towering lilac bushes. To this day, these smells say “home” to me, lilac especially. It is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite smells, and I would give anything for a perfume that faithfully captured that particular smell of lilac, unadulterated, except perhaps by hot asphalt and newly mown grass. May 7, 2012 at 10:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: It sounds like such a wonderful memory of spring that I can smell it all as I read your comment. Spanish broom is wonderful–that rich honeyed fragrance makes me think of linden, but naughtier and darker.

      I love old neighborhoods in New York, Brooklyn, where you see old lilac shrubs and locust trees. In spring, the scents can be so heady. Locust tree blossoms are my other perfume wish. May 8, 2012 at 9:15am Reply

  • Natalie: Count me in as one who has a sentimental but very real appreciation for lilacs. They are favorites of my Grandma, my Mom, and now me.

    I find it very hard to wear lilac fragrances, generally, but lately have been able to wear Jo Malone’s White Lilac and Rhubarb. May 7, 2012 at 11:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: White Lilac and Rhubarb is getting some nice comments! Lilac and mimosa are the favorites among the women in my family as well, and my mother has been known to cross town if she heard that a particular florist is selling these cut flowers. May 8, 2012 at 9:33am Reply

  • Undina: I love lilac! And I’m constantly looking for a true lilac scent. Last year for my Single Note Exploration I tested several lilac perfumes and liked Highlander Lilac to be the most realistic (I hope I remembered the name correctly – I can’t check it now from iPad, but I’ll check tomorrow and write if I’m mistaken). Pacific French Lilac was just excellent for the price.
    Now I’m preparing this year’s take on the same note but since I’ve just started the testing I can’t tell yet if I like any of those more. Though I do like Jo Malone’s White Lilac & Rhubarb and bought already a bottle. But the las year favorite might still hold the spot. May 8, 2012 at 12:22am Reply

    • Victoria: I love your Explorations, and I enjoy reading about them! 🙂 I’ve smelled White Lilac & Rhubarb recently and liked it very much. It’s exactly the kind of simple, single note (well, more or less in this case) perfume that Andy was mentioning a few comments up. Very easy to wear, and it makes me feel uplifted. May 8, 2012 at 9:19am Reply

  • Joan: I love lilac soooo much. I didn’t know there were any lilac perfumes. Thanks for the suggestion. May 8, 2012 at 5:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome, Joan! Hope that you can try some of these (as well as what others mentioned in the comments) and see if they match your own lilac vision. 🙂 May 9, 2012 at 9:55am Reply

  • Jenny: I feel the same way about burying my face in lilacs. I’ve only lived a few years of my adult life in places where lilacs are common. For me, my very favorite is Vacances; mimosa is another favorite note of mine. Pacifica is my favorite straight-up lilac as well. I think the lilac is actually the best of their scents. May 11, 2012 at 3:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love Vacances, and I miss it. As much as I wish that Jean Patou would bring it back, I worry that it will come back as a fruity floral. May 11, 2012 at 9:19am Reply

  • bluegardenia: i just did some reading and now i must try vacances. it sounds heavenly. i also need to try SIP persica, flora nymphea, toujours moi, and yves rocher… thank you for all of these! May 31, 2012 at 4:06am Reply

  • Annunziata: In the middle of summer, many weeks past the lilac time, I felt a sudden, anachronistic yearning for the scent and looked up this thread. I also love Rochester Lilac, which is such a simple and very pure, realistic lilac. Lilacs and roses are my favorite flowers…the fact that the former only appear briefly each spring, makes them even more precious to me. I’m going to try to the Jo Malone Lilac and Rhubarb.

    @Nikki, how gorgeous your grandmother’s wedding bouquet must have been! July 8, 2013 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you tried Yves Rocher Lilas? It might have been discontinued, but it was the best lilac. I like Jo Malone’s lilac too, but it’s more abstract, less like a real blossom than Lilas.

      I’ve missed lilacs this year, so I’m also craving them. July 8, 2013 at 6:39pm Reply

  • martha24: Lilac bushes – how pretty they look and smell. They have fascinated me since my childhood too. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to try Idylle Jasmin-Lilas 2013 and I fell in love with this fragrance instantly. I never smelled last years version, but this is really the great big lilac bush I have been longing for! August 27, 2013 at 11:58am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Amazing how different perceptions can be! In my view, En Passant is not melancholic at all. Romantic, yes, but rather radiant than sad. I love it very much . To be honest, I like it better than Après L”Ondée (although I own it and like it)—Après L’O has a touch of sentimentality.

    It is so subjective and therefore so interesting. November 1, 2014 at 5:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that’s what it makes it all so much fun and so enjoyable to share. Everyone brings them own reflections and observations. November 2, 2014 at 6:42am Reply

  • lissclarke: this brought my childhood back to me. Lilac is my favorite scent, much like you it was part of my childhood. I did not know about how they made the perfume.

    Thanks so much for sharing! This was fun to read. July 10, 2015 at 12:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! Lilac is such an interesting aroma, and it’s really complex. July 13, 2015 at 3:31pm Reply

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