Lemon verbena is not, it has to be said, the most beautiful shrub in the world, though it’s easy enough to grow in a sunny corner. Its long woody stems give it a rather ungainly appearance, with tufts of spear-shaped leaves at their ends, which appear so late in the season that I’ve often wondered whether the one in my garden was dead.
Aloysia citrodora, to give it its Latin name, grows wild across much of South America, and like so many other garden plants it was brought to Europe by Portuguese and Spanish colonists at some point in the seventeenth century.
Though you wouldn’t grow lemon verbena for its shape, its leaves are a different matter. Long, narrow and folded neatly in half along their length, they are bright green, shiny, and rather rough and sticky to the touch. But what makes them special is the scent they release when crushed, which is so deliriously refreshing that, once I’ve started sniffing them, I find it extremely hard to stop. They make a fine herbal tea (the verveine in which Proust dipped his famous madeleine) and an even finer perfume.
As both its common and Latin names suggest, lemon verbena has a lemony scent – yet that hardly does it justice. Lemons may have a wonderfully fresh, sharp tanginess of their own, but it’s accompanied by the sour, mouth-puckering sharpness of their taste. Lemon verbena has none of that. It has all the freshness of lemon, for sure, but mixed with a gentle sweetness that never becomes cloying, however often you smell it.
This sherbety, sorbet-y scent has all the innocence of childhood: just smelling it can give me the giggles. It might not be the most sophisticated fragrance in the world, but I can think of few better pick-me-ups on a dull dark morning, or for that matter on a sultry summer’s day. And what I love about Monsieur Balmain is that it smells pretty much exactly like lemon verbena, with little else to distract your attention – and why would you want to have your attention distracted from such a delicious scent?
Perfume buffs will already know that Monsieur Balmain was originally created by Germaine Cellier, who was the perfumer behind such justly famous fragrances as Fracas, Bandit, Vent Vert and Jolie Madame. Cellier died in 1976, and Monsieur Balmain was relaunched in 1991 in a new – but apparently faithful – reformulation by Calice Becker, the creator of (among many others) Tommy Girl and Dior’s J’Adore. More recently its bottle has also been redesigned, which means that my illustration is already out of date. For once, though, the new design is classier than the old one, so all respect to Balmain (or rather to Inter Parfums, the company that recently bought Balmain’s perfume licence).