Peonies, and Peony Fragrances

Peonies are some of my favorite flowers. I adore them.

My Sarah Bernhardt peonies - blooms six inches across!
My Sarah Bernhardt peonies – blooms six inches across!

One of my grandmothers grew them. The other grandmother adored them as well, would stop anywhere to bend and sniff the flowers. She called them “pinies,” which must have been either some Appalachian pronunciation variant, or a pronunciation specific to her mother, because no one else I know calls them that. My sister insisted on having them at her June wedding. My daughter loves them. When our sweet Hayley-dog died last summer, we planted peonies near her grave.

PinkParfait2I prefer bush (herbaceous) peonies, not the Japanese tree peonies, which look pretty but lack the delicate but pervasive sweet scent of the old-fashioned ones. I like the double-flowering type. And I prefer them in pale pink or white; the dark pink ones are attractive, but I always think the smell matches the color of the lighter pink ones. Maybe that’s simply because the ones my grandmother grew were pale pink (Sarah Bernhardt) and white (Duchesse de Nemours), but there it is, an irrational preference.

Unfortunately, you can’t dry peonies, either whole or in petals, and retain any of the lovely scent, and I presume that’s why peony accords in perfumery often can smell very synthetic. There aren’t all that many fragrances in current production that smell like real peonies, in my opinion, but every now and then one will pop up and gain my affection.

I know that peony scents are not generally loved among the perfumisti. Witness, just for example, Luca Turin’s review of Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Pivoine in Perfumes: The Guide: “Like chewing tinfoil while staring at a welding arc,” and his review of Thierry Mugler Angel Pivoine as “Giant Transvestite [that would be Angel] versus Ditzy Blonde from Hell [that would be the peony component]” is hilarious. I think it’s probably safe to say that Dr. Turin has a special dislike for peony perfumes, however he may feel about the flower. And generally speaking, I see a lot of comments like “smells cheap” about many peony scents.

Duchesse de Nemours peonies.
Duchesse de Nemours peonies.

I don’t care. I’m always on the lookout for one that smells like my Sarah Bernhardts, which have a strong overtone of rose along with the more delicate peony scent, and a cool, light freshness. I’ve noticed that the few peony scents that smell most natural to me also contain some rose – and sometimes they’re marketed as “rose” scents, too! Here’s the shortlist for peony fragrances that come closest, in my opinion, to the Real Thing. Some of them are unfortunately discontinued or otherwise unavailable. (Sorry about that.)

rose de siwa fifParfums MDCI Rose de Siwa. First on the list is the one that smells closest to just-cut peonies, to me. It’s also by far the most expensive, and I cannot in good conscience recommend that you buy it, because it is neither wildly original nor reasonably priced. But it’s my favorite. It has notes of litchi, peony, hawthorn, rose, violet, cedar, vetiver and musk, and was composed by Francis Kurkdjian, who has a great track record of success with me. I tested it from a sample vial, expecting a fresh rose, but got an enormous bouquet of peonies and a bit of wood in the drydown. It is basically perfect if you love garden peonies. However, I haven’t yet made up my mind to sell my firstborn in order to buy a bottle.

(Kidding. Kidding kidding kidding. Of course, whoever bought my firstborn would have to fork over for two more years of college, and I don’t see that happening.)

dsh peonyDSH Perfumes Peony. This is a close second, and far less expensive. Lovely stuff. It is perhaps less rosy and more green, but it’s beautiful and the drydown is pleasantly woody. I’ve never smelled a DSH fragrance that smelled synthetic in the least, and this one is very nice.

peony & mossJo Malone Peony & Moss. This one was a limited edition in the “London Blooms” series, composed by Christine Nagel, and the bottles were gorgeous. (See? BOTTLE SO PRETTY.) Wish I’d bought one while it was still available. The notes for it included blackcurrant, green leaves, ivy, peony and moss, and it smelled very green to me. I like that. (Jo Malone is currently producing Peony & Blush Suede, which I haven’t smelled, but I hear that it’s quite pleasant.)

VS pink, fragranticaVictoria’s Secret Pink. I don’t mean Pink Beach or Pink Thong or whatever the heck VS is currently marketing, or even their newer version of Pink, which is not the same as the original early-2000s version in the conical bottle. It’s a green floral with notes of artemisia, juniper berries, mandarin oranges, violet leaf, bergamot, peony, freesia, neroli, muguet, sandalwood, musk, vanilla, and vetiver. It was composed by Annie Buzantian and is more green than any of the others I’ve listed here, even the DSH. Still very pretty, though.

Not included on this list are a number of fragrances with “peony” in the name (including the L’Occitane peony fragrances and Histoires de Parfums Vert Pivoine), because they don’t smell real to me. Also not included is a really nice fragrance, Penhaligon’s Peoneve – not because it doesn’t smell natural, but because it smells of jammy rose to me with not a peony petal in the mix. Another one I didn’t include was Parfums DelRae Coup del Foudre, because while it is absolutely gorgeously peony-rose for an hour, after that it shrinks down to the skin in a marked manner, and the sudden disappearing act annoys me.

Donna (“Flora”) who reviews for Perfume-Smellin’ Things, has in private conversation recommended Ellen Tracy Peony/Rose. That one is also unfortunately discontinued and I haven’t smelled it, but at this writing you can buy the gift set of perfume and lotion on Amazon for about $27. Donna likes her perfumes lush and trés femme, and we have a lot of overlap in our tastes. The notes list includes peony, rose, and gardenia.

One more I’d like to try is Parfums de Nicolaï Rose Pivoine, which I seem to remember was recommended to me by Blacknall at A Perfume Blog, and has notes of red fruits, rose oil and absolute, geranium, chamomile, woody notes and musk. I am a little concerned about the geranium, which often seems a little screechy to me. But it’s PdN, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and try it when I get the opportunity. (Incidentally, PdN is now listed on Fragrantica as Nicolaï Parfumeur Createur. Which, okay, it’s their company and they can play with the name. I keep wanting to say PdN, though.)

I also hear that Ann Gerard Rose Cut is a lovely fresh rose with peony, but haven’t smelled that one either. Please do comment if you’ve tried it.

Are you a peony fan? Please share your favorite peony fragrances!

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13 thoughts on “Peonies, and Peony Fragrances”

  1. Hey there,
    Recently in South Korea across the road from my partners family’s home was the most incredible bush of magenta peonies, some still buds and others open as big as both my hands across, huge like a salad plate. The scent drifted on the cool morning air and we were completely intoxicated.
    I haven’t spent any time looking for peony in fragrance. yet.
    Portia xx

    1. That bush sounds fabulous. Sigh. (Is most of Australia too hot for peonies? I know they need a chilling period during part of the year.)

      1. I think the southern parts of Australia can do peonies, it’s very Mediterranean down there but up in Sydney it’s just not right. I’m totally bummed about it too because they are so freaking beautiful.
        Sadly not fragrant but we can do Dahlias, just as showy.
        Portia xx

        1. Wonder why Sydney doesn’t have the right weather for them – I know they need winter chill. At least the herbaceous ones, don’t know about tree peonies.

          Dahlias are beautiful too.

  2. I’ve never smelled the perfume in question, but “Like chewing tinfoil while staring at a welding arc” is probably my all-time favorite Turin line.

    FWIW I found Rose Cut to be extremely sweet in the opening, which didn’t really do it for me. I want to try to the DSH peony (as well as the rose she did for the Cartier show here in Denver; dying to try that but haven’t made it out to her Boulder shop recently).

    1. That *is* a great line. I’m not sure which might be my favorite, there are so many.

      I do love Dawn’s florals – they… breathe. Which rose is that – the Ruby thingie? Rubis Rose, I think. I tried Jacinthe Sapphir and Deco Diamonds, haven’t touched the Or sample because it sounds very orientalish, not my thing. Didn’t manage to snag a sample of the rose one.

      Peony seemed similar to her Pretty & Pink, but way less fruity and more green – similar more in the carefree feel of it.

  3. Being fairly clueless when it comes to flowers, I recently plucked a peony from my yard, took a picture and sent it to my mom asking what kind of flower it was, hehe. Now I know! As for peony scents, I’ve only tried Vert Pivoine which was so utterly horrible on my skin I could cry. It smelled like nasty pickles through and through and actually was the very first review I posted on my blog. That was the inspiration – reminding myself what I’ve tried and liked or hated! I’ve also tried Jo Malone Peony and Blush Suede but have no idea if it was an authentic smell or not as I didn’t (at that time) know what peonies smelled like. But thank you for this list – I’ll try to sniff some out. 🙂

    1. I love peonies so much, sigh. Didn’t like Vert Pivoine, but I don’t remember why now, and I really should try the Peony & Blush Suede. Have fun sniffing!

  4. I am not mad about peonies, but I LOVE Rose Cut and highly recommend it. A very office-appropriate rose, with some greenery to it. Possibly FBW, if I ever was reckless enough as to buy such a thing again.

    1. Reckless! Yes, full bottles are getting to be that way for me too.

      Rose Cut sounds so nice – I just haven’t tried many of the Ann Gerards. I think I tried… can’t remember which one. Was underimpressed.

  5. Do you know if there was a peony perfume brand that was popular in the 1970’s? On very rare occasions I still catch a tantalisingly brief whiff of one particular floral perfume -and I’m immediately 5 years old again! It’ heady, sweet, sensuous fragrance was rather similar in character to lily of the valley, sweet- pea or jasmine. I’ve smelled countless floral fragrances locally in my efforts to identify this heavenly fragrance but without success. The only smell I haven’t yet found locally is Peony, so I just wonder if that could be the one or if someone can offer some suggestions?

    1. Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know, Hayley! I was a child in the ’70s, so while I might have smelled something similar to what you remember, there’s just no way to tell what it might have been. The one suggestion I have is Cacharel Anais Anais, which was very popular in the US in the late 70s and my mother wore it briefly, though I remember it as more of a mixed floral — lily of the valley, lily, jasmine, orange blossom, carnation, and a ton of hyacinth — than peony. I’m so sorry I don’t have any better recommendation for you.

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