Hibiscadelphus wilderianus grew on the slopes of Maui up until a century ago, before it was declared extinct. Now, a biotechnology company, Ginkgo Bioworks, claims to have resurrected the flower’s scent through genetic reconstruction. They recently debuted a perfume, which they described as piney and earthy.
But in truth, most hibiscus flowers have no fragrance. If at all, it’s just a wisp of one, possibly partly imagined, and we know it more from clear reddish teas and blended into herbs and chemicals in haircare than from the plant itself. That redolence, light as it is, is not in the blossom. The blood-bright ones placed at Kali’s feet are silent in the realm of scent.
So what is the fragrance that these biotechnologists have developed? How much of it is the power of suggestion, what the words “Hawaiian mountain hibiscus” conjure? When they tell us their new perfume line will return to us something lost, do we believe them?
I was on a video call with a faraway friend the other night as she dressed for a date, and when she sprayed perfume on herself, I was sure I could smell it. “Is it citrusy?” I asked. It was. It was not a signature scent; I cannot explain how the fragrance burst around me at the sound of the spritz. One night more than a decade ago, I was weeping in bed missing my recently deceased grandmother when the scent of paan filled the room. She had loved chewing areca nuts and betel leaf, and the smell of this was something I associated with her. Someone will tell me I was hallucinating, someone else will tell me my heart imploded into aroma. You can guess who among those someones I would call kindred.
Our olfactory sense is as emotional as our tactile sense. We think it’s the one we can live without, the one we’d give up if we had to choose one, but we’d lose more than just reactions of pleasure or disgust. We’d also lose one of the keys to our inner selves, influencing both our ability to reach into our memories and to express the way they make us feel. Sometimes the past circles back to us unseen.
The Hawaiian mountain hibiscus was known to botanists based on a single sample, dated to 1910, with it being presumed extinct only a couple of years later. Perhaps those early botanists used the word “discovery” in some description of their encounter and study of it, but if so, it would only have been in the way the Americas or certain spices were “discovered”. It it was endemic to Maui long before this. Centuries of people held its petals in their palms. Millennia of creature paws scampered by its bushes, or dipped proboscises into the nectar at its heart. The flower had other names, possibly held a place in ritual or courtship or adornment. Those who claim to have revived its scent have still not told us what its colour was. What its secrets were. They aren’t poets, after all. Yet they speak its songlike name, and look how we respond – how we rise, or implode.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 31st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.