Wednesday, August 23, 2006
The plant of the day for Fructidor 6 is the tuberose (polianthos tuberose). It is a member of the Agave family, and blooms in July and August. The name tuberosa comes from the tubers from which it grows. The flowers appear on tall (3 to 4 foot) spikes; they look like waxy, white trumpets and have an intensely sweet fragrance. Like many night-blooming flowers, including its cousin the century plant, it is pollinated by moths. I was lucky enough to have a century plant blooming on my block last year at this time. It was heavenly. Maybe I will be so lucky as to find some tuberoses this year.
The tuberose was first grown in Mexico where it was known as omixochitl or bone-flower. It has always been cultivated. Chelsie Vandaveer features it in an interesting article under the title “What plant never grows in the wild?”
It was brought to Europe around the 16th century (VandaVeer says 1550; Elliott says 1629) and became popular because of its beauty and scent. Louis XIV placed an order for 10,000 to be grown in the flower beds at Trianon. In Italy, and in Grasse, France, they were grown in large quantities for the perfume industry. Tuberoses had been imported to the Philippines before Europe, which is why they are sometimes thought of as native to East India. Fashionable florist Shane Connolly features tuberoses threaded into garlands and laid on the tablecloth for the centerpiece of an Indian feast. In Hawaiian culture, the bride wears a wreath of tuberose and pikaki flowers around her head during the wedding. They have always been popular flowers for weddings and for leis.
Lisa Maliga has an interesting article on the tuberose at
The scent of the tuberose, like the jasmine and other highly scented flowers, cannot be extracted through steam distillation like other scents. Instead the scent is captured using a technique called enfleurage, which was first developed in ancient Egypt but was used extensively in Grasse, France. It is explained at this web site
A mixture of pork, lard and beef suet is smeared on a glass plate placed in a wooden frame. The fat absorbs the scent and the flowers are replaced with fresh until the fat is thoroughly saturated with the scent. Then the fragrant oil is extracted from the fat by dissolving it in an alcohol solvent. This mixture is chilled and filtered to remove all the fat. Then the alcohol is evaporated leaving the very expensive substance known as absolute of tuberose. Nowadays the scent is more likely to be extracted using a chemical solvent.
I found a wonderful blog about perfumes by Victoria who featured tuberose as the scent of the week in June of 2005. I love her description of the scent: “Solvent extracted tuberose absolute opens up with a faint green note before warming into a sweet jasmine-like scent underscored by a rubbery accord. It vacillates between assuming a mineral and a warm skin form, while the creamy layers of honeyed sweetness undulate slowly over this odd, but fascinating accord. It never remains at rest, however, and while the absolute remains on the skin, the radiant floral sweetness paired with the profound sensuality of the dark carnal base never ceases to mystify.”
See her site for more information and more comments:
For a chemical analysis of this scent, see this interesting site:
According to this website
it takes 40,000 tuberoses to make one pound of tuberose enfluerage. (Of course, they are trying to sell their very expensive perfume.)
In the language of the flowers, the tuberose means voluptuousness, sentiment, dangerous pleasures, and le plus loin, le plus cher (the farther away, the dearer).
Connolly, Shane, Table Flowers, Trafalgar Square Publishing 1996
Elliott, Brent, An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower, Royal Horticultural Society 2001
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of the Flowers: A History, University of Virginia Press 1995
The photograph of the tuberose comes from the web site of the Mellano family florists who will sell you tuberoses via the Internet: