Scent of a Pontianak

Apr 26, 2010
*Special to asia!
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This floral note has been described as Thanatos (Death) meets Eros (Love) and for good reason. Tuberose has a scent which is difficult to tame.

Visitors to largely Hindu Bali will find it in towering flower arrangements, its pungent perfume permeating the atmosphere. I most often found armfuls of tuberose stalks in the grand foyers of hotels. In Singapore, the part owner of PS Cafe Philip Chin, who is instrumental in assembling the cafes' stunning floral arrangements, has been known to surprise washroom visitors by placing huge tuberose arrangements by the sink. It obviously does a great job perfuming the air.

In Malay folklore, a pontianak, or vampire woman who lives in a banana tree, gives off the scent of tuberose. You can imagine someone shuddering with terror when he catches a whiff of it while walking alone through a field in the dark. The pontianak appears as a beautiful lady to a man who falls under her spell, marries her and then finds out the awful truth. She is actually a white haired, cackling blood sucker. Love and death served on banana leaves.

New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr called Éditions de Parfums’ Carnal Flower a “loud, filthy, utterly gorgeous neo-brutalist tuberose hand grenade.” He captures the dichotomy of the scent saying it is a “tuberose that comes at you holding a baseball bat in one hand and a raw steak in the other.”

To understand perfume fanatics love-hate relationship with tuberose, you just have to read Rita Long’s blog, the Left Coast Nose, where she describes spending an afternoon in search of the perfect tuberose scent at Barney’s. After some violent reactions to some she finally falls in love with L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Tubereuse.

She describes Carnal Flower thus: “Neon green—yes, yes, yes. Vomit. (!!!) Green stems. Unopened buds. Not ready. Red licorice.”


The scent of tuberose is an aphrodisiac to some and an abomination to others.


What is tuberose exactly? It has nothing to do with roses. The common name derives from the Latin tuberosa, meaning swollen or tuberous in reference to its root system.

Although Mexico was the origin of this member of the agave family, the tuberose has gained prominence in Asia. Today, India is the main producer of Tuberose concrete. The flower is cultivated in the Mysore region, and mostly in Tamil Nadu. Here, the tuberose has gained mythical status. It is offered to gods, strewn before elephants in religious parades and used to adorn bridal chambers.

The rich permeable clay of South India is the perfect soil for fields of tuberose plants. The tall green stalks which grow from underground stems or tubers can reach as high as a metre. Each plant only flowers once and only at night. Flowering begins in May and ends in December. I hope to travel there one day to see the women in saris fan out into the dew covered fields to collect the flowers.

Tuberose has an intoxicating fragrance with peach leaf and soft spice-like background notes. Perfume expert Brigitte Bourny-Romagne calls it a “narcotic scent between noxious corruption and nectar.”

Elena Vosnaki, the editor of the Perfume Shrine website goes further when she describes Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens: “Perfumes only rarely reproduce that other worldly effect, a hybrid of aberrant chill and aching beauty.”

She says the sharp wintergreen/eucalyptus-mint aroma of Tubéreuse Criminelle (usually this is due to methyl salicylate) replicates the menthol blast that the flowers emit when freshly picked.

The rubbery, bloodlike essence of tuberose comes with a nose-tingling green glow which balances the intoxicating effect. Vosnaki comes up with a gem: the intoxicating effect was accused of producing spontaneous orgasms and thus young maidens in the Victorian era were forbidden from smelling the trumpety little blossoms!

Tuberose Absolute costs $757 per 100g.


Perfumes: Fleurissimo by Creed, Byzance by Rochas, C’est La Vie by Christian Lacroix, Cabotine by Gres, Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, Prada’s Infusion de Tubereuse, Nuit de Tubereuse by L’Artisan Parfumeur.


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vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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