Fougere Perfumes and Fragrant Ferns

The first abstract fragrance in modern perfumery is considered to be Houbigant’s Fougère Royale created in 1882. Since I didn’t find myself around ferns (fougère in French) often enough, I assumed that they are scentless, and that’s the reason Fougère Royale must be pure fantasy. Its creator Paul Parquet had to use his imagination to create an intensely aromatic accord by blending the synthetic material coumarin into citrus, lavender, rose geranium, amber, musk and oakmoss.

Then I had a revelation. My Estonian friend, who has long tempted me with her eloquent descriptions of Baltic woodlands, whisked me off to her family cottage set on the edge of a fairy-tale forest. The light diffused by the evergreen canopy cast a soft glow onto the golden tree trunks and the quilt of emerald mosses. I noticed the scent of pine balsam and damp foliage. I lowered my face to a cluster of ferns and they too had a scent—loamy earth, spice and hay.

Since then, I’ve taking every opportunity to smell any fern that crosses my path, and I’m discovering that not only do ferns have an aroma, it varies depending on the species. The gigantic tropical ferns at the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken smell like waxy caramel. The ginger fronds in my grandmother’s garden have the bitterness of thyme. The hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula, is appropriated named—it smells deliciously of sun warmed grass. Is it possible that Parquet too knew the scent of fern?

In more than one hundred years since Fougère Royale’s birth, the fougère family has evolved dramatically, but all its members have the mosaic quality of the original. In his authoritative Fragrances of the World classification, Michael Edwards places fougère in the center of the perfume wheel to reflect this multifaceted nature—floral, citrusy, herbal, mossy, ambery. Parquet created both a beautiful scent and a recognizable accord, a combination of several materials that future perfumers could explore in different contexts.

And explore they did. Fougères can be brusque but curvaceous beauties in the shape of Jean Naté, dreamers like Yohji Yamamoto’s Yohji Homme or dandies à la Histoires de Parfums’s 1725 Casanova. However, the most popular avatar today has a leather jacket and chest hair and traces its origins to Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir and Davidoff Cool Water. Such perfumes comprise a large portion of the blue tinted offerings with “Pour Homme”– lest anyone be deceived –in their names. Penhaligon’s Sartorial is one of the more interesting examples.

My scented fern fantasy revealed itself in DelRae’s Eau Illuminée. The perfume’s surprise is iris, a material derived from the root of the orris plant. Its scent is reminiscent of violets and frozen carrots. Eau Illuminée’s iris as inserted into a fougère accord creates a curious illusion–once bergamot and lavender quiet down and mossy woods linger on my skin, I smell ferns from a rain drenched Estonian forest.

Are you a fan of fougère perfumes? Do you have any favorites to add to my list?

Houbigant’s Fougère Royale ad; fern image by Bois de Jasmin

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38 Comments

  • Cornelia Blimber: A soap: French Fern by Morny.
    Sadly I don’t find it anymore. June 14, 2021 at 7:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I would have loved to try it! June 14, 2021 at 9:03am Reply

  • Cole: I’m a big fan of fougeres. Nobile 1942 – Fougere Nobile is one of my favorites. June 14, 2021 at 9:47am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely one of my favorites too. June 14, 2021 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Dorothy Van Daele: Love Le 3e Homme de Caron, a seductive scent. June 14, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

  • Deborah: Will be in Provence in July. I would appreciate
    any advice on places to visit that concern perfumes and fragrances. Thank you!
    Love your work!!! June 14, 2021 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: How lucky! It’s such a good to go. I taught a few perfume classes in Provence, and you can check this tag for articles that mention various interesting places we visited:
      https://boisdejasmin.com/tag/provence June 14, 2021 at 1:39pm Reply

  • John: I love fougères but find that some of the old ones I still love (Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, Azzaro Pour Homme) are not what they once were. Like Dorothy I own and love Le 3e de Caron and wear it mostly on the wet side of winter when all that clove feels just right.

    I recently revisited Fahrenheit (I used to wear it as a teenager and my wife has a soft spot for those memories and bought me a bottle) and was surprised to find the fern structure hidden within all of that violet and leather. What a beautiful composition it (still!) is… Though I can’t imagine wearing it to work, I will certainly need to spend more time with it again now that the possibility of actual date nights is on the horizon…

    I have not yet tried a few of the newer revisitations of the fern but am curious… MFK Masculin Pluriel is likely a bit too expensive for me to form a relationship (as are some of those private collection Tom Fords, which may be capriciously discontinued at any moment anyway). I do mean to eventually acquire a sample of Diptyque’s Eau de Minthé as the comparisons to Drakkar Noir (so unexpected from this house!) have me very curious…I’m also a sucker for all of those allusions to Greece and Greek mythology that Diptyque makes. June 14, 2021 at 10:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. From the beginning, Diptyque captured my attention with its Greek mythology allusions. The perfumes were also excellent. In fact, I still wear and enjoy all of those early-days favorites.

      Masculin Pluriel is a good fragrance, but I agree with you that the price is excessive. June 14, 2021 at 1:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I forgot to add that you’re right about classical fougères not being what they once were. The culprit is usually the oakmoss in their base. Once that part needs to be reformulated, it’s hard to retain the same cool-warm effect. June 14, 2021 at 1:42pm Reply

      • John: Hi Victoria,

        I had not thought about the notion of a cool-warm base but now I see it. I realize it aligns with sensations that some fougères have given me that I’ve tended to think of as humid or earthy (hairy?) vs. airy…

        On that note, I might have been a little hard on Paco Rabanne. I still wear it periodically, especially in the summer when the soapy opening feels like an appropriate start to the day, and it combines so well with Pinaud Clubman as an aftershave (a product that still features oakmoss with a venerable history in North America). I wore Paco Rabanne yesterday and noticed how much the herbal-musk drydown still appeals to me…Though it must be greatly reduced, I notice that current bottling put out by Puig still has oakmoss listed as an ingredient. Though I am sure that it cannot be much, I do notice a textural association (a kind of woodsy fuzziness) that I associate with moss. June 14, 2021 at 2:12pm Reply

        • Victoria: This family is about textural effects, so I agree with your description. I also find geranium to smell fuzzy/fizzy in some contexts, although I wonder if I simply associate the texture of the plant with the scent. June 16, 2021 at 4:12am Reply

  • Emily: Erawan! By Dusita. There’s something sacred about it for me. Soul-soothing. June 14, 2021 at 3:01pm Reply

  • Fazal: When I think about fougeres, I usually see two different styles. The old fougeres did not seem to have that strong ‘geraniumy’ (for lack of better word) vibe. I feel that modern perceptions of a fougere fragrance has been shaped by Drakkar Noir more than any other fragrance.
    As much as Drakkar Noir is maligned by fragrance collectors now, it remains the most influential fougere fragrance in my book over the last 4 decades.

    I have been surprised at times to see discontinued fragrances being appraised in forums as well as being sold in $200s-$400s price range on ebay that were clearly inspired by Drakkar Noir yet the same people would barely touch Drakkar Noir. One of my favorite examples in this regard is Gucci Nobile Pour Homme. I got my hand on an early version of Gucci Nobile and was surprised at how clearly I could see the connection between it and Drakkar Noir. June 14, 2021 at 3:13pm Reply

    • John: Hi Fazal,

      I don’t think my education is extensive enough to judge, but I have read others agree with you, with some citing the big dose of dihydromyrcenol in Drakkar Noir as part of what made it so distinctive… it’s interesting that you can almost trace a progression of influential ferns from Paco Rabanne and Azzaro to Drakkar Noir to Cool Water, all of which had big doses (perhaps progressively increasing doses?) of the detergent-esqe material. I am curious —do you still wear Drakkar? I don’t think I could pull it off, personally, except in winter weather, but in that situation it’s diminished strength is a bit of a weak spot for me. I am curious about alternatives with a similar profile (thus the Eau de Minthe reference above), and have also heard mostly positive reviews of a dupe perfume oil, Al Rehab’s Dakkar… do you have any thoughts? June 14, 2021 at 10:35pm Reply

      • Fazal: I have Drakkar Noir in my collection but I don’t usually wear it. I have some perfumes in collection that I do not enjoy/wear a lot but still want to own them because they have shaped perfumery as we know it and it’s fun to take a whiff from time to time to reminisce about times gone by. This is also why when I decide to add a perfume to my collection, I aim for their early batches so that I experience their uncensored versions.

        While I don’t remember when I wore Drakkar last time, I do think it is a fragrance I can bring myself to enjoy occasionally. I feel that Drakkar is a pretty appropriate wear when the weather is really hot because its composition has a certain ‘energizing’ vibe. June 14, 2021 at 11:00pm Reply

      • Fazal: I forgot to add but Houbigant Duc de Vervins is often mentioned as a close dupe of Drakkar Noir. I like Drakkar Noir more but Duc de Vervins composition does come across as more herbal to my nose, especially in the drydown stage. June 14, 2021 at 11:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: True. Drakkar Noir was so popular that I once even heard people refer to it as a mass market/drugstore perfume. Of course, it was anything but. I once worked with the perfumer who made it, Pierre Wargnye, and it was interesting to smell his other fragrances that also had a bit of Drakkar Noir accord. June 16, 2021 at 4:10am Reply

      • Fazal: Interesting comment. Going to Google now what other fragrances Wargnye made. June 16, 2021 at 9:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: He mostly worked on masculine fragrances that people describe as burly and hair-chested. 🙂 June 20, 2021 at 6:47am Reply

  • Vi: My favorite fougere is Invasion Barbare, by Parfums MDCI. There’s a crisp elegance to it that’s balanced by softer undertones, like wearing a pressed white shirt with jeans. June 14, 2021 at 11:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a great description! June 16, 2021 at 4:08am Reply

  • Nancy Chan: I like Davidoff’s Cool Water. It smells fresh and very appropriate for the summer. I would like to sample for fragrances I’m the Fougere family. June 15, 2021 at 9:59am Reply

    • Nancy Chan: Would like to sample more fragrances in the Fougere family. June 15, 2021 at 10:00am Reply

      • Victoria: The list above is a small sampling, but it’s a good place to start. June 16, 2021 at 4:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I also like it, but in small quantities. It’s really well-crafted. June 16, 2021 at 4:06am Reply

  • Ewan: Apologies if this is too off-topic for this post but I would like to recommend a book to read while surrounded by the fragrance or fragrances that set the imagination alight.

    ‘ A Cardinal of the Medici: Being the Memoirs of the Nameless Mother of the Cardinal Ippolito de Medici ‘ by Mrs. Hicks Beach June 16, 2021 at 3:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Not off-topic at all! Thank you very much for the recommendation. June 16, 2021 at 4:04am Reply

      • Klaas: Hello Victoria, your description of the Estonian woods reminded me of a similar scent experience I had in Wales a few years ago. I too thought that ferns didn’t smell much, until my partner and I went for a wonderful hike in the Snowdonian hills (and got completely lost, which is a different story altogether!). The valley we walked through was covered in ferns, and when the sun came out after the rain and warmed up the ferns and the grass the smell was unbelievable! Green, sweet, like hay, but also earthy, wet and damp and a little bit herbaceous. It was like walking through a scent cloud and I remember clearly thinking about the fougère accord then! I wish I could have bottled that air…..

        The aforementioned Erawan is a very interesting, modern fougere, though I don’t think it’s got any lavender in it…..it does catch that lovely sweet hay note (coumarine?) and combines it with sage. It’s lovely in summer. Old Mouchoir de Monsieur was another glorious fougere. Of the dandy category I think (and shamelessly fecal it was too!) June 16, 2021 at 5:38pm Reply

        • Victoria: These days fougères can also play with the composition, using other aromatic herbal notes instead of lavender. The effect is more modern (but less fougère-like), of course. June 20, 2021 at 6:47am Reply

  • Ewan: ” A pilgrimage which includes babes, young boys, and women is of necessity an unhurried affair, and, after leaving the Flaminian gate, it was over two weeks before we came to the porto Romano of Florence. It was spring weather, and all the land was in a riot of growth. The campagna itself had its harvest of poppies, growing in profusion among giant fennel and tall purple thistles, and, beyond its wastes, were vineyards full of dwarg grapes, groves of acacia bursting into bloom, and vetches fragrant along the dustiest highway; while on the mountain roads where the allanthus trees displayed their fan-like foliage , feathery pinks, white and red, tumbled in clusters and campanulas pushed their way through the trailing clematis. Each day had new beauties and fresh experiences in weather that was nearly unfailing in its serenity. All the past seemed improbable, and all the future ill-begotten necessity.”
    From ‘ A Cardinal of the Medici’ by Mrs. Hicks Beach June 17, 2021 at 3:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for this! June 20, 2021 at 6:48am Reply

      • Ewan: It’s a pleasure. June 20, 2021 at 8:26am Reply

  • Ninon: I dislike with the herbal “barbershop” notes in traditional fougeres, especially lavender, mint, etc. That said, I do love fern, hay, and artemisia–PdN Vie de Chateau and Nasomatto Absinth are favorites. June 17, 2021 at 8:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: Great choices, these ones! June 20, 2021 at 6:49am Reply

  • Karina: I always thought fougeres are not for me, because of the hairy chested association. Even though I adore the scents of woods, leaves, grasses, herbs and the great outdoors. However I recently discovered „Fougere Emeraude“ by Les Indemodables which opened my eyes to the possibilities of fougere. It’s a fougere with tuberose ❤️ June 23, 2021 at 3:24am Reply

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