Perfumery Gardening

Perfumery Gardening

by E.S. Steele
reprinted from the Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, 1901

Written over a hundred years ago, it is more than a little interesting to read the first paragraph of this reprint and juxtapose the conclusions and sentiment against the avalanche of weird science and synthetic (and bio-engineered) product we are immersed in today. Just as current beneficial scientific exploration continues to discover true life forms as yet unrecorded we want to believe that these new/old forms, be they plant or animal, may introduce us to new aromas which may be cures for the Gout and Melancholy as well as portals to healthier outlook. SFJ

The perfumes of the market are derived in part from animal secretions (musk, civet), in part from artificial chemical compounds, and in part, and chiefly, from the class of vegetable products loosely called essential oils. “Synthetic” or chemical perfumery materials are the more or less perfect artificial reproductions of organic compounds used in perfumery. If it were possible in all cases and with perfect success to compound these substances, the production of floral perfumes would soon be at an end, as the chemical process would be sure to be cheaper than the horticultural. But nature knows how to add some touches which the chemist’s art cannot imitate, and even where synthetic manufacture is possible, the result is in general regarded as a cheaper substitute. At the same time, sentimental reasons count considerably in favor of the natural perfume, and considering, further, that some perfumes cannot be imitated chemically, there is no present cause to apprehend the extinction, or, in view of increasing demand, even the decline, of the industry of producing natural perfumery oils.

Perfumery Gardening

The essential oils used in perfumery are secreted in different parts of the plant. The flowers are naturally thought of first, being the seat of the fragrance of the rose, violet, cassie, jasmine, tuberose, the orange in part, and numberless other plants whose perfume is extracted or only enjoyed as naturally exhaled. The oil of lavender is yielded more by the green parts of the flower-head than by the corollas. In rose geranium, thyme, wintergreen and patchouli, the foliage is the fragrant part. A number of essences are derived from woods, as those of sandalwood, red cedar and rhodium. The oil of sweet birch comes partly from the wood, but mainly from the inner bark, and the same is true of sassafras. In the case of the latter, however, the roots only are used; in the case of the former the young tops. Several herbaceous roots also furnish oils, as orris root, Canada snakeroot and sweet flag. The rinds of the orange and other citrous fruits contain important perfumery oils, and the oil of bitter almonds comes from the fermented kernel of the nut.

The standard methods of extracting essential oils are four, namely, the use of mechanical means (chiefly expression), distillation, enfleurage or inflowering, and maceration. Expression appears to be applied only to the rinds of the citrous fruits. These are placed under pressure in a screw press, or sections turned wrong side out are squeezed in the fingers, the oil being taken up with a sponge, or the fruit is rubbed in a cup lined with spikes (ecuelle a piquer), the oil collecting in a hollow handle. An ecuelle on a larger scale in the shape of a hollow drum has also been used.

In distillation, the oil-bearing material is heated with water or subjected to hot steam, and the oil, being volatile, passes off with the steam. The oil would be lost if the vapor were not condensed, and this is accomplished by passing it through a coil or equivalent arrangement of pipe kept cool by a flow of water. The condensed steam and oil fall into a “Florentine recipient,” a vessel with a spout coming out at the base but rising to the level of the top, so that the heavier liquid, sometimes oil, sometimes water, alone will enter it and can be poured off separately. After the water and oil have mainly separated, the water will still contain enough oil to make it highly fragrant, and in this state it goes to market as rosewater, orange-flower water, etc., or is returned to the still to be redistilled with the next charge.

The remaining two methods depend on the fact that grease has the power of absorbing essential oils. In enfleurage the grease, without heating, is spread over both surfaces of panes of glass which are set in frames (chassis), so that they can be piled one over another with spaces between. In these spaces are placed the flowers, the charge being renewed daily until the grease is sufficiently impregnated, when it constitutes a “pomade.” “Extracts” are made by digesting the pomade in alcohol, which has a still stronger attraction for the perfume than has the grease. The alcohol must first be deodorized to save perverting the floral perfume, and is then known as “Cologne spirit.” The grease used in this and the next process, moreover, must be freed from all corruptible matter by a special process. Tallow and lard, commonly mixed, and sometimes the fat of the deer and other animals, are employed.

In maceration the pomade is produced by immersing repeated charges of the flowers in melted grease or fine olive oil.

In recent times various chemical processes for extracting perfumery have been tried, apparently with some practical success; but they have not yet supplanted the old methods. Carbon bisulfid and petroleum ether are among the solvents employed. These methods would be less easily practiced by beginners and amateurs than the ordinary ones.

The art of distilling is not only not difficult to learn, but is already in practice in this country in the case of peppermint, sweet birch, sassafras, eucalyptus, etc. More care and better apparatus would be required for distilling roses and other flowers, but the process is essentially the same. Nor do the grease processes involve any difficulties which may not be overcome by the application of a little American ingenuity and capital. In fact, the production of the raw materials of perfumery might proceed almost at once, so far as the difficulty of the processes is concerned. But can we grow the requisite plants?

That many of the standard perfumery plants will grow in this country needs no proof, and there is no reason to doubt that their fragrance in properly chosen localities will equal that of the same plants in the European centers. In general, success in this line must be looked for only southward, even in dealing with hardy plants, though there may be exceptions to this rule. Cool trade-winds and fogs at flowering time are to be shunned. The natural conditions in Florida seem not very different from those of the south of France, the great center of perfumery farming in Europe, and in fact the feasibility of successful perfumery farming in Florida has been demonstrated by actual trial. California has also been the scene of experiments, some of them seeming to promise success as soon as economic conditions admit. A large territory between these two points is available for some lines of the industry.

Among the particular plants to be noticed, the citrous fruits deserve a leading place. Nearly or quite all of the trees of this group, including the sweet, the bitter or Seville, and the bergamot oranges, the sweet and sour limes, the lemon, the citron, and the shaddock, contain valuable perfumes either in the peel of their fruit, or in their flowers, or in their leaves, or in more than one of these. Of the fruit oils, that of lemon is imported into this country in largest quantity, followed by oil of bergamot, oil of orange bitter and sweet, oil of limes and “cedrat” or citron oil, the last two in very small quantities, but the cedrat at a very high price. These oils are extracted by expression, the distilled being inferior, though it is asserted that when the “rag,” or inner soft layer, is removed, the distilled oil equals the other. The oil of the bitter orange is superior to that of the sweet; the oil of bergamot is far more valuable than either, but can rarely be had in an unadulterated state. The flowers of the orange treated by distillation yield “neroli.” The scent of neroli, however, is not that of the flowers, an alteration taking place during the distillation. Orange-flower water, consisting of the condensed vapor of water with a little unchanged oil adhering, affords the true odor of the flowers. By maceration, likewise, the true floral fragrance is obtained. The abortive flowers which fall from the trees are available for perfumery use, but the flowers are also sometimes picked, presumably with a better result. Besides the product of fruit and flowers, the leaves and young twigs pruned from the sweet and bitter oranges yield to distillation the oil of “petit grain,” of considerable though minor value. There is no reason to doubt the perfumery capacity of American orange groves. Indeed it has been asserted that the orange flowers of Louisiana excel in sweetness those of foreign parts. In Los Angeles, California, something has been done towards utilizing the peel, and in Florida a beginning has been made with both peel and flowers, but for the most part these resources are at present suffered to go to waste.

The lemon verbena, Lippia citriodora, may be mentioned in passing as furnishing an attractive perfume of the citrous order, and as available at least in Florida and California.

The perfumery products of the rose and its allies merit next attention. The value of the importation of attar of roses – to say nothing of rose perfume in other forms – exceeds that of any single citrous perfume, and at the same time the capacity of this country for producing this and the other rose perfumes can scarcely be called in question. The present supply of the European and American markets is derived chiefly from Turkey and from the perfumery region of the south of France. The attar or otto of roses is produced most largely in Bulgaria and other parts of European Turkey, from the damask rose. It is obtained by distillation, which is there conducted in a rude manner. In the Grasse district (south of France), the rose water, obtained as explained above, yields more profit than the attar, which is regarded as a by-product of the distillation. But the rose perfume is here largely extracted by maceration, finishing with enfleurage, processes which secure the true rose odor, which is not represented by the attar or water. The pomade and its alcoholic extract are perhaps the finest of rose products. The Provence rose is here employed, a hybrid or variety of the hundred-leaf, Rosa centifolia, the type to which the cabbage and moss roses belong. Pictures of this rose present, not the wellknown dooryard variety with short and crowded petals forming a flat disk without visible stamens, but a variety with larger and looser petals of a deeper color, with stamens in the middle. Both this and the damask rose are spring bloomers, the latter yielding also a small crop in the fall.

The luxuriance of roses on the Pacific coast and through the South invites experiments in those regions to ascertain their perfumery worth. Affluent vegetation cannot be taken as sure proof of a rich perfumery content, but this must be directly investigated by the nostrils and better by experimental distillation. There is practically no doubt, however, that in properly chosen localities American roses can compete in sweetness with the European. How far north the rose can be utilized for perfume cannot be settled in advance of experiment. The rose must have a hot sun, but the June sun is hot far to the north; and as at most only two harvests are gathered each year and the advantage of the South may not be as great as might be supposed. Still the presumption is that our coming rose industry will be conducted in our warmer sections. The soil for the rose must not be poor, but there is a possibility of its being too rich for the best perfumery results. While distillation seems to be practically confined to the two roses mentioned above, other kinds whose odor is attractive are available for treatment by the grease processes. There appears to be little in the methods of cultivating roses for this purpose which would not suggest itself to an experienced gardener. It takes some 3,000 pounds of petals to yield a pound of oil, but that pound should be worth at retail about ninety dollars, and more if of extra quality.

The oil distilled from the green parts of the common rose geraniums, Pelargonium capitatum and P. Radula, resembles in fragrance the oil of roses and is largely used as a substitute for it. Though generally not sold at retail under its own name, it is in itself a legitimate perfume, and its production should be undertaken in this country – only, however, in the South, where the long season admits of three crops of leaves and where the stumps with the soil heaped around them will survive the winter. The largest crop is to be had on rich lowland, but the finest quality is produced on drier and less fertile ground. In France, it is now grown mainly on irrigated land, but the product has to be ameliorated by the admixture of oil from drier locations. The rose geranium is largely grown in Algeria, and in Spring, Sicily, etc., as well as in France. Geranium oil in turn has it substitutes, among which the oil of lemon grass from India is conspicuous.

The European sweet violet, Viola odorata, affords the finest example of a favorite type of odors quite different form the citrine and the rose. The oil of the violet itself is necessarily so expensive as to be little used. The large amount of flowers required and the amount of hand labor necessary for gathering such small flowers, each growing on a separate stem, are apparently insurmountable obstacles to the extensive use of true oil of violet. Still it may be presumed that there will permanently be a class of buyers willing to pay the necessary cost of so choice a perfume. The violet yields its full fragrance only southward, but it must be grown in partial shade. When labor conditions admit, true violet perfume may be produced in California and in the South. An expert grower of violets has even thought that they might be grown under glass for this purpose.

Of the same general type and in some wise a substitute for violet perfume, is that of Acacia Farnesiana, the “cassie” of the French, known in the South as “opoponax.” The small yellow balls of flowers are treated by the grease processes, particularly maceration. While not ranked as high as violet, the perfume is in entirely good standing and produced in large quantities. The flowers dried with proper care have a market value for sachets. The opoponax tree grows freely in Florida, is apparently native in Texas, and is suited to the climate of Arizona and southern California. The labor of picking the flowers would be somewhat expensive. Several other acacias are eligible for perfumery use.

To the same group belongs the perfume of orris or iris root. It is afforded by the rootstocks of three species of Iris, formerly gathered wild and now cultivated near Florence and at other points in Italy. The species are Iris Germanica, I. pallida, and I. Florentina, the first of these being our common garden Iris, with deep blue flowers, the second a paler-flowered species, the third having white flowers. High authority affirms that the use of the first two species is only a falsification, and in fact that the root of I. Germanica causes serious inflammations. It is certain that the first two are extensively grown; but I. Florentina alone appears to be much used for distillation. When cultivated the Iris is generally propagated by root division, the cuttings being placed for the first year in a nursery, afterward set in rows a foot apart. It is grown in stony dry soils on hillsides or mountains. The crop is gathered once in two or three years. The cuticle is scraped from the root, which after being dried in the sun is stored in a dry place for the development of its fragrance. This is wanting in the fresh root, and does not reach its maximum under three years. When distilled the root yields “orris butter,” but it is more largely used in the form of an alcoholic tincture or ground up for sachets. There is no reason why orris root should not be grown in many parts of this country, but the returns at present are not large.

Perfumery Gardening

Another important group of perfumery plants consists of several members of the mint family. Peppermint and spearmint can hardly be placed in the perfumery class, but lavender, thyme and rosemary could not easily be spared from the perfumer’s resources. Lavender is native on dry slopes in the Mediterranean region, and the oil is most largely produced in the region of the maritime Alps. The plant has been introduced, however, into some of the southern counties of England (Mitcham and Hitchin being the centers), and found to produce there an oil which has commonly been regarded as far superior to the French, and at any rate is different in kind (see Mentha). The English lavender is grown in light and well-drained calcareous soils. In well-drained ground lavender will bear some cold, especially if protected, but profit cannot be looked for far north. Lavender of the French type may be expected to succeed in California out of the reach of the trade-winds, and may perhaps not require irrigation. There are shallow calcareous soils in the “black belt” of the Gulf states which might perhaps yield an oil like the English, and the same may be true of some tracts northward on the Pacific slope. Lavender is treated by distillation, and it is said in England that direct contact with the water yields better results than the application of dry steam. (See, also, Lavandula.)

Thyme (chiefly the garden thyme, Thymus vulgaris) furnishes a perfume particularly suited to soaps and imported into this country in large quantities. Rosemary has a stimulating property and is an essential ingredient in Cologne water. Both of these could quite possibly be grown, say in California, but might not be able to compete well with the spontaneous product of Europe.

Some notice should be taken, too, of the rather humble group of odorous plants belonging to the parsley family, including anise, caraway and fennel. Not only are the oils of these three (chiefly anise) largely imported, but also their seeds (chiefly caraway). Caraway runs wild northerly, fennel has established itself on the lower Potomac, and anise could doubtless be grown, but there is no reason to expect large profits from these plants.

There are several plants deserving consideration which do not fall into any of these groups. One is the jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum and J. Sambac). This furnishes almost the only odor which cannot be imitated by combinations of others. The oil of jasmine is very valuable. The plants can be grown in our warmest regions. The tuberose furnishes another choice perfume and has been very successfully grown for the purpose in Florida. (See Polianthes.) The heliotrope, jonquil, and mignonette are also to be named. Of a quite different scent from any of these is the oil of bitter almond, so important for fine soaps. This so-called oil is a poisonous compound formed in the process of fermenting the cake of the kernels from which the fixed oil has been expressed. Its production should be considered in our almond-growing regions, especially California.

Of our native growths there are some which are already utilized as the source of scenting materials. The root of sassafras is or has been distilled in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and in other northern states, and sparingly southward. Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, was formerly distilled in the North, but has given place to sweet or cherry birch, Betula lenta, which yields the same oil less expensively. The wood of the red cedar, Juniperus Virginiana, has long been distilled in Germany, and latterly in this country. It furnishes a finer cedar-of-Lebanon perfume than the cedar of Lebanon itself.

Perfumery Gardening

The root of the wild ginger or Canada snakeroot, Asarum Canadense, yields a fragrant oil quoted in market reports, and said to be used especially for strengthening other perfumes. The sweet goldenrod, Solidago odora, furnishes an oil which has a market standing. The rich odor of the yellow jessamine of the South has been successfully extracted in Florida. The common market perfume of magnolia is doubtless mostly or entirely an imitation, and the same is probably true of Clethra alnifolia perfume. The great magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, abounds in the South, but its flowers might be difficult to secure in quantity. Clethra is abundant enough in the Atlantic coast region, but some difficulty might be experienced with it owing to the fact that only a part of the flowers in the raceme open at one time. The flowers of the swamp magnolia or sweet bay, Magnolia Virginiana or M. glauca, should be tried. The spice bush, Benzoin odoriferum, affords several scents. The sweet and copious bloom of Azalea arborescens in the southern mountains has been suggested for treatment. It is to be feared that the delicious odor of the native crab apples would be too expensive, considering the difficulty of collecting enough petals. The bloom of the wild grape might well be thought of. Many of our plants – these are only examples — will eventually be tried and a few will be found steadily valuable. It is useless to expect commercial success with small and scanty-flowered plants like trailing arbutus, Epigoea repens, however pleasing in their natural state.

The production of perfumery oils may be conducted on large farms by capitalists; or a central establishment may contract with individuals for flowers and other materials; or the business may be carried on cooperatively; or individuals may operate on a small scale in connection with other lines of farming.

Intending experimenters should seek further information in one or more of the books which are before the public. With regard to methods of extraction, Askinson’s “Perfumes and their Preparation” may be confidently recommended. Sawer’s “Odorographia” (especially the first series) is valuable both to the extractor and the grower. Piesse’s “Art of Perfumery” will also be found useful on both sides of the subject. Gildemeister and Hoffman’s “Volatile Oils” is also very valuable.