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The Scent of Vetiver

Making New Orleanians smell good

photo Courtesy Rudolf Hertzberg Louisiana Architecture Photographs, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Nick Yokum, his brother Peter and sister Julie always had a treat in store when they went to visit their grandmother in the French Quarter: Everything there smelled so good!

Mrs. Lilian Hovey-King and her longtime assistant Susie Smith specialized in delicious odors – they created perfumes. King’s father had been a cavalry officer and her mother was a Creole, and from that romantic combination a perfume-maker evolved. Her husband had owned two Vieux Carré buildings, 723 Toulouse St. and 824 Royal St., and after she began Hové Parfumeur in 1931, she located her first shop on Toulouse Street. She was widowed in ’38, and eventually the business went into the hands of her daughter, Rita King Yokum. By the ’70s, the shop moved to the Royal Street address.

In his mother’s time, Nick, whose own career was in shipping, occasionally worked in the shop, “mostly just greeting customers.” While Peter Yokum would become an artist, their sister Julie took perfume-making as her career, succeeding her mother and continuing it until her own death, at which point she left the shop to her husband, who eventually sold it to his niece Amy Wendel. Under this current ownership, the shop moved from Yokum’s building to its current location at 434 Chartres St., with another store in Destin, Florida.

New Orleans was always a place in love with perfume – when The Times-Picayune’s predecessor began publishing in 1837, one of the earliest ads was for a perfume shop: Rees and D’Lange, at 18 Camp St., advertised “a splendid variety of perfumery.” By the 1840s, several shops specialized in perfume.

Also in the 19th century, Auguste Doussan, who hailed from Grasse, France (center of the French perfume industry), would open his own shop on Chartres Street between Conti and St. Louis steets. An 1868 ad mentions that he won a silver medal and a premium award at “the grand fair of 1863” for “the best soaps and perfumeries.” His shop would become today’s Bourbon French Parfum Shop, 805 Royal St. owned and operated since 1991 by Mary Behlar.

Behlar acquired the shop from Alessandra Crain, who had inherited the shop and stayed on for a year after the sale to train Behlar. What she learned to do was mix perfume, brewing up scented oils and alcohol into just the right combination for the perfect scent. And, she learned to mix special New Orleans old-fashioned aromas, like vetiver, that are still popular on local shops’ sales list.

Vetiver is actually a grass, but its roots are aromatic. The spicey-woodsey scent of vetiver is a familiar odor to generations of New Orleanians who remember little dried bundles of vetiver root folded in with their stored linens. It isn’t just for the odor, vetiver also is an insecticide, says entomologist Dr. Gregg Henderson of the LSU AgCenter, who has studied the plant.

While vetiver-scented products are readily available at the Bourbon French Parfum shop, Coleen Landry markets actual vetiver root bundles at Laura Plantation. Landry still tends her grandfather’s vetiver up River Road at Perilloux Place, carefully digging and washing the roots. “To refresh vetiver, just dip it in warm water and dry in the sun. It smells as good as new,” she says.

Professor Henderson has “about a hundred” vetiver plants trimmed as a hedge at his home near St. Gabriel, not far from Louisiana’s largest vetiver farmer, Eugene LeBlanc of Sunshine. Henderson, along with the late local flower grower Donald Heumann, were known as champions of vetiver’s prowess in erosion control.

Happily, as Landry notes, we can all see some vetiver growing, planted along with Louisiana irises, on the islands in the little lake at LaFreniere Park in Jefferson Parish.

 

 

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