Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tembusu, Singapore's Fragrant Tree

Every May something magical happens in Singapore. A tree blooms throughout the city and its tiny blossoms release a scent of uncommon beauty which is then captured by the breeze and wafted through the streets of Singapore.  The fragrance is elusive and only appears after dusk.  Imagine walking down a street when suddenly you are enveloped in a cloud of the sweetest most fragrant air you have ever breathed. You turn in a circle to see where the scent is coming from but there are no flowering trees or bushes of any kind in sight. The scent is carried in gentle waves by the breeze, first beguiling you, then just as suddenly disappearing and leaving you searching for the source. It is May, and in Singapore that means the Tembusu tree is in bloom.

The first time I smelled the Tembusu I was walking through Singapore's Botanic Garden some seven years ago or so.  My ipod was humming, I was trucking along among all the other wanderers and runners when suddenly I was overcome by the most gorgeous smell. It was early evening and I am accustomed to how the jasmines and ylang ylang smell stronger as the sun departs the sky. This was something altogether different, though, such a strangely beautiful smell that I began to look all around to see from where the scent was emanating. Not seeing anything flowering in my vicinity I began to follow my nose, scurrying here and there all around the garden paths, feeling very much like the human version of my dog when she is following a scent trail. I walked a good five minutes, the scent surging then waning, and finally came upon a tree I had not noticed before. It had clusters of tiny pale yellow flowers on its branches, but it wasn't the most prepossessing tree. I had walked by it numerous times without ever noticing it, but now my nose led me here to the source of this beautiful scent.

How to describe the scent? It is somewhat like jasmine, but without any indolic tendencies. There is a little sweet lemon freshness mixed with the floral jasmine smell. Some people say they can smell a touch of vanilla but I have not. It is like the freshest, sweetest jasmine you've ever smelt and it's scent is euphoric. Ok, maybe not for everyone; that's just me. But if you're a fragrance lover I suspect you'd be swooning too!

A couple of years ago I had been visiting with some girlfriends. It was getting late and I said my goodbyes, the first to depart. When I stepped outside I walked into a gossamer wall of fragrance; the air was redolent with the lush smell of Tembusu blossoms. I was practically overcome with olfactory joy, so much so that I immediately sent a text to my friends: "Step outside, QUICK. The air smells like PERFUME!!!" I waited for their enthusiastic replies. And waited. None came. I still don't get it. Life doesn't hand you a lot of luxuries for free but for goodness sakes, THE AIR IS PERFUMED! This doesn't happen every day! If you've ever seen the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, there is a scene where everyone is rushing to the town square to find the source of the beautiful scent and then are overcome with ecstasy: I understand that feeling now.

Things of great beauty in the plant world are by their very nature fragile and unsubstantial. You can't say, "I'm going to go outside and smell the air tonight." It is not available on demand. It catches you unaware. The line from the song Maria in the movie The Sound of Music has a line: "How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" That is how the ethereal beauty of scents on the breeze behave, enjoy the moment because it will be fleeting.  I live half a mile from the Botanic Gardens and thus, that far from the nearest Tembusu tree as best I can determine. But I still get whiffs of it's scent in the evening. This fragrant extravaganza only lasts for three weeks or so, then it's gone. Supposedly Tembusu blooms in May and October but I can't ever recall smelling the blooms in October. Some years are better than others in terms of the strength of the scent. When Singapore was a wild place a century ago, before it became a city of five million, I imagine there were numerous Tembusu trees whereas today there are only a few. How beautiful the month of May must have been with all the trees blooming! Maybe it took away some of the sting of being in a hot and humid mosquito ridden climate with no air conditioners yet invented.

This article was written for the Garden Bulletin by a R.E.Hoi on a study he did from 1928 to 1935 concerning the blooming habits of the Tembusu tree:
"The gregarious flowering of the Tembusu trees, which are so abundant, both wild and planted, in the neighbourhood of the town, is one of the most striking seasonal phenomena to be observed in Singapore. For a fortnight or more, some of the suburbs of the town are filled with their heavy fragrance, both day and night."

The Tembusu (fagraea fragrans) is  native  to Singapore and is only found in Southeast Asia. It is such an iconic part of Singapore's natural history that the image of a 200 year old Tembusu tree, still living in the Botanic Garden, graces the back of the Singapore five dollar bill.

The Tembusu's flower has not been captured in perfume, although recently the Botanic Garden came out with a room diffuser and spray called Tembusu, in commemoration of the Botanic Gardens being named a UNESCO world heritage site. I smelled it in passing but will have to give it a closer look.  Although there is not a scent match for this flower, I will review a perfume which is somewhat reminiscent of the smell in  tomorrow's post.

The photo at top of artwork by E. Lim at . Stamp photos from Google.


Undina said...

I would love to smell that tree bloom! I think I had a similar reaction to linden trees blooming - I kept trying to make everybody else to smell it and share my excitement but wasn't getting a reaction I expected.

Cynthia said...

Thank you for writing, Undina. Linden is a tree that never grew in my part of the country but if linden perfumes are representative, the smell must be beautiful when it is in bloom! I feel the same way about mimosa; people describe the smell but I've never gotten to smell it in real life. Tembusa is gorgeous. A pity it only lasts about three weeks.