Corsican Eucalyptus and the Scent of the Maquis

A few years ago I met a woman who talked about her fiendishly complex emigration from Russia to Israel in the ’80s and how instead of Jerusalem she ended up living for a year in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica. I asked what Corsica was like, my own mental image comprised mostly of Napoleon, the French Foreign Legion, and Laetitia Casta. She reflected for a moment and then said that it smelled heavenly. She meant the smell of the maquis. Since then I’ve been obsessed with the maquis, or as it’s known in Corsican, machja.

In Corsica, the maquis is ever-present–this wild scrubland vegetation covers nearly 20% of the island. Even when you don’t see it, it fleets before you in bits of folklore and stories. For instance, the guerilla fighters of the French Resistance in World War II were called maquisards, from the maquis (pronounced in French as ​[maˈki]) that reach up to 10 feet and make for an ideal hiding place. The maquis provides food, medicine, and lore. The scrubland starts at the sea coast–le maquis bas, climbs higher–le maquis moyen, and clings to the mountains–le maquis haut. These low, middle, and high maquis are woven of more than 2,500 varieties of wild plants, and their aromas build up slowly like a pyramid of a perfectly constructed perfume.

To imagine what the maquis smells like you have to conjure up the dry sweetness of thyme and overlay it with the caramelized warmth of lentisk. Then fill the air with the opalescent spice of fennel, the gingerbread richness of laurel, and the icy glitter of mint. Let the maple syrup of the immortelle flow darkly and infuse the scene with the medicinal sharpness of myrtle and rosemary. 

And then there is eucalyptus with its scent of sun-warmed lemon peels and camphor dust. It’s so effervescent and dazzling that it seems inflammable, as if the strike of a match would set the air trembling in blue flames. As I stood inhaling this fragrance and feeling my whole body become warm, I’ve developed another obsession–capturing the scent of the maquis.

As a perfumer, I have long understood that the futility of looking for the exact memories in a bottle of fragrances, however competent. The scent may be captured, but what about the alarming glow of the Corsican sun in August, the sound of the waves crushing against the rocks, the shimmer of light on water, and the feeling of exhilaration?

What is possible, on the other hand, is to find something as a talisman that would bring all of these memories rushing forth–at will. And my Corsican genie-in-a-bottle turned out to be nothing more than a necklace of eucalyptus pods. Eucalyptus was imported into Corsica after WWII as a natural mosquito repellent and was propagated throughout the island (sometimes to the detriment of native plant species). Nevertheless, the scent of eucalyptus became an indelible part of the island’s fragrant mosaic, and eucalyptus pods strung into necklaces are sold everywhere in Corsica. You rub the beads and they smell even stronger, leaving a layer of lemon and camphor on your fingers.

My eucalyptus necklace is almost two years old, but its scent remains pronounced. I read that it will remain so for another eight to ten years. When I hang the necklace on the door handle in my bedroom, it makes the air in the room seem fresher, brighter, livelier. Sometimes I wear it around my neck and then I become my own fragrant memento of Corsica. Either way, it’s a small thing but an immense pleasure.

Note: I bought my eucalyptus necklace from Macchia.fr, a website that offers a variety of Corsican products. Or search Etsy for “eucalyptus seeds” or  “eucalyptus pods.” Making a eucalyptus necklace yourself takes no time at all.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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53 Comments

  • Hilde: Oh yes … I like the smell of herbs: thyme, rosemary, lavender, laurel and eucalyptus.

    Years ago I attended an open door weekend in the Christmas period at a flower shop. It was like a fairytale: the candles, the decoration. The whole shop smelled heavenly. It was there that I smelled for the first time the scent of eucalyptus.
    That very moment I decided to plant myself a eucalyptus tree in my garden. I have had this tree for many years, but at last I had to remove him, because he became too big … a bit because of my own fault.
    Now I only have some thyme and lavander in my garden. Each time when I pass, I go with my hands over the bushes to realise myself how beautiful nature can be. September 13, 2021 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Eucalyptus trees grow really big. It must have smelled wonderful when it was still thriving. And your garden sounds so inviting with its aromas of thyme and lavender. September 18, 2021 at 8:26am Reply

  • Laurie: I’ve never been to Corsica. It’s now near the top of the list of places I feel I must go.
    And, thanks for the Etsy suggestion – I just ordered a eucalyptus seed pod necklace. That scent is a central part of my childhood years and I can’t believe I never thought of having a necklace out of the pods. September 13, 2021 at 9:24am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you’ll enjoy using it. The scent is so bracing and refreshing. September 18, 2021 at 8:27am Reply

  • Rhinda: Ahhh Victoria what a picture you painted! That was a mini vacation for me.
    Thank you! September 13, 2021 at 9:43am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    Thank you for this informative article.

    It’s interesting that you describe the scent of eucalyptus as being “so effervescent and dazzling that it seems inflammable”. Many varieties of eucalyptus are indeed inflammable. This section from gardeningknowhow.com explains the process of ignition.

    “These hardy plants have delightfully scented, volatile oil in all parts of the plant. The tree sheds bark and dead leaves, which make a perfect pile of tinder under the tree too. When the oils in the tree heat up, the plant releases flammable gas, which ignites into a fireball.”

    Unfortunately, this incendiary property of eucalyptus trees helped to spread the terrible bushfires that occurred in Australia during the 2019 – 2020 fire season.

    The following story, from January 2020, discusses the problem.

    Australia fires: Have gum trees made the bushfires worse? – BBC News

    I wouldn’t mind smelling a eucalyptus seed pod necklace, though.

    Oh, and I had to google “lentisk”. I now know a new word and a new resin!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 13, 2021 at 11:35am Reply

    • Rhinda: Golly Tourmaline, I was glad to see your name and post! I thought we’d lost you! September 13, 2021 at 7:57pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Rhinda,

        That is so kind of you; thank you! It’s always gratifying to hear that someone enjoys my comments. Have a look at Victoria’s last post for the reason for my absence – basically being preoccupied with assisting my elderly father.

        I hope you have a great day!

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline September 13, 2021 at 8:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Lentisk has such a beautiful scent! It’s a nice ingredient for warm, woody accords. September 18, 2021 at 8:28am Reply

      • Tourmaline: I look forward to smelling it sometime! September 18, 2021 at 8:32am Reply

      • JulienFromDijon: I love lentisk too. Now I can spot it in fragrances. I love the hint of it in vintage “À la nuit”, in “Chamade”, in “Ninfeo mio”, in “III L’heure vertueuse”, in the discontinued “le temps d’une fête” with daffodils. There is some in the latest Cartier “Luxuriance” in the mainstream “les rivières” line. (The “Allegresse” is a treat too). Maybe I live under the influence of a forgotten souvenir, one of a pistachio ice cream from my childhood.

        It is said that the first batch of synthetic vanilla would leave some guaiacol as impurity. I never smelled it on its own, but it is said to be pollen-like and slightly smoky. Maybe vanilla, benzoin, and lentisk make for a good mix.

        There is immortelle in the latest Lutens “La proie pour l’ombre”, who reminded me of the “Eau noire” of Dior from yore. Maybe there is vanilla pod tincture in it too?!? There is an untraceable leathery tobacco tone aside the licorice, so it could be that.

        (I’m starting to see vanilla pod tincture everywhere -instead of the good synthetic ones or the absolute-. It’s since I heard Guerlain releasing another Shalimar flanker with it “vanilla panifolia”, and because the hair mist “Toison d’or” versions of Lutens seems to toy with a strange ingredient too.)

        About eucalyptus, also in Lutens, “Fils de joie” and then “La dompteuse encagée” feel like “Tubéreuse criminelle” on training wheel, and I like all of them. Aside with the white flowers, there are camphoraceous facets so maybe this is the eucalyptus from their older sister.

        “Oud eternel” from Guerlain smells like eucalyptus for me, though nobody thinks like me. And it’s a good one in a mainstream line! It was a blind buy for me for an affordable second-hand golden bee-bottle. Every perfume in this line seems to be a misnomer, the Santal smells like an improved YSL’s M7 oud, and then this oud is not oudy at all (and for the better). September 25, 2021 at 1:14am Reply

  • Sharon Jochimsen: Whenever I think of the time I spent in Corsica the first thing that comes to mind is Le Maquis. I close my eyes and it comes rushing back. There is no way for anyone to adequately describe the experience of being enveloped in that extraordinary fragrance but your description is the best I’ve ever read. Thank you. September 13, 2021 at 11:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t Corsica incredible! It’s worth traveling there for the scent of the maquis alone. September 18, 2021 at 8:29am Reply

  • Aurora: So evocative, thank you Victoria. There is a perfume Corsica Furiosa by Pardum d’Empire, I’ve never tried it and wonder what you think of it. September 13, 2021 at 2:15pm Reply

    • Sebastian: Indeed, a very beautiful description that revives memories of my stay in Corsica. Thank you so much!

      As for Corsica furiosa, I found it very green, dry, a bit spiky – so far, so good. But also rather linear, lacking lustre, somewhat synthetic, and nowhere near as complex as the maquis. A nice summer scent nonetheless. September 14, 2021 at 3:38pm Reply

      • Aurora: Hi Sebastian: Thank you very much for the description of Corsica Furiosa, I’m half French but have never been to Corsica, now with Victoria’s experience and yours I will dream of going. Maybe for an evocative Corsican perfume I will stick to the immortelle in Annick Goutal Sables. September 15, 2021 at 1:14pm Reply

      • Victoria: I agree with this description. Perhaps I had too high expectations going in, but in the end, Corsica Furiosa didn’t capture my attention. It’s a good perfume, objectively speaking, but it doesn’t smell of the maquis. September 18, 2021 at 8:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I liked it, but to me it doesn’t really smell of the maquis. The impression is of crushed tomato leaves, rather than wild herbs. September 18, 2021 at 8:30am Reply

  • Fazal: Are these necklaces for women or unisex? If not, what fragrant items from Corsica do you suggest for men? September 13, 2021 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Marco: They’re for everyone. My mother puts them in every room to refreshen it up. I’m from Corsica. 🙂 September 14, 2021 at 12:36am Reply

      • Fazal: Oh, you put them in the room. I thought they are wearable pieces of jewelry. September 14, 2021 at 6:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: They are a natural version of scented car trees. 🙂 September 18, 2021 at 8:56am Reply

  • Tara C: I love PdE Corsica Furiosa and Immortelle Corse and look forward to trying the new Mal-Aimé. We have lots of eucalyptus in California so I know the scent well. September 13, 2021 at 3:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also look forward to that perfume. September 18, 2021 at 8:55am Reply

  • Nancy Chan: The eucalyptus seed pod necklace looks really interesting, almost like rosary beads. I had no idea there were eucalyptus trees in Corsica. The plant that I immediately think of in Corsica is the imortelle.

    Both eucalyptus and imortelle essential oils feature in the L’Occitane’s Aromachologie soaps. I have to say I really like the aroma of eucalyptus, tangy and almost menthol like. My favourite bath oil by Olverum, also features eucalyptus, and other essential oils which make for a fragrant bath. I highly recommend it to all bath oil lovers. September 13, 2021 at 4:03pm Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: thank you, Nancy! There is a L’Occitane shop here in Amsterdam, I will look out for that soap.
      My grand parents had eucalyptus pods at Christmas time. Reading this post I was back in Sittard, in the south of the Netherlands. September 14, 2021 at 4:26pm Reply

      • Nancy Chan: Hi Cornelia, Oh do try these soaps. The Imortelle (uplifting range) soap was on my next shopping list, but Diptyque’s Tam Dao soap beat it to the front of the queue. September 17, 2021 at 5:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried that brand of bath oils, but you made it sound very tempting. September 18, 2021 at 8:55am Reply

      • Nancy Chan: I learned of this brand by a YouTuber, Matilda on Video. September 19, 2021 at 10:11am Reply

  • Emma Adams: One day Victoria, you should spend some time in the Australian bush. Eucalyptus, wattle (mimosa), pittosporum, and other exquisitely scented native plants unique to the world. Being there is also different to scent in a bottle, hot sun on dry rocks, each change in the direction of breeze with a different facet. September 13, 2021 at 4:27pm Reply

    • Nancy Chan: Hi Emma, I love fluffy yellow Mimosa flowers! The beautiful powdery almond like scent is just lovely. September 14, 2021 at 5:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: I would love that. It sounds wonderful. September 18, 2021 at 8:55am Reply

  • Bregje: Oh wow, that sounds heavenly!
    I had never heard of maquis but now i want it for the garden of my new house:). And a perfume with the scents you describe i would buy. September 13, 2021 at 4:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: I ordered lots of aromatic plants from a site in the Netherlands called Palmaverde. I only have a balcony, but even so, many have taken off. September 18, 2021 at 8:54am Reply

      • Bregje: Thanks for the tip! September 18, 2021 at 1:13pm Reply

      • Bregje: Up to now,i’ve only had a balcony too. But i’ve been able to grow oleanders,rosemary,mint,azalea’s and hortensia. I am really looking forward to having a real yard now. I’ve already purchased 4 kinds of jasmin,wisteria,sage and i was given a fig tree for my birthday. My beloved oleanders and rosemary are moving with me. I imagine it’s going to smell like a mediterranean dream in a few years 🙂 September 19, 2021 at 4:28pm Reply

  • Anastasia: Great description Victoria! I am very familiar with these dry herbal smells, being Greek. You’ve made these simple bushes (φρύγανα in Greek) sound glorious. Indeed, especially in spring when many of these bushes bloom the smell is exquisite.
    I also love the eucalyptus smell! My florist adds some eucalyptus branches to the roses bouquet that I buy every now and then and I love to rub the eucalyptus leaves and smell them, a camphorous animalic smell that I love! I had no idea that eucalyptus seed pods existed! I ordered 2 necklaces, one for the car and one for my study! Thank you Victoria! September 14, 2021 at 3:00pm Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: Ah, Greece! Greece is so fragrant! Not only herbs, also flowers.
      I love Cartier La Panthere because it reminds me of the Greek gardenia flowers, September 14, 2021 at 4:34pm Reply

      • Anastasia: I love La pantere too! I love La panthere too! It’s in my top 10 fragrances. And now as we speak I have a gardenia flower next to me cut this morning from my pot. Gardenias are still in full bloom here in Greece. What an intoxicating smell! September 14, 2021 at 4:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Greece is another land of wild herbs and intense summery scents. When I was visiting two years ago, I bought huge bundles of oregano, and whenever I cook with it, it makes me daydream. September 18, 2021 at 8:52am Reply

      • Anastasia: Yes! these bundles of dried oregano, such a strong smell!  And you carried it all the way from Greece! Your luggage must have been very fragrant for days! September 18, 2021 at 9:06am Reply

        • Victoria: It was! I cook with the leaves and put thicker stems into my tea. September 18, 2021 at 9:42am Reply

  • Marianne: Having grown up in Australia the scent of eucalyptus, or gum trees, is very .familiar. A walk almost anywhere gives the opportunity to admire the beauty and variety of these trees, including massive, tall spreading specimens, gorgeous flowering gums and Tasmania’s beautiful blue gums with their whorls of blue-green leaves. I love to casually take a leaf, rub it between my fingers and release the oil’s clean, fresh aroma.

    From childhood we’ve used the oil as medicine by adding a few drops to steaming water to clear a cold or sinus headache. It’s a useful disinfectant too and readily available on local supermarket shelves in laundry and cleaning products. A bottle of eucalyptus oil is inexpensive and can be used to wipe over surfaces, it’s also great for removing stubborn stickers! I’ve sometimes put drops of the oil on a tissue placed in a pocket to enjoy the scent.

    I love to hear the wild screeches as families of mighty black cockatoos wheel down the mountain to the suburbs to gorge on gumtree flowers, before disappearing back up into the wilderness. They are my favourites even though it’s wonderful when flocks of white galahs call to each other as they ride the air currents above the suburban streets looking for treats and water. There’s a family of them living nearby.

    Another quintessential Australian and New Zealand scent is tea tree oil, or melaleuca oil. This is seriously good for skin healing and a host of other treatments, and has a strong, clean aroma somewhat evocative of eucalyptus oil. And now I’m reminded of kunzea oil which is being used in natural skincare products. September 15, 2021 at 7:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Such gorgeous scents! Your comment conjured up a whole vivid scenery for me. September 18, 2021 at 8:50am Reply

      • Marianne: Thank you Victoria. There’s much beauty in wild places. I’ve never been to Corsica though your writing describes it in a way that connects through affinity with nature. I could almost hear the buzz of many bees in the scented air, and see the shimmer of numerous insects.

        I feel lucky to live in a place surrounded by forests and sea here ‘on the other side of the world’ knowing that just such beauty, somewhat different yet familiar, exists in places like Corsica. September 20, 2021 at 7:12am Reply

  • Frances: Good afternoon Victoria and Bois de Jasmin’s readers,

    I am a long “ghost reader” from Corsica and I thought this post about our beloved scented machja was a spot on opportunity to start commenting on this beautiful blog.

    Victoria, I was already aware of your interest in Corsica (culture, landscape or even food) by reading your reviews about Parfum d’Empire. I think you mentioned your friend back then so it’s nice to hear the story more in details. I asked my father who know more about traditions than I do about these necklaces and he told me it was very common to find houses full of eucalyptus in the past. He told me people used eucalyptus indoors to prevent getting a cold by keeping the air fresh and pure. They even stuffed their pockets with leaves surely to preserve the clothes from moths. It is very nice to see those kind of traditions maintained and even expanded through internet selling. I live in the north of Corsica and I have a very big garden which shelters a huge variety of trees from orange and lemon trees to olive tree and lime tree and some others I won’t list because it would take time so I let you and your readers imagine the olfactory concerto! And I used to have an eucalyptus in this garden. It was truly gigantic with an impressive height of 11 meters. We used to burn the leaves in the fire come winter times. But as the neighborhood expanded along with the tree growth its height became a real hazard for the houses near by (especially when the wind was strong) so we had to cut it. It was so huge that it kind of collapsed: the roots went off and in the end there was no eucalyptus left to start anew. I still feel sad thinking about it. Maybe I should plant a new one. Anyway the same misfortune happened years before to the mimosa tree whose roots threatened our house. I mention it because I know there are a lot of mimosa’s lovers around here and every time they mention the scent of it the image and fragrance of this tree spring to mind in all its yellow glory.

    So thank you for your post: it is a great reminder to not take things for granted when they are so reachable to us. Seeing Corsica’s beauty through the eyes of people who admire it from afar and can’t wait to visit time and time again is always and interesting experience and an heart warming one at that. September 15, 2021 at 10:06am Reply

    • katherine x: Frances -So lovely of you to share your thoughts and to describe the beauty of Corsica from such a familiar and personal perspective. Thank you! I have only heard wonderful things about it from my husband who vacationed there many times in his teens. I thought it interesting how often he talks of Corsica’s beauty and character. He is from Provence France, another glorious and scent-filled part of the world. And I recall the blast of scent that filled the house after my children would come inside from playing in fields of thyme, lavender, sage, rosemary, at his childhood home. The air outside could be scented with cypress and pine. Amazing places… September 16, 2021 at 9:09pm Reply

      • Frances: Thank you very much Katherine, I’m glad you enjoyed the evocation of these scented memories and it is so nice to hear about your husband spending time in Corsica and loving it. Plus, discovering a place in the formative years of teenage hood is always a precious experience. My father actually spent his childhood on the Coast of Azure and my mother worked near Grasse at some point (and was forever in awe of the perfumers’ craft over here). I myself visited Cannes, Nice and Marseille but never had the chance to go deeper inland and see these beaufitul lavender fields or go for a walk through the garrigues. The image of your children coming home scented from the nature outside is a beautiful poetic one I think. Provence, Corsica and Italy, especially Tuscany are sisters in scent, landscape and even sound with the cicadas! And taste if course. I don’t know for Italy because the honey I favour from there is the sweet delicate orange blossom honey but honey from the garrigues and honey from the maquis are twins in strong flavor and richness. September 17, 2021 at 10:05am Reply

        • katherine x: Hi Frances, thanks again. Thank you so much again for sharing your stories. Brought a smile to Arnaud’s face. And thanks for putting a name to the fragrant fields my children and their cousins played in and whose scent they carried forth: garrigues – learned something new today – as always on Victoria’s blog. So many wonderful people concentrated in one small place – thanks to Victoria. September 18, 2021 at 9:33am Reply

          • Victoria: Thank you very much to both of you for such a delightful exchange. 🙂 The whole thread is a pleasure to read. September 18, 2021 at 9:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your beautiful comment, Frances. It was a pleasure to read it and imagine all of the scent you’ve described. Makes me want to return to l’Île de Beauté soon.
      I have another favorite fragrance from Corsica, népéta. I first smelled it in Italy, and in Corsica it has a particularly strong fragrance. I even planted it on my balcony, and it’s in bloom right now. September 18, 2021 at 8:49am Reply

      • Frances: Thank you Victoria, I’m glad you enjoyed my post, it was an imaginary scented gift with just the right amount of September sunbeams (September is by the way a great time to visit Corsica, alongside autumn and spring, for the ones who want to avoid the summer rush) 🙂 You’re right, corsican népéta is so much stronger than italian one. You’re a great cook so you will have fun using it in your recipes now it’s in bloom. September 20, 2021 at 11:50am Reply

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