Raw Materials A Cascade of Yellow Florals: Translating the Color Signal into Olfactory Constituents

A Cascade of Yellow Florals: Translating the Color Signal into Olfactory Constituents

09/17/13 18:05:41 (9 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

Classification is always a learning tool, a method of organizing one's world, a grammar. In the same regard that scientists and laymen alike classify ideas and objects in order to make their work easier and communicated, perfumers have devised some classifications of odors which answer  to olfactory archetypes. The well known diversification of lumping genres into "fragrance families" comprises just one of them. Among those families, maybe the most populated one, is the floral fragrance family, comprised of scents composed of scents of blossoms, either by natural means, nature identical or abstract reconstitutions that resemble an imaginary hothouse than any real living flower. Amongst florals, however there are seemingly endless nuances and some generally agreed upon subdivisions: white florals, yellow florals, spicy florals and so on.

Perhaps the most well known category among them is "white florals". Mention "white florals" among people into perfume and faces illuminate in recognition. There will be the fans and acolytes of the genre, embracing the gamut from indolic (i.e. intensely heady and exuding intimate scents of human warmth) to clean and pretty. And there will be dissenters too for exactly the same reasons: white florals can be "too much," "too naughty," "too predictable" or "too feminine." The ability to bring the scent memory forth is also an acquired reflex that stretches with a predictable kick at the mere mention of the term. The color coding is easy: white florals are comprised of fragrance notes of white flowers, such as gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine (though the careful perfume lover soon finds out that not all white flowers produce "white floral fragrances" nevertheless!). But what about "yellow florals?" Does the same rule apply? Does the color sign translate into a distinct olfactory family with specific characteristics? The inferred associations present their own fascinating insight into how the mind works.

"To my taste and smell, yellow florals conjure up the texture of bee pollen and a honey-like smell/quality that has a sexy edge to the sweetness. Like smooth honey with a naughty bite to it," says Therese19 on the Perfume of Life board. Katy clarifies further: "On the one hand I think of yellow flower perfumes as an emotional category with bright, light-hearted, 'sunny' perfumes. On the other hand I think of perfumes with the scents of yellow flowers such as mimosa, tagetes (marigolds) osmanthus and linden flowers (although technically, linden and osmanthus flowers are more green in color than yellow). " And then she adds jokingly, "Maybe there is a third category for perfumes in yellow boxes!"

Going by the discussion on the Fragrantica forum itself, that last part isn't far removed from the truth. Almost single-handedly all the referenced perfumes are encased in yellow packaging! Very often this design choice reflects a mimosa- or cassie- dominant fragrance composition: and YET, mimosas and cassie are not yellow florals, despite the visual clue of the fluffy pom-poms erupting on the acacia trees. The odor of mimosa and cassie is anisic, bringing them closer to pastis or ouzo, and to bring a perfume analogy, to L'Heure Bleue (an anisic floral).

Yellow as a color brings forth feelings of optimism, joy, dynamism. The sign of yellow, the signifier derives its power from the most primal symbol of them all: the sun.

It makes perfect sense to choose it for packaging perfume, with the connotations of brightness, luxury and the energy the sun brings. The classification of yellow florals, although not an exact science, follows a common thread, much like it does in white florals, and that thread cannot obey but to the laws of olfaction; namely the scent of the blossoms has shared fragrant molecules.

If natural pigments are responsible for the shade of the vegetal world and particularly of flowers, carotenoids are responsible for the yellow to orange to red coloring that several flowers, fruits and vegetables possess. In plants the brilliant colors of the carotenoids are often masked by chlorophyllic pigments which are naturally green (i.e. in green vegetables and leaves). Sometimes the maturing of the plant means a decrease in the chlorophyll content (a natural part of the catabolic function of the plant) which allows the carotenoids to exhibit their vivid shades at last, such as in most fruits (pineapple, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, strawberry, tomatoes, paprika, rose hips) and many flowers (such as Eschscholtzia californica, i.e. California poppy, freesia, azalea, osmanthus or—with caveat in place on which I will return—narcissus). It's most fascinating to contemplate that even animals are not immune to the magic of carotenoids: just think of the bright colors of the flamingo and the canary bird or of shrimps, lobsters and salmons!

Carotenoids are a class of hydrocarbons (what is referred to as carotenes) and their oxygenated derivatives (the xanthophylls, the word deriving from the Greek ξανθό and φύλλο, denoting exactly "yellow leaf"). The secret is it is exactly the degradation of carotenoids which brings about a an odor. Namely both enzymatic oxidation and photo-oxidation form carbon derivatives (C9 to C13 compounds) which constitute the odor profile of yellow florals and assorted plants, such as beta and alpha ionone, beta damascenone, safranal and isophorone-4-acetylaldehyde. To make this easy on non- chemist inclined types: this fact is what makes black tea, saffron, tomato and osmanthus share more common elements than you thought possible. Yellow florals specifically are rich in beta ionone, a molecule which brings them olfactorily close to roses (which derive a significant—if quantitatively small—constituent of their aroma from beta ionone) and violets (whose odor profile is comprised of the combination of alpha and beta ionone).

Perhaps the most characteristic yellow florals are those built on notes of osmanthus (above) and freesia (below).

Osmanthus is a perfume unto itself: rich and at the same time delicate, with hints of apricot and peach, in fact a pseudo-apricot scent, and facets of soft leather. Osmanthus fragrans Lour. var. aurantiacus, exhibit the highest diversity of carotenoid-derived volatiles among flowering plants examined for degradation odor compounds from carotenoids; its 10% concentration of beta-ionone is worthy of notice. Osmanthus fragrances to explore (often in deliciously yellow tinged packaging) include Osmanthe Yunnan in the boutique exclusive range of Hermes, the Hermessences, Osmanthus Interdite by Parfum d'Empire, the original eau de parfum formula for Dior J'Adore, Osmanthus by the Different Company, Ormonde Jayne Osmanthus (which is on the precipice between flower and fruit) as well as Nuit de Cellophane by Serge Lutens. Amongst them the truest, more realistic rendition is by a Chinese company (fittingly as osmanthus is prized in the country) whose named translates from the Chinese as Ballet. Simply named Osmanthus, it's redolent of the delightful blossom.

Freesia in nature has a lightly spicy (peppery), sweet and happy scent comprised of lots of ionone, as revealed by headspace analysis, especially since freesia doesn't yield its fragrant secrets through the usual perfumery methods and is recreated. Interestingly, the cut blossoms lose some of the ionone content, which is particularly potent in the living flowers. Yellow freesias in particular are differentiated somewhat to the more old-fashioned white freesia variant; look out for the brightly hued "Gold Flame," "Aladdin" and "Rijnveld Golden Yellow" cultivars. Lavender Blue, a perfumista from Australia, had some interesting input when I asked her about yellow florals: "I've seen these [white freesias] listed as Grandma freesias here in Australia. I haven't found a good freesia note in a fine perfume yet. There was one concentrated fragrance oil called Apricot and Freesia which smelt fantastic. The freesia cut the sweetness of the apricot and the actual freesia note read as smooth, clear and crisp but not piercingly sharp. It was brilliant in soaps and body lotions!" White freesias are more spicy and a bit retro. I like Diptyque's Ofresia, though I realize that freesia is a most difficult flower to capture right. It can often come across as screechy or soapy, reminiscent of bath products more than fine fragrance. Antonia's Flowers by Antonia Bellanca Mahoney is an expensive but worthwhile fragrance you should make a mental note to test if you're interested in this particular "yellow floral" representative.

Tagetes erecta (marigold) is another flower rich in carotenoids, though its use as a nutritional supplement is more widespread than its use in perfume (though tagets oil has been used on a small scale to render specific effects in perfumes, for instance in Royal Apothic Marigold Extract), probably because it contains insignificant oxidation products from lutein (in which it is rich) and is predominantly terpenic (i.e. containing terpenes, which have a sharp wine-y, acrid smell resembling turpentine). Champak/champaca, though vividly yellow in color, is loosely connected with the common thread of ionone that unites "yellow florals," its main odor constituents being methyl benzoate and alpha farnese with a hint of peachiness, but ionones contribute to the bouquet as well. Joy by Jean Patou was said to feature an exceptional grade of champaca in its formula.

Boronia megastigmata, an Australian blossom with a sweet and heady scent, is also worthy of mention: a dominant 87% of the volatiles of this rare and beautiful bush are comprised of beta-ionone! Both the concrete and absolute of brown boronia (a bit less pretty than the pink variant, but more scented) are used in perfumery. Lovely renditions of the note include L'Ecume des Jours and Orcas by all-naturals line Ayala Moriel Perfumes, Kismet by Yosh and Passerelle by Tommi Sooni (the latter being nicely Australia-based).

Lastly, narcissus is an interesting case, not being a yellow floral per se, though the gods lie in ambush: although narcissus contains carotenoids, the living flower resembles most not the scent of ionone (violet) but that of para-cresyl acetate which smells of ... horse droppings and of jasmine (it's a sort of pseudo jasmine, the way one could claim osmanthus is a pseudo-apricot). In fact perfumers purposefully employ para-cresyl acetate to imitate the dirty tinge of narcissi in bloom, such as in La XIII Heure in Les Heures de Cartier composed by Mathilde Laurent.

Perfumer Jean Claude Ellena classifies narcissus in the white flowers, obviously leaning into green. The absolute of Narcissus poeticus (highlighted to great aplomb in an all naturals composition, Narcissus Poeticus by Annette Neuffer in her Opulentals range) is decidedly green and earthy, but with a hint of other sweet floral, thus poised between a carnation and hyacinth. Fleur de Narcisse, a limited harvest edition by L'Artisan Parfumeur caught this special earthiness most marvelously, utilizing an exceptional grade of narcissus produced by the Laboratoires Monique Rémy. The jonquil variety of narcissus (Narcissus jonquilla) is a bit sweeter, with a leaning towards the whilte floralcy. Le Temps d'une Fete by Patricia de Nicolai uses a narcissus top note and a heart of jonquil to render the effect in a diptych.

Yellow florals present a tapestry of nuance though as a classification and genre they're still taking baby steps in the consumer's consciousness. Let's hope that this article will spark and awaken interest in exploring the best among the lot!

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.


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Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki


thanks for the heads up, I learn something new every day! I probably should test the Lush scent.


Great article, thanks. Over here in coastal Southern England we have yellow Furze, especially Lush/Gorilla Furze perfume. This is locally made and similar if not better than the mediterranean maqui scents containing Mimosa and Genet.

Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki


thank you very much for your nice compliments and your interesting comment.
Indeed mimosas -as I said to Elena previously- are technically non yellow in hue (rather acacias are, which for some odd reason we call mimosas as well, erroneously!) and as to the scent profile of mimosa and cassie, it's dedidely anisic rather than "yellow". But the association of the mind and the happy, warm and optimistic feel of the scent of the essence and the perfumes that contain it does bring forth sunny thoughts and ergo...yellow.
It's a mind game!

Glad you enjoyed the article!

Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki


Givenchy does some good variants in their Harvest series (certainly superior to the standard fare) and the mimosa and ylang harvest are among the very best.
Most people get a reaction of "yellow" from mimosa, which is rather fun in its own way, because botanically what we call mimosa isn't yellow at all, rather acacias are! But I find that often the reading of the mind is much more powerful and insightful than what a specialist book says: we are sensual creatures and through our senses we interpret the world in nuances formed in our fertile minds.


Nice piece of writing blending palette of color to olfactory. Very informative, and makes one want to learn more. I never thought of mimosa as a yellow flower in scent rhetoric. I remember the blooms as a child as pink/yellowish.
I would never have thought, also, that the great JOY perfume by Patou would even have champaca in the blend. I learned so much. Thank you.


Thank you, Elena, for me the most yellow scents are ylang and mimosa ;o) Amarige Ylang-ylang ;o)

Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Thank you John,
it's very encouraging reading your comment, especially coming from someone like you who has eloquently explored the visual components and mind associations that colors produce in terms of scent. Researching the olfactory connections was the next logical step and it's a fascinating subject to explore to be sure!

It's quite interesting what you say of tagetes, because it highlights well what happens with many perfumery essences: the raw material often does not correspond exactly (or even close enough) to the natural plant from which it is derived of! Re: tagets, it's a pity that not more perfumes use it to good effect. It might have to do with other considerations, but it's a loss, I feel.


thank you! I finally decided to omit linden blossom because it has been argued that it has no place in fine fragrance, but more in the tisanes and herbal preparations most of us know it from. It would fit, but maybe more perfumes and more perfumers eed to explore the note in order for it to be "validated". If that makes sense...


Thank you for the informative article - however, linden blossom is missing?


Very nice Elena - I've been researching the color/scent connection and have found so much fascinating material out there! The interesting thing about Tagets in particular is the scent of the actual essential oil - it's gorgeous; creamy, smooth, fruity - almost smelling slightly like bubble gum. It undergoes such a transformation in processing that it barely resembles the scent of fresh marigolds.

I agree that we make interesting assumptions about color (yellow = sunny, bright, optimistic), when, as you say, it's actually much more complex than that.

You've done so much research here, thank you for this!


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