Capturing the Scent of a Flower

(Photo by Mary Kirman)

By Waverly Fitzgerald

October 2008. Legendary herbalist Jeanne Rose sat perched on a stool in the workroom of a perfume shop in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles on a Sunday morning. In front of her were ten little brown vials full of perfume, concocted by the students in her Natural Perfumery class the day before. She picked them up, one by one, unscrewed the lids, waved them back and forth under her nose, eyes closed.

“Some of these scents are nice,” she said. “Some are good.” She paused. “And some of these scents have the potential to be spectacular.”

I sat with the other nine women in the class, in a semi-circle. Each of us was properly attired, as instructed, in a white shirt or apron.  We ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties and included a script reader for a major studio, an aromatherapy teacher, a physician who specializes in fertility, the editor of a glossy food magazine, a student of acupuncture. I had come the farthest, all the way from Seattle, for this class.

I had not really intended to become a perfumer. This Natural Perfumery class was simply one of the many tasks I tackled in my quest to figure out how to capture the scent of flowers. I was more interested in the materials we had used-the essential oils, the absolutes, the waxes in the glass vials on the shelves around us-and how they were extracted from flowers. But at that moment, as we waited for Jeanne’s opinions, I dared to hope that my perfume was one of the spectacular ones.

I signed up for the class because I wanted to study with Jeanne Rose. She has been one of my heroines ever since I bought her first book, Herbs ‘n Things, shortly after it was published in 1971. Jeanne wrote it in the Sixties when she was a young woman with long dark hair and big dark eyes, living a block off Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, dressing rock stars in fringed suede jackets and bell-bottoms. She had compiled the information in the book from old herbals and some of the information seems unlikely or impossible (fennel seed boiled in wine and drunk for serpent bites?) but fascinating.

By 2008, Jeanne Rose had acquired over forty years of experience, growing, creating and selling herbal products and teaching classes. Her recent books, and the workbooks we purchased as texts for the class, are rich with information, based on her personal experience and her reading of scientific literature.

The other reason I had chosen this class was because I wanted to know how to make perfume from flowers. And a class in Natural Perfumery seemed the obvious place to learn. I was so naive I didn’t realize there is a difference between the scent of flowers and perfumes, which are artfully composed from many different elements including spices, citrus peel, woods, mosses, even seashells. I also didn’t understand the significance of the word Natural or that I had taken sides in a battle I didn’t even know was being waged, a battle between perfumers and natural perfumers.

The front window of Blunda AromaticsThe class was held in a perfume shop, Blunda Aromatics, in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles and the proprietor, Persephenie, is one of the rising stars in the field of natural perfumery. She sponsors events at her store that showcase other natural perfumers and the descriptions of these events make me wish I lived in LA instead of Seattle so I could attend and smell the fragrances.

On the other side are perfumers, like Luca Turin, my favorite perfume writer, who has only contempt for natural perfumers. Like most professionals in the field of perfume, he can’t understand why anyone would limit themselves to scents that can be extracted from natural ingredients, eschewing the marvelous fragrances that can be created in the laboratory. Turin is a chemist, as well as a scientist who has pioneered a new theory about how we smell, and he sometimes works for perfume companies, in the lab, creating new scent molecules or aromachemicals.

The main difference between synthetic perfume molecules and natural scents is that natural scents are more complex. Chandler Burr in his book The Perfect Scent, reproduces the results from a chemical analysis of a Turkish rose absolute (a solid waxy substance in which the flowers have been embedded). He lists 81 molecules, but the total list would contain between 800 and 1,000 different molecules. That’s how complex the scent of a rose is.

Some of the scents in a rose include citronellol, geraniol, nerol, nonadecane, eugenol, PEA, linalool, henicosane, alpha-pinene. You may recognize some of these molecules as they are named after the substances from which they are derived. Citron (think citrus blossom, not the fruit), geranium, neroli (another citrus flower), pine. Some  you might not recognize by name but you would by scent: eugenol is the spicy chemical that is found in basil leaves and cloves; linalool is a major aroma chemical in lavender. And those are just the scents that contribute over 1% of the total odor.

Perfume chemists have isolated some of the aromachemicals that are responsible for the scent of a rose, like damascone and damascenone, named after the aromatic damask rose. Luca Turin, scientist and perfume reviewer, says these molecules remind him of Brahms and autumn. He writes they are “outrageously fruity, and convey the full range of dried-fruit notes, all shades of translucent golden browns.”

Although I was disappointed in my quest to learn how to capture the scent of flowers, I did get plenty of  hands-on experience with a variety of perfume materials. Jeanne brought along 72 essential oils, waxes and absolutes for us to smell.

Workroom at Blunda AromaticsThese were lined up in little bottles and jars along the long wooden workbench on one side of the workroom. In a wavering row, all of the students in the class shuffled along the length of the counter, picking up each bottle and taking a quick sniff. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences well worth the cost of the whole workshop. Some of those bottles would cost hundreds of dollars to replace. Others were 40 years old, like the styrax resin, and couldn’t be duplicated today.

Each of these materials is created in a different way. And when you learn about the methods of extracting scent from flowers, you realize there is nothing very natural about it.

In steam distillation, steam is driven through the plant materials, which release their aromatic oils. The vapor that ascends contains the essential oil and water. It moved through a cooling tube into another chamber, called the condensing chamber, where the oil, because it is lighter than water will float on the top. It can be skimmed from the surface and bottled.

The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus.

The fragrant water can also be collected and saved. For years, the only two flower waters that were precious enough to be bottled and saved were rose water and orange blossom water.  Jeanne Rose was the first to advocate saving this byproduct of the distillation process which she named a hydrosol. Now you can buy hydrosols of lavender, and bay, and oregano. I have all of those in my refrigerator right now.

Jeanne Rose has been distilling her own essential oils for years, using a copper still in her backyard. She also sponsors an Aromatic Plant Project which encourages wine growers in California to grow fragrant plants like lavender alongside their vines and harvest the crop for steam distillation.

I have not yet become enthralled enough to purchase my own still but I did learn how to create a kitchen still in an herbal medicine class and used that to create my first hydrosol.

I used bay leaves from the tree in my garden. I put the leaves in water in a non-reactive pan, put a metal steamer on top of them, and centered a glass bowl in the middle of the steamer. Then I covered the pot with an upside down glass lid and put a plastic bag of ice on top of that. Then I put the pot on the stove and turned up the heat. The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus. I removed the glass bowl containing the liquid gingerly after turning off the heat and let everything cool down.

My hydrosol of bay was delightful-spicy and warm. It contains (I learned from Wikipedia) eugenol, the same chemical component I love in cloves (and used to love in clove cigarettes) and eucalyptol, the main ingredient in eucalyptus, the remedy my mother used (a drop of eucalyptus oil on a piece of cotton in a steamer) for childhood coughs.

Flushed with success, I then attempted a rose hydrosol, using petals from the scented rose across the street. It smelled delicious steaming in the pot but the end result was a brownish liquid that smelled nothing like roses. It did, however, smell like Brahms and autumn.

Other methods of extracting scent from flowers are more brutal. Perhaps the earliest method used was to soak flowers in fat. The Egyptians wore cones of perfumed oil on their heads which melted, spreading the perfume through their hair.

Many flowers are too fragile to sustain steam distillation. This includes many of my favorites: wisteria, lilac, lily of the valley, gardenia, jasmine, honeysuckle. The method used to capture the scent of these flowers is called enfleurage, a term much too pretty for the method itself.

chassisIn its most developed form, as practiced in Grasse, the perfume center of France, during the nineteenth century, fresh flower petals are placed on panes of glass which are smeared with purified fat. The fat absorbs the odors of the flowers, which are replenished when they are spent, until the fat is thoroughly imbued with fragrance. Then the scented fat, which is called a pomade, is washed with alcohol which absorbs the scent. The leftover scented fat was often used to make soap. The scented alcohol is called an absolute. If the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, what is left is an essential oil. This old illustration of women working with the chassis (the glass frames) comes from Sacred Earth which also features a great article on methods used to extract scents from plant materials.

There are more primitive ways of creating the same effect, including simply stirring flowers into hot fat until it absorbs their odors. This cheerful article at Mother Earth News explains how to do enfleurage in your kitchen, by placing flowers in fat, then using rubbing alcohol as a solvent to extract the scent from the fat. I’m sure Jeanne Rose would shudder at this suggestion, because rubbing alcohol has a strong odor of its own which would affect your end result.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I am currently trying this home version of enfleurage but have not achieved very impressive results. I used Crisco (not being enough of a purist to want to clarify lard as the author of the article suggests) and spread it over the sides of two small tea saucers. I then placed petals of the jasmine that twines around the pillar of my front porch in the fat on both sides and clamped the two saucers together with a rubber band.

I check every few days to see if the flowers are spent (it seems to take about three days before they turn brown), then pluck them off and replace them with fresh flowers. The fat is beginning to take on an odor but it’s not entirely pleasant. I think I left some of the flowers too long and they began to mold.

I was more successful with an even more primitive method I tried when the woodruff was at its peak in late April. I put some sprigs of woodruff in a small bottle of jojoba oil and pulled out the limp stems every week and replaced them for three weeks in a row. The oil now has the marvelous smoky, almost tobacco-like scent of woodruff. I’m not quite sure what I can do with it. I may use it as a base and add an essential oil to make a perfumed cream.

Jeanne Rose in her books mentions several other forms of primitive distillation, for instance, hanging scented flowers in a corked bottle in the sun. She says the oils will drop to the bottom of the bottle and you can collect them. I tried this but my plant materials simply molded.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I have come to terms with the idea that fragrance is by its very nature transient. My favorite perfume (Clinique Simply) is no longer available. My new favorite (Mimosa Pour Moi) evaporates from my skin as I wear it. The aroma of roses perfumes the summer air but is gone by autumn. I am learning to enjoy the scents of the moment.

Do you have a method for capturing and preserving the  scent of flowers?

First published July 20, 2009

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3 Comments

  1. Mary Koenig   •  

    I love this article! Jeanne Rose’s Herbs ‘n’ Things currently sits on my kitchen shelf, well-thumbed, somewhat stained, dog-eared. These are the first potpourri receipts I ever tried. I also tried to make the scented rosary receipts. I”m a cradle Catholic with nature tendencies. Tried making perfume oil, too, with varying success. Lucky you, to have actually taken a class of hers!
    I intend to try your distiller – if I can find some sweet-smelling flowers – Around here, East Texas, things have pretty well died down, the heat is a killer. But there’s always next year. I have an orange tree that bloomed its head, off figuratively, speaking this year The smell was divine!

  2. Katy Taylor   •  

    I’ve had good luck make hydrosols of bee balm. I also collected wild roses, which was lovely, and once also made mimosa flower hydrosol! I used a similar home-made set-up on my stove. it was really fun. Thanks for posting–i’ll need to look for Jeanne’s book!

  3. Waverly Fitzgerald   •     Author

    Mary–
    Yes, tell me more about your attempts to make perfume oil. I am really curious about what works and what doesn’t. You can also use the kitchen still set-up to make scented waters from plant leaves, for instance, thyme or sage or maybe eucalyptus leaves–don’t really know what’s available in East Texas.

    Katy–
    I’m so envious of the mimosa flower hydrosol. but wait! now you reminded me there is a mimosa tree only a few blocks away. I wonder if it is in bloom? I did mention my favorite perfume is Mimosa Pour Moi. If you like the scent of mimosa, send away for a sample at the Perfumed Court web site (they sell small samples of hundreds of perfume).

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