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

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Capturing Scent, Week 1

The scent of an unseen flower—news from a country we haven’t visited.
C.S. Lewis

When I started my year-long project of getting to know the flowers in my neighborhood, I assigned myself a different task every month. The task for June was to learn how to capture the scent of flowers.

For me these simple assignments always lead to some place unexpected. But I had no idea when I set out how complicated this particular quest would become. My search expanded from a month to a year and by the time it was done, I had read dozens of books on perfume, attended three workshops (on essential oils, natural perfumery and distillation), fallen in love with chemistry, vied for a special bottle of perfume in an Ebay auction and finally circled back around to where it all began: the scent of flowers.

 

It started with the scent of spring.

I still remember the first time I noticed it. I had walked outside my brick apartment building on one of those sunny days in late January that brighten the grey Seattle winters with a promise of spring. I was halfway down the block, on my way to the supermarket, when I caught a whiff of a fragrance. It reminded me of jasmine in its piercing sweetness but more delicate. I looked around but I didn’t see any flowers, just the usual boxy green hedges and evergreen trees common to my neighborhood.

The scent baffled me, especially because it was so striking, in those dull grey days before any flowers appeared. For years, I recorded the date I first smelled the scent of spring in my calendar. January 27, 2001. February 2, 2002, February 5, 2009. But the source remained a mystery.

Until 2004. That’s the year I learned about a fragrant shrub: sweet box (also known as sarcococcus humilis) commonly used in Seattle as a hedge. It has small white flowers, wisps of white asterisks, which punctuate the stem and are almost hidden under the glossy green leaves. This plant loves shade and prefers to grow under the canopy of another shrub. Thus the invisibility of the flowers, which bloom in January and give off an intensely sweet scent.

I thought once I had identified the source, it would be easy to find the scent of spring, yet it continues to elude me. I bought a small shrub of sweet box and planted it in one of the big pots on the front porch of my apartment building, but it never bloomed in captivity.

Then my landlord hired a landscape architect to redo the front of our apartment building. They tore out the scraggly juniper hedges and the strip of weedy front lawn; they also got rid of the cherry tree and all the daffodil and tulip bulbs planted by the residents. The new landscaping features all the low-maintenance shrubs that are in fashion in Seattle right now: hebe, mountain laurel and rows of sweet box. Yet even when the sweet box is in bloom, I can bend down and sniff the white flowers and smell nothing.

It’s as if the fragrance wants to surprise you. It takes a certain combination of factors for it to emerge: a sunny day, an enclosed space (like a front porch), perhaps just a hint of a breeze, one that stirs the leaves.

The scent of spring always arrives around the same time as the fuzzy white buds of the goat willow, the flimsy yellow forsythia blossoms and the first robins. It’s one of my phenological markers during the year, and heralds the beginning of several months of increasingly delightful scents.

On my walk between my apartment and my work, eight blocks apart, I pass through a landscape of scents as I move through time. February and violets. The hyacinths and jonquils of March. In April, I stop on my walks to dip my nose into the cups of tulips. In May, it is the irises which lure me.

 

They wave their flimsy purple flags throughout my neighborhood. I used to walk right past them, dismissing them as grandmother flowers. Irises reproduce like rabbits, the knobbly brown rhizomes multiplying as they spread out like fans. They must be divided and given away, to neighbors surely, judging by the similarity of the species in the front yards of my neighborhood. They seemed to match the age of the buildings, brick apartments and wooden frame houses, some dating back to 1905.

It was Richard who first introduced me to the scent of irises. On our first date, we went for a walk around Green Lake, a Seattle tradition, during which he identified every tree (not a Seattle tradition). He was both a poet and a scientist, a combination that charmed me. On our second date, we walked around my neighborhood which is when he introduced me to the scent of irises.

They are shy flowers. They do not perfume the air, like the more wanton flowers: jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria. With iris, you have to give them your full attention. Bend down. Cup the flower in your hand. Poke your nose in between the soft petals of the falls.

I was stunned by what I found there. The scent was voluptuous: a mixture of sugar and violets. At least, that’s how it smelled to me. Richard said his ex-wife thought they smelled like old girdles.

The relationship with Richard didn’t last past a season but my love for irises persisted. A few years later I persuaded Michael, my new love, to drive down to Schreiners, a fabled iris farm near Salem, Oregon. It was May. I will never forget the moment we stepped outside his car. The scent that heretofore I had only known as a fleeting aroma enveloped me, as a cloud of sweet iris scent drifted down from the fields beyond the parking lot.

Schreiners offers a lot for the iris lover: a gift shop, a nursery, a catalog, picnic tables and a ten acre display garden where over 500 varieties of irises grow in masses in mounded beds. Visitors strolled through the grassy aisles, catalogs in hand, pointing out the features they admired: fringed falls, speckled standards, bright orange beards like neon caterpillars. Everyone was dazzled by the colors and shapes of the irises, yet no one seemed to notice their scent. I was the only person bending over and smelling the flowers.

I bobbed up and down the rows, quickly learning that the darker the iris, the more luscious the scent. My favorites were in the range of black, irises with names like Hello Darkness and Around Midnight. The blues were also delightful: they tended to be sweet and amiable.

Schreiners also sells cut irises, which surprised me. I had never seen them as cut flowers before and I wondered why. On our way home, we purchased a dozen. Inside Michael’s small car, the odor of iris bloomed and swelled. Within a half hour we were giddy with it, another half hour and we were dizzy. It’s not an easy scent to take in enclosed spaces, perhaps one reason the iris has not caught on as a cut flower.

We discovered another reason after we got the flowers home. When irises decay, they turn into blobs of brown goo that are viscous and rubbery to the touch. When I mopped up the puddles off the top of the piano, I found they had stripped the varnish off the wood. And the smell—yes, it does resemble old girdles.

 

We are just at the tail end of iris season here in Seattle. A few are still blooming here and there, but it is the next wave of scents that are wafting through the air. The incredibly complex and varied fragrances of the roses. The spice of peonies. I can look forward in July to the honeyed scent of linden, and the sweetness of honeysuckle, and the aroma of jasmine. Every year brings a new surprise. Something I had not noticed before. This year it’s the honeyed scent of black locust blossoms, which are falling right now.

 

Several years ago, I had an extra ticket to the Opera and invited a screenwriter I had just met. When he showed up at my door, my heart sank. It wasn’t the way he was dressed—he looked sharp in a sports coat, worn jeans and cowboy boots. It was the sight of the supermarket rose in his hand that made me wince.

Despite all I knew about the provenance of this supermarket rose, I brought it up to my nose to sniff. But it smelled like nothing, perhaps a faint whiff of the plastic in which it was wrapped.

This rose was the perfect product of the modern rose industry, described so well by Amy Stewart in Flower Confidential. Wanting to learn about how roses were grown for the florist trade, Stewart flew to Ecuador where she attended a trade show promoting the products. She walked down aisles lined with giant flowers. Roses with blooms bigger than a baseball, than a peony, than a dahlia. Roses with stems as thick as a finger, absolutely straight, with no thorns. Roses so tall that, when placed in waist-high vases, they towered over her head.

In the quest to breed the perfect rose for the floral industry: a rose whose petals won’t fall, whose stem won’t break, whose thorns won’t prick–the scent has been bred out of them. Not surprising as it is the very chemical that makes roses decay (ethylene) that gives the rose its scent.

Ethylene is produced in large quantities by apples, which is why you can put an apple in a paper bag with a green banana or a rock-hard avocado and the other fruit will ripen. Ethylene is also responsible for two plant functions that florists abhor. One is abscission, which causes the leaves to fall from a tree or the petals to fall from a rose. The other is senescence, which simply means aging.

The rose my date brought me sat on my desk in a crystal vase for two weeks. Not a petal fell. When I finally decided to discard it, I pulled the clump of petals off the stem in a lump. It never smelled. It never drooped.  It was perfect if you wanted a rose that only looked good. I want a rose that smells that smells like a rose.

Assignment for This Week

  1. Go for a scent walk. Walk around your neighborhood and hunt for fragrances. When you catch a whiff of an aroma that intrigues you, try to track it down to its source. Scents are almost as elusive as birds. Here are some tips that I use. Look up rather than down. Look around rather than close.
  2. If you had to choose your five favorite flower scents, what would they be?

 

The stunning photo of the inside of an iris was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The photo of the sarcococcus plant in bloom and the tall purple iris were taken by Waverly Fitzgerald. The rose and the peony flowers were photographed by Shaw Fitzgerald.

 

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

First Scent of Spring

This year I first smelled the scent of spring on Monday, January 10.

I usually associate it with an unusually warm and sunny winter day but on Monday it was snowing in Seattle: soft, clumpy flakes drifting down from the sky on and off all day long, leaving a frosting of white on the grass and car windows.

Still when I left work that afternoon, I passed through a zone of piercing sweet scent that I immediately recognized as sweet box (sarcococcus humilis, I believe, though I am a little confused by my sarococcus species).

The scent is hard to describe but almost everyone describes it as piercing. For instance, I found this blog post by Barbara Wilde who gardens in Paris and found it wafting out of Parc Monceau. She describes it as powerful and piercingly sweet.

Another common description, and one I have used in the past,  is the sensation of being stopped in your tracks, as described by Sue Taylor in an article at Dave’s Garden. She compares the scent to honey.

This year my first thought was of violets. Mary Robson at Muck About describes it as vanilla and honey. She brings in branches in November and “forces’ them to bloom indoors.

I have tried this myself as a way to extend this delicious scent but the scent really loses its charm after a few hours in a warm house and becomes cloying. I prefer that elusive, piercing, evasive scent that surprises me on a winter day with its promise of spring.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Your Turn: Scents of Summer

Margaret Bergen sent this photograph of a Duchesse De Brabant tea rose from her garden in northern Florida; it was taken by her husband, Fred Bergen. She writes: “The fragrance is both reliable and intense. This is a rose you can count on being able to smell at any time of day or night, under any conditions. The scent is the essence of Tea, a strong, dry, slightly acrid sweetness that is very memorable.”

There are many flower scents I enjoy in summer: roses, linden flowers, honeysuckle, jasmine. But if I had to say what is the scent that is most emblematic of summer to me, I think it would be the scent of rain on hot asphalt. Hmmmmm!

What is the emblematic scent of summer for you?

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend