I remember the first time I smelled gardenia. I was a young girl and my best friend Peri had a relative who lived in Hawaii who sent her these lovely bottles of Perfumeri Tiki’s Monoï Tiaré Tahiti, “Le monoï avec la fleur”. Monoï is an infused perfume-oil made from soaking the petals of Tahitian gardenias (Gardenia taitensis) in coconut oil.
Tiaré smells divine and monoï is very precious to me. I coveted Peri’s tiaré oil in the 70s and didn’t have my own bottle until the late 80s-90s when I visited: 1) Paris and 2) Hawaii. Yes, tiaré grow in Hawaii but being native to French Polynesia (i.e. Tahiti) I guess there’s a direct line to Paris stores. These days you can order on-line anything from anywhere so I regularly get bottles of monoï to use in my bath. I love that monoï is solid in the winter and fluid in the summer—because of the coconut oil. Gardenia oil of any kind is welcome in my boudoir.
My first experience with the actual gardenia flower didn’t occur until I was in grad school in California. I tried to keep a small living gardenia as an indoor garden. Unfortunately it didn’t survive very long—I have a wonderful green thumb for outdoor plants but a serious black one for indoor gardens.
My next experience was quite different—in Hawaii. I recall the wafting scent of gardenia pretty much surrounding me every day when I lived in Maui one summer many years ago. Called Kiele locally, Gardenia augusta is originally from China and is probably what I mostly encountered as well as Gardenia taitensis (tiaré). There are, however, three varieties native to Hawaii that are known as Nānū: G. brighamii, G. mannii and G. remyi. I love Hawaii and I suspect that is so in large part due to my memories of the fragrance of all the varieties of gardenia (and some plumeria and jasmine thrown in for additional notes).
Giving gardenias to someone means you think they’re lovely. They also signify secret love—though in my opinion, why would you ever want to keep love secret? Gardenia is one of the several types of flowers that are often used in lei. Hmm, how about having a wedding in Hawaii so that you can enjoy the beautiful fragrance of gardenia and implement the sweet symbolism of love in a ceremony. Invite me!
By Rita Dove
for Michael S. Harper
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.