Friday, August 22, 2008

Plants Hunters and Helpful Hands in Natural Perfumery

Gardenia flower

When I was in school studying Economic Botany, (scroll down) I reveled in tales of the Plant Hunters. These were adventurous botanists who traveled to remote regions looking for plants that would be useful to us. Many focused on medicinal plants, but I was obsessed with fragrant plants - of course! I never did become a Plant Hunter, and was a bit disheartened to learn that for the past decade or so, the Plant Hunters tend to be governed by the headspace machine, which although it captures the scent of the flower, results ultimately in a recreation of the scent with synthetic chemicals. Headspace proponents argue that by doing so, they are ultimately protecting the plant because there is no need to harvest it.

Well, I like my essences natural and I like them renewable, and I especially like the idea that there are still Plant Hunters like Trygve Harris of Enfleurage in New York and other entrepreneural souls who strive to establish new plantations and grassroots industries where folks can grow and distill natural aromatics.

I will expand the designation of Plant Hunter to include folks like Trygve and the many natural and botanical perfumers who are Scent Hunters. We tincture and infuse, distill and try our hand at enfleurage to coax the aromatic molecules out of sometimes common and more often, not-so-common plants and flowers with scent.

Trygve worked with some inventive people in Colombia to extract the scent of gardenia, tuberose and "chicle." Gardenia is the elusive Holy Grail of the perfumer's palette. Decades ago, the quest for gardenia absolute was upstaged by the ability of the chemist to produce a cheap substitute with synthetic chemicals. Some are starting to produce an absolute of Tahitian gardenia, but I have not received my sample of that yet. Tahitian gardenia is not the Holy Grail that Gardenia jasminoides (and related species) is, but it is tropical and sultry and we would be happy to have it as a substitute.

Back to Trygve and the Colombians. Using ingenuity, they fashioned an enfleurage-type process, and I am the happy recipient of the historic first batch of what Trygve is calling an "essential oil" of gardenia. Well, to me, it's a sort of hybrid between enfleurage and distillation, emphasis on enfleurage. I received the gardenia, tuberose and "chicle" and some gardenia "butter" (all described on Trygve's blog) today, and they are all lovely.

They are faint in scent, not as strong as an absolute, and Trygve explained this to me before I purchased them. I said that's OK, I want them for the historic factor :-) She will be returning to Colombia to work with them on perfecting the extraction process so as to produce a stronger scent. I know it can be done, and I applaud their efforts.

The gardenia is delightful, sweet, a bit indolic, fruity, lactonic and reminiscent of many tropical flowers. It doesn't scream "gardenia" but we all know how the extracts of aromatics are rarely true to the original, fresh flower.

The gardenia butter is much stronger, yummy, and longlasting. It's a bit "greener" than the oil.

The tuberose is also faint, but lovely and recalls a drift of tuberose flower, as if wafting on the breeze.

The chicle confused me. As a botanist specializing in tropical and subtropical plants, I know the chicle tree as a sort of rubber tree. The bark is scored and the latex that oozes out is collected and made into Chiclet gum (not nowadays, though, they use synthetic gums.) I had no experience with the flowers being fragrant. I called Enfleurage today and an employee read me off the botanical name, and I started to laugh.

This is why it's so important to know the botanical name of the plant - the flower called "chicle" in Colombia is the flower of the Clerodendrum fragrans - a Glory Bower, and a weed in my front yard! It's also called Cashmere Bouquet flower because it smells like that powder and soap. I have over a quart of the strong extract of the flowers. Heady stuff!

Clereodendrum fragrans from my front yard

I was told that they're going to focus on the gardenia for the future, and that is wonderful - I just can't wait for future harvests and extractions.

Others who are also helping in the effort to bring a remunerative industry to another country are the folks from Haiti who traveled to Rwanda and set up a patchouli plantation and distillation factory. I blogged about them before, linking to a You Tube series of videos on the effort. I am having lunch next week with one of the principals in the company because as luck would have it, she lives in Miami. They have a vetiver distillation factory in Haiti, and are interested in beginning work with other aromatics. These are exciting times!

Arghand, in Afghanistan, is a member of the Natural Perfumers Guild, and Guild member Butch Owen of AV-AT, who has decades of experience in nearby regions, and over a decade experience with rose distillation, will be traveling, visa and insurance willing, to Afghanistan to meet with Sarah Chayes in the Fall to see about setting up rose fields and distillation units there on a larger scale.

It's a new breed of Plant Hunters, entrepreneurs with a natural soul, and I'm glad to be a part of their circle of scent.

1 comment:

  1. Oh yeah! Maybe now (with my honesuckle front yard weed) I can get close to the long awaited "Fleur de Tropic"...

    I just bought a gardenia, and was making space in the greenhouse, and figured I could get an enfleurage in about five years...

    I was (not really) joking with someone the other day, and said, in answer to their (oft repeated) question about their favorite perfume...'well, you see dear, we're having to recreate an entire manufacturing base....'

    Let's hear it for the re-Creation!


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