Friday, February 29, 2008

Get to the essence of flowers: Favorite garden plants are also tops for perfume

A delicate wisp of freesia, appearing just in time for holiday cheer, can perfume an entire room for days. For Mother's Day, a heavy bouquet of fuchsia-tinged Stargazer lilies has the same voluptuous effect. And a heady Valentine's Day vase of roses might seem an extravagantly perfumed gift. But none of these perishable bouquets can come close to the number of flowers it takes to scent one long-lasting vial of cologne.

Mankind has a long and odiferous history of creating scented products, particularly in ancient Egypt, Rome and China, where incense was widely used. But it wasn't until Avicenna invented steam distillation in 1100 that extracting plants' essential oils was possible, leading directly to the creation of liquid scents.

Today, most perfumes are scented with synthetic oils. But there are still some perfume makers that stick to plant materials, among them the ultra-luxury company House of Creed and the ultra-traditional Yardley of London, which debuted its Yardley's Lavender fragrance in 1780. Among the flowers that remain most popular for fragrances are several you might have growing in your own garden:

Roses. Clearly the romantic favorite, the highest quality rose oil comes from Bulgaria, the south of France and Morocco, whose hot, dry summers produce roses with a stronger fragrance than those grown in other climes. Red roses also contain more oil; the most commonly used types of roses are Damascus rose and Rosa gallica, used mostly in Bulgaria; and in the South of France and Morocco, Rosa centifolia.

Lavender. This familiar spicy-floral oil is used in soaps, candles, bath salts, bath oils and sachets as well as perfumes, is commercially grown in the Mediterranean region, Bulgaria and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Some is also grown in the British Isles, mostly Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender.

Violets. While many floral scents are extracted from flowers, the fresh, woodsy scent of violet essential oil is often drawn out of its fleshy green leaves. Alternatively, oil extracted from orris root (Iris x germanica var. florentina) is often used as a substitute for true violet oil.
Lavender has been used for centuries as a fragrance and a medicine.

Can't I do it myself?
It is actually possible to build a homemade still and extract scented flower waters in your own kitchen. Whether it's worth the time and expense is an entirely separate matter.

You can get started with nothing more than a length of rubber tubing, an enameled teapot with a tight-fitting lid, and two bowls -- one with ice water in it, the other empty to catch your odiferous extract.

Attach your tubing to the spout of the teapot, drape it into the ice-water bowl and hang the other end into the empty bowl. Next, fill your teapot with flowers, then fill with water to cover and bring it to a low boil. As the flowers cook, oil-laden steam will come through the tubing, be condensed in the ice-water bath and come out the other end. Let this liquid sit until the essential oil separates from the water; you can collect the oil, and use the leftover flower water as a nice-smelling skin tonic.

You'll be slaving over the stove for a while before you get any appreciable amount of oil, though -- about 250 pounds of rose petals go into producing an ounce of attar of rose. If you try this, be sure not to use flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or other toxic treatments, which will show up again in your finished product.

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