Field of jasmine. Photo: laidbackgardener.com
Did you know that it takes nearly 1,000 jasmine flowers and 12 roses to produce one 30 ml bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume? And that most of the flowers used are harvested in Grasse, in the south of France, known as the perfume capital of the world?
I’ve actually been there and visited one of the flower farms: Domaine de Manon in the village of Placassier, now part of the city of Grasse.
It was a fascinating tour, but not what I expected. Somehow, I imagined endless fields of flowers, like the fields of lavender I had seen in other parts of Provence in early July. For that, though, I would have to have visited in May, when the roses were in flower … and on a good day, when a lot of the blooms spring from bud to bloom. Because, after all, the fields aren’t there for tourists to gawk at: those flowers are harvested as quickly as possible after they open. So most of the time, if the field is managed correctly, it’s only going to be dotted with pink and even then, only very early in the morning!
Plus, I visited in mid-October. That’s not rose season (although we did find a single off-season rose in bloom), but rather jasmine season, and towards the end of jasmine season at that. So, the plants were only lightly dotted with flowers. Even so, when I visited, a half a dozen women were bending over, hard at work harvesting the white flowers.
And yes, you can breathe in their heady fragrance them before you even reach the field… if you get there early in the day. The flowers actually open at night and their fragrance fades as the sun becomes more intense. We arrived juste before 9 a.m.: early enough!
We were met by the site’s manager, Carole Biancalana, who explained the history of perfume and of her family’s farm, founded by her grandparents in the 1930s. She then took us out into the fields and gave us baskets. Yes, she put us to work harvesting jasmine flowers! It turns out I’m not very good at it. We probably picked for 10 minutes and I had fewer blossoms in my basket than most of the others in my group. My excuse is that I was also taking pictures!
The flowers aren’t kept around long: they’re too ephemeral! By noon, they’re sent off to a factory in town where they will be turned into “absolute,” the concentrated fragrance used in perfumes.
Afterwards, our group moved on to the farmhouse and its outbuildings where we were treated to samples of a drink made from rose petals and could buy souvenirs, including rose and jasmine jellies, perfumed candles, cards with pressed flowers and much more.
Due to an exclusive agreement, all the flowers produced at the Domaine de Manon go to the perfumer Dior. They produce three types. Provence rose (Rosa × centifolia), Spanish jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) and tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), which Dior uses for various perfumes.
The Provence rose is a shrub rose with numerous small leaflets (after all, centifolia means one hundred leaves) and very double, highly scented flowers … of which, as mentioned, we saw only one bloom.
Spanish jasmine, actually not native to Spain, but rather Arabia, South Asia and Northeast Africa, is a climbing shrub here kept pruned into mounded bushes. The small, white, star-shaped, intensely scented flowers, pinkish underneath, spring from red buds and are borne in open clusters at the ends of the stems.
There wasn’t much to see of the tuberoses, which are bulbs and whose yellowing leaves were clearly well into their dormant period at the time of our tour.
Later in the day, we went on to visit the Fragonard perfume factory in Grasse and its perfume museum to learn about how flowers are turned into perfume … and to purchase perfume to bring home with us (my wife likes Soleil). But it was the flower farm that I best loved.
If You Want to Visit
There are tours of the Domaine de Manon on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. from early May to early June (Provence rose season) and in August, September and October (jasmine season). Groups can visit by appointment only. For information, go to the Domaine de Manon website or write firstname.lastname@example.org.