Category Archives: Aromatic Plants

Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Nuances

Deep Earth Scent Vision

The second time around I switch the order of the oud samples. For my first sniffing trial, I randomly lined up my little sample vials which were all diluted to 10%. The dilute samples on the scent strips yield the nuances in different ways as the fragrance dries out. A few things happen as I go through the samples, mainly I confirmed that evaluating oud is a learned skill and that I could probably go through these few samples many more times and get something different each time. But I also found that some aspects come through whether it is the first sample of the day or the last sample.

I like to think I have a well-trained nose but I have known all along that the determined character of agarwood essential oils would put my nose to the test. Which happened. What also happened was that I walked around with the smell of oud in my nose – kind of a nice effect that fragranced the world around me. But it also limited any other evaluations I could conduct for at least a day.

It won’t be surprising that the more subtle aspects of fruit and fine wood are lost as your nose becomes a bit overloaded with oud. I did pretty well the first time through, picking up nuances of woody notes, spice, water, and even honey in all samples even though some of the stronger and more animalic samples came up early in the evaluation. For the second evaluation, I used my notes from the previous one to put the samples in order from lightest fragrance to strongest. By doing this I was able to find the more subtle nuances: hints of cedar, definite floral aspects in more of the samples, and green notes appeared as well. But the best find in my second time through was a wonderful deep fruity and wine-like note in two of the samples that I missed the first time around. In one it was intertwined with spicy berries and the other it appeared as a sort of wine-y wood. Honeyed tones also shone through a bit more. I seemed to detect smoke less often and used watery and mossy descriptors less often as well.

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Perfumer’s Nose: The Lovely Frangipani


Frangipani Plumeria alba Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The absolute of frangipani comes in a jar; the true fragrance from my side yard in the early morning and early evening. Also known as plumeria, it is an amazing tree with a luscious tropical fragrance that is strongly floral and just slightly fruity. It has just the slightest hint of the decadence that characterizes some tropical flowers. The one above is my favorite and was grown from seed pods scavenged at a local nursery. Another planting yielded a more familiar yellow and white variety that also smells lovely with a slightly stronger hint of peach. The branches seem to be quite fragile and I will sometimes find them broken off and growing leaves as they lay on the ground beneath the tree. Since this is Florida, such things happen.

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My yellow one.

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Perfumer’s Nose: The Other Lavenders


Lavender Flowers Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are lavenders that are wild, lavenders that are hybrids, and lavenders that are not distilled but extracted via solvent. I’ll go through this varied group today. The same descriptors I used in my last blog apply: floral, herbaceous, sharp, woody, balsamic, coumarinic, refreshing, and clean notes.

For my last blog (Part 2), I evaluated 12 varieties of Lavandula angustifolia here (, and Part 1 was an introduction to lavender here (

Today I sniff other lavender types and species:

Lavandula angustifolia Wild—is sharp, woody, and slightly rooty. The floral lavender is apparent underneath the woody notes and the dryout is mild and fresh. It definitely has a wild aspect to it but is not harsh. Continue reading

Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender: A Purple Haze

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Lavender Copyright Elise Pearlstine

True or English lavender belongs to the species Lavandula angustifolia (previously/also known as L. officinalis). Lavandula comes from the Latin word ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’ and angustifolia refers to the narrow leaf. Officinalis is often used as the species name for medicinal plants. As a valuable horticultural and economic plant, this species of lavender has been the subject of selection and breeding to produce a variety of sizes, colors, and fragrance profiles. It is easy to grow if you are in the right zone, hardy and drought-tolerant, beautiful, and everyone loves a fragrant plant. Some examples of the variety of characteristics to be found:

  • Size—dwarf or compact varieties in particular
  • Hardiness—cold, soil, drought
  • Leaf color—variegated or silver
  • Flower color—shades of purple, pink, white, and even yellow or red
  • Growth habits—fast or slow
  • Fragrance—everything from sweet and floral to medicinal and camphoraceous

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Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender Love

pretty lavender 750 pxThere are places in the world that you immediately recognize and that feel comfortable to you. The Provence area in the South of France is one of those for me. The climate is Mediterranean, which refers to the deep blue sea that is such a part of the coastline there, but also to specific climatic characteristics. A Mediterranean climate is hot and dry in the summer, often receiving little to no rain for 4-6 months during the warm season, with mild to cool winters that are wet. In addition to coastal areas of the Mediterranean Basin, other areas with a similar climate include much of California, southwestern Oregon, parts of West and South Australia, parts of South Africa, sections of central Asia, and central Chile.  These are generally coastal areas where the ocean is a moderating force in the winter. In these areas, mountains and highland areas provide for cooler temperatures during the summer but also in winter.

The characteristic shrubby vegetation may be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Maquis of the Mediterranean region, the Fynbos in Africa, Chaparral of North America and the Kwongan of Australia. These ecosystems are shaped by fire and many of the plants are fire-loving and will re-grow readily after fires, outcompeting those not adapted to a fire regime. Their tough leaves are well adapted to retaining water during times of drought and they are often aromatic. The aromatic plants rosemary, thyme, and lavender are native to this area as are evergreens, olives, figs, citruses, bay laurel, sages and various grassland species.

Provence EVP_5566Does this explain why I love Provence? Perhaps a bit – the landscape is open and rugged, dramatic, often aromatic, and with a wonderful diversity of life. It just feels like home to me.

This is the home of lavender and, depending on what you read, there are between 30 and 40 species in the genus Lavandula that have originated in these areas. These also tend to be the areas where lavender is being grown commercially.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Variations on Orange

Orange with Mint Copyright Elise PearlstineWhen I teach about essential oils and talk about the citrus group, I mostly talk about their cheerful nature. Citrus essential oils, especially orange, will uplift you and make a great room spray or kitchen countertop cleaner. I remind students never to use citrus essential oils on their skin neat, or in any fashion, before exposure to the sun due to the potential for phototoxicity. I remind them that citrus essential oils are best used within six months to a year and should be refrigerated. And always date your oils when you receive them.

We then have a wonderful time blending orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot. Then we might add in a touch of lavender or some peppermint. Citruses are easy and forgiving and everyone goes home with a lovely blend for diffusing.

There’s something to be said for easy and there are times a nice orange essential oil does just what you want it to, whether it’s a bit of lift in a perfume topnote or just diffused into a room to cheer you up. And I love it in our orange spice soap too!

But, really, an orange is not an orange is not an orange. There are several types of orange, all with varying degrees of intensity, deepness, sweetness, and orange-ness. For this post I evaluate four types of your basic orange essential oils from the fruit Citrus sinensis.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood Attars

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Rain in the Desert Copyright Elise Pearlstine


There is an ancient method of capturing delicate floral essences and the product is an attar. The making of an attar uses the essential oil of sandalwood to receive the distilled fragrances and support them over its rich and woody note. Used as perfumes, these attars may be as simple as a single flower essence distilled into sandalwood oil or it may be a secret and proprietary blend of flowers, spices, roots, and woods. While many attars possess a complexity and richness that makes them quite assertive, some of the floral attars are wonderfully delicate and balanced.

Attars are made according to strict tradition with the knowledge of distillation often passing down through family lines as are the secrets of the formulation. The area of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, India is known as the Grasse of India and is home to many traditional distillers and perfumers. This is also where they make mitti attar, a blend of baked sacred earth and sandalwood that, to many, smells of rain.

Attars are made with the Deg and Bhapka system of distillation. There is a copper cauldron called the ‘deg’ that holds the material to be distilled and a ‘bhapka’ which is the receiver. The receiver has a long narrow neck and is connected to the ‘deg’ by a bamboo pipe. The setup is sealed tight and the heat and length of the distillation is controlled carefully by skilled workers. Once distillation is finished, the resulting attar is sealed in a leather bag. The leather bag is important because it allows any water in the attar to evaporate, leaving behind only the pure fragrant oil. For more information visit the blog from White Lotus Aromatics here: and here:


Traditional Distillation of Attars. Credit White Lotus Aromatics

Attars (also called Ittars) are traditionally sold in very small amounts, often in cut crystal bottles. They were common gifts given to guests in the Eastern world. When used as perfumes, they tend to be oil based and quite strong. The fine scents of attars were also thought to discourage evil spirits and assist in the journey towards enlightenment.

Before I talk about floral attars, a quick word about Mitti Attar in which the sacred earth of the Kannauj area is dried and distilled onto sandalwood. This sacred attar mimics the fragrance of the first rains of the monsoon season hitting the dry, baked earth and is the essence of rain and renewal.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Heavenly Oil

L0038494 Catu-tsjambu, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

Santalum album (Source Wikimedia, see below)

Ancient and sacred sandalwood trees were said to grow in the heavens where they would fill the celestial world with divine fragrance. On earth, true East Indian sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfume materials and has been in use for over 4000 years. This will be a three part series on sandalwood, beginning with a bit of ecology, history, and a description of the species.

Santalum album is the classic Indian species with a beautiful woody, buttery fragrance. It is native throughout China, India including Tamil Nadu, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It grows in dry forests and is hemi-parasitic, growing on the roots of other trees. The species is vulnerable to extinction due to overharvest for the essential oil and for wood for carving, in addition illegal poaching has contributed to the vulnerable status of this species. Trees must be at least 30 years before a good harvest of the essential oil can be obtained. The richest oil is in the heartwood of the trunk and the roots requiring the tree to be chopped down. Trees will regenerate from suckers and from seeds that have passed through the digestive system of birds and need their host trees nearby.

There are several other species from various areas around the tropics and sub-tropics. Santalum spicataum grows in Australia and is being managed on plantations where it may be grown in relation to various Acacia species, using them as hosts. It seems to do well is the dry habitats of Western Australia. According to the Forest Products Commission of Western Australia, sandalwood is currently being grown from wild stands but they manage over 6,000 hectares of sandalwood plantation for future production. The native Western Australian sandalwood was exported to China beginning in 1844 in powder form for making incense. A small Australian marsupial, the woylie, was once responsible for much of the natural re-seeding of the native sandalwood trees. Woylies would gather seeds and bury their cache in a shallow hole much like squirrels do. When local foresters mimicked the actions of the woylies, they were able to increase regeneration of the trees (From:

Santal_austrocaledonicum_Denis Prevot

Santalum austrocaledonicum showing host tree at the back. Source: Wikimedia, Denis Prevot

Another wonderful source of lovely sandalwood is Vanuatu and New Caledonia – S. austrocaledonicum. Because I don’t use Indian sandalwood, this has been an excellent choice to substitute. However, a bit of research indicates that, as of 2007, wild sandalwood in Vanuatu was being harvested for wood and oil, possibly leading to depletion of the wild population. Plantations are in the ground and should be producing within the next 10-15 years. In the meantime, the government of Vanuatu is attempting to control harvest of sandalwood trees to within a sustainable level. (From: An inventory of wild sandalwood stocks in Vanuatu, 2008, published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). I have not found any information on the status of New Caledonia oils, still looking. Some research shows a close similarity of New Caledonian oil with S. album.

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Perfumer’s Nose Clary Sage: Narcotic and Radiant

clary sage stalk 1000

Clary Sage USA Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are some essential oils and absolutes that I just pull out sometimes for a sniff (or a rather deep inhale). It may just be that I am sitting in front of my perfume organ and something catches my eye so I uncap the bottle and spend a moment. Clary sage absolute is one of these lovely experiences. I don’t know whether the absolute has the same emotional effect as the essential oil but it definitely takes me to my happy place. On the other hand, I have sometimes thought of the aroma of clary sage essential oil as a beautiful note sung by a soprano, it is intoxicating but goes on and on and on just a bit too long. I need space to walk away from the essential oil at full strength.

Having said that, it was really lovely spending time with several dilute samples of the essential oil and finding that there is really more of a difference between my samples than I had thought. Mostly I use the essential oil for soap-making and the absolute for perfumery so I haven’t paid a lot of attention to my various clary sage EO samples except to give them a quick sniff and approve.

Most of you who use essential oils regularly are familiar with the ‘clary sage’ note and I found that Arctander mentions that distinctive odor. This is what remains on the scent strip after the nuances have evaporated. It was the nuances I was interested in and I began armed with my own descriptors of herbal, warm, sweet, and green. After reading a bit I added floral and hay-like. Also, tobacco features in many of the descriptions but may be one of those circular things because clary sage is used as a flavoring in tobacco. In fact, one of the early growers of clary sage in the US was RJ Reynolds, the cigarette company, who began growing it in North Carolina.

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Ancient and Graceful: Flowers of the Magnolia Family

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Champaca Flower Copyright Elise Pearlstine

One of the things I love about flowers in the Magnolia family is the lovely graceful shape of their petals. In these ancient flowering plants the flowers do not have separate petals and sepals, instead the large, non-specialized flower parts are called tepals. Although they are quite primitive, the flowers tend to be large and fragrant. Famously so for champaca (Magnolia/Michelia champaca), Magnolia/Michelia alba or white champaca, the large southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and the banana-smelling M. figo. Rather than being officially in the genus Michelia, all Michelia are now classified into the genus Magnolia although generally referred to by both names.

Like all fragrant flowering plants, the beautiful aroma and the shape of the flowers is mostly due to their pollinator, which in this case is a beetle. Yes, we owe that ethereal, rich floral fragrance to the lowly beetle, or should I say beetles since many types of beetles may be involved in pollination of magnolias. The large, beautifully curved flowers open gradually, keeping the petals together to form a cup and sometimes closing a bit at night to provide a safe haven for their beetle friends. The fragrance is designed to attract beetles and the petals are often tough and leathery to withstand chewing by their pollinator beetles. Although bees are often seen visiting magnolia and michelia blossoms once they open fully, these insects are generally too late for actual pollination and are just enjoying the abundant nectar and pollen. There is actually a lot more to the story of beetle pollinators and the flowers they pollinate but that’s a subject for another blog.

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Magnolia flower just opening Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are a number of fragrant products we can get from the various Michelia species, mainly champaca or alba, and they come from flower or leaf. If we go back to Arctander, he discusses the concrete, the absolute, and the essential oil. He mentions only champaca but talks about the concrete and absolute from flowers and an essential oil from the leaves. In my investigations I have found champaca absolute, champaca essential oil, champaca CO2, the concrete, a magnolia flower sample that is probably an essential oil, and a magnolia essential oil.

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