Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Peppery, Rosy, Citrus-Drenched Memories in a Bottle


A river in a desert is a precious thing. Parched rock and sand support few people, plants or animals. When a river or water body is found in a desert, an Oasis develops. The perfume Riverside that I have created is an homage to the botanical garden and citrus research station of the University of Riverside, California, where I received my degree in Economic Botany. It was as they say, the "salad days" of my youth, involved passionately with my studies, with my husband, dog, cats, environment, and learning how to think, since UCR was a think tank for upperclass and grad students, and the faculty there..

Most of the time, I "worked at" having fun and playing with essential oils and attars, as I was still a few years from discovering concretes and absolutes. As often as possible, I took the UCR bus into UCLA to visit the stacks of the library where ancient herbal books were kept, and to visit a shop in Westwood, The Magic Dragon. There, the owners would draw the shades, lock the door, light up a spliff, and we'd go through their awesome supply of oils and attars from India. Four hippies owned the store, and at any given time, one of them was in India, buying stock. This was in 75-77. They had about 60 oils, all gorgeous, from the common to the extraordinary, like musk root, Ferula sumbul, and chameli and juhi attars.

During this time I found William Kaufman's book Perfume, with its essays by Roudnitska and Carles, and I followed Carles' method of comparison and contrast in studying my oils and how they interacted. I also got Roy Genders book Perfume Through the Ages and Jeanne Rose's Herbs and Things. What fun! But how could I dream of being a perfumer? You had to go to France and that was out of the question. Besides, I cared about the environment, and was determined to follow my studies in sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, companion planting, organic farming, appropriate technology, and herbs and fragrant plants. I figured I'd settle for having "perfume parties" where I'd pull out my stash, clean toothpicks, and carefully dip each one into a different bottle and dab everyone. I also used some essential oils to flavor food and drinks, often with orange blossoms floating in the punch bowl.

UCR is one of the premier citrus research stations in the world. Over 1200 varieties of citrus are grown there, and I took several citrus labs, where I first saw shaddocks as big as small watermelons, Thai lime leaf with its "brain fruit", and every oddity in the Rutaceae imaginable. We crushed the leaves, examined the flowers and fruits, and deconstructed the plant to know how and why it grew. I also did an internship at the UCR botanic garden and produced a booklet for them "Landscaping with Herbs". The garden had over 160 varieties of herbs, and my ethnobotany professor assisted me in the research into their history, folklore and uses.

One event stands out clearly in my memory. One of the campus boulevards was lined up the median with the sour orange trees that produce "neroli" blossoms. Early one morning, my husband and I, armed with buckets, worked our way up the median, stripping off the blossoms. Back home, I put the blossoms in big jars and covered them with vodka. That "splash" lasted for years, decanted off into smaller and smaller jars. We also hit the Riverside city rose garden early one morning (if I recall correctly, these raids were always early on Sunday mornings), and yes, stripped the roses. What's the statute of limitations? LOL.

At home, they were spread on the bed in the second bedroom to dry, truly a "bed of roses", which Lenny da PussyCat jumped on for a nap.

Fast forward to my homage perfume of Riverside. There was a huge California Pink Peppercorn tree in our yard. I used to strip the peppercorns, smash them into a steak to marinate, and grill the steak. Yummy. My inspiration for the Riverside Perfume includes that pink peppercorn, roses and citrus. Bees, soil and vanilla also figure prominently, since I was always dodging bees there when I went after citrus blossoms, my husband studied soil science, and I saw my first vanilla orchid vine there.

It's a fun, romantic perfume, and the illustration captures the desert atmosphere of Riverside, the mountains that form a backdrop, the Oasis of water and study, and the fragrant path I followed, two paths that converge out of the frame, decades in the future. Now Riverside fills the air, caresses your body, floral and citrus and sweetly vanilla, a lovely oasis of scent.

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful post. Love the history of your sensibility it reveals.

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  2. Did you make that image Anya? It's a really fun one, and such an apt choice for this post. I somehow love this image of you "stripping" the flowers of their lovliness, and the peppercorns of their tastiness for your meal, to further enjoy what you're noticing around you :) I've never seen a vanilla orchard vine, how neat that you could!

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  3. Luccia,
    All the paths really did merge ;-)

    Katie,
    I made it. I'm really into playing around with visual reps right now, but I'm rather against making a logo for the business, strangely.

    Eat it, snip it, raid the botanic garden, lol!

    I have a vanilla orchid on my back fence, continually overrun by the various jasmine sambacs there!

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