EP 50: Earthly Notes 101

This episode does not include a separate audio segment as I simply wanted to run down some of the ongoing ‘language’ of perfumery. This time I am focusing on natural and some synthetic notes used in making fragrances. When I talk about ‘ingredients’ or ‘recipe’ this is what I am talking about, the individual herbs, barks, resins, plants, etc. that make up a scent, it’s composition. Some of these ingredients are created through distillation processes, some are blended in other ways, others are chemical compounds that refer to or emulate in some way, the notes. Most of these elements come directly from nature, but are not all household words. Many of the age-old elements in perfumery that used animal essences are pretty much now strictly no longer using animals in either testing or in the actual product (this will vary, you will want to do your own in-depth research). There are so so so many others than these listed, though I thought to compile some commonly (and a few not so) used in perfumery and to share their background with you. Some perfumers rely on the lab, others are stringent on using only organic elements. Do you have some essential notes in what you wear? Let me know what you love in terms of notes. I hope you find this quick ‘101 Guide’ helpful. Here’s my ABC-style shortlist of notes, from woods to plants to resins to fruits and back again:

Agarwood (oud): a fragrant dark resinous wood, formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mold
Ambergris: a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the intestines of sperm whales

Ambrette Seeds: a notable aromatic oil extracted from the seeds of Abelmoschus moschatus, the Hibiscus plant

Ambroxan: a naturally occurring terpenoid and one of the key constituents responsible for the odor of ambergris

Angelica: a perennial herb, root, seed, leaf, and fruit are used to make medicine

Argan: a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree that is endemic to Morocco

Benzoin: is a white crystalline compound, the sap (gum resin) of trees that belong to the Styrax species

Borage: also known as starflower, bee bush, bee bread, and bugloss, is a medicinal herb with edible leaves and flowers

Cade Oil: juniper tar (cade oil) is distilled from the branches and wood of Juniperus oxycedrus. It contains etheric oils, triterpene and phenols

Calamansi: a citrus fruit similar to lemon and limes. It is often called calamondin in America

Castoreum: comes from the beaver’s castor sac, located between the pelvis and base of the tail. Because of its close proximity to the anal glands, the substance often contains anal secretions and urine. The compound is non-toxic

Chinotto: Citrus myrtifolia, the myrtle-leaved orange tree, the fruit of the tree resemble small oranges. It has a bitter flavor and is commonly called by its Italian name, chinotto

Chypre: more of a term than a ‘note. The term chypre is French for the island of Cyprus. Its connection to perfumery originated with the first composition to feature the bergamot-labdanum-oakmoss accord

Civet: also known as civet musk, is the glandular secretion produced by both sexes of Viverridae species

Copaiba Balsam: is a sap-like substance (oleoresin) collected from the trunk of trees that belong to the Copaifera species

Cyclamen: are actually a type of bulb or more specifically a Corm (a short, thickened vertical stem). Their native habitat is the Mediterranean and Southern Europe

Davana: an herb (a member of the silver-leafed Artemisia family) is native to India, and once it’s steam-distilled has a sweet, tea-like smell, reminiscent of dried fruit

Elderflower/Elderberries: a small bush, peppered with delicate white flowers (i.e. elderflower) that flourishes widely in countries such as the United Kingdom and France, spreading in hedgerows across many of its fields

Elemi: canarium luzonicum, commonly known as elemi, is a tree native to the Philippines

Fenugreek: an herb that is similar to clover. It is native to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, and western Asia. The seeds are used in cooking, in medicine, and to hide the taste of other medicine

Finger Lime: a native of Australia, citrus australasica is a thorny understorey shrub or small tree of lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest in the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia

Galbanum: an aromatic gum resin and a product of certain umbelliferous Persian plant species in the genus Ferula, chiefly Ferula gummosa (synonym F. galbaniflua) and Ferula rubricaulis. Galbanum-yielding plants grow plentifully on the slopes of the mountain ranges of northern Iran

Geranium: pelargonium is a genus of flowering plants which includes about 280 species of perennials, succulents, and shrubs, commonly known as geraniums, pelargoniums, or storksbills

Ginkgo: also known as the maidenhair tree, is the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta, all others being extinct. It is a very old species, with some fossils dating back 270 million years

Guaiac Wood: is a small tree, characterised by its warm, woody-sweet scent with rose undertones

Heliotrope: is a tender shrubby perennial, or sub-shrub, of the borage family, with clusters of sweetly-scented blossoms in shades of purple, blue, or white

Immortelle: known as the everlasting flower, is a flowering plant of the daisy family Asteraceae, the dried flower is used to make medicine

Juniper Berries: the female seed cone produced by the various species of juniper, while not an actual berry per se, it is rather a cone, most are deep blue with an aroma is often described as woody or spicy

Labdanum: from the Cistus plant (better known to some gardeners as Rock Rose) – is a pillar of chypre perfumes and many Orientals, extremely tenacious and has a deep, rich, sweet balsamic aroma with a faint herbaceous note

Leather: also referred to by the French term, parfums cuir, are only the ‘essence’ of leather made up of other components, natural and synthetic to offer a ‘skin scent’

Lemongrass: cymbopogon is a plant, an herb with a lemony scent, used to make medicine,

Mastic: an adhesive, is a natural resin obtained from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus). It is also known as tears of Chios

Musk: a strong-smelling reddish-brown substance with a persistent odor, which is secreted by the male musk deer for scent-marking

Neem: a natural herb that comes from the neem tree, other names for which include Azadirachta indica and Indian lilac

Oakmoss: evernia prunastri, a species of light green to green-black fungal lichen, smells earthy, and woody

Olibanum: an essential oil, extracted from resinous oils from trees of the Boswellia genus, characterised by a balsamic-spicy, slightly lemon, fragrance of incense, with a conifer-like undertone

Opoponax: a kind of gum resin, that’s smokey and soft, luminous and sensual

Pamplemousse: French for Grapefruit, a tart citrus fruit

Papyrus: a tall, aquatic plant, its material is similar to thick paper,

Peru Balsam: originates from El Salvador, oily sap from the bark derived from a tree known as Myroxylon balsamum,

Petitgrain: oil extracted from the leaves and green twigs, is derived from the bitter orange tree,

Pimento Leaf: Caribbean twiggy branches mainly used as a tea to treat bacterial and fungal infections, from the Pimento/Allspice tree, used in jerk seasoning from Jamaica,

Shiso: a healthy Japanese herb, a bit spicy in flavor with a unique hint of cinnamon,

Styrax: called Japanese snowbell, is a compact, deciduous flowering tree with horizontal branching and a rounded crown, with pendulous white flowers on short lateral shoots

Tobacco Blossom: herbaceous plant, gets a hint of spice from cognac and anise, dry floral tonality

Tolu Balsam: a balsam that originates from South America, a sap-like substance that comes from the Myroxylon balsamum tree

Tonka Bean: dipteryx odorata, a flat, wrinkled legume from South America with an outsize flavor that the federal government has declared illegal, contain unusually high levels of the chemical coumarin, which gives them their flavour

Tuberose: agave amica bulb produces a sugary-sweet scent in tall flower spikes with numerous tubular blooms and a fragrance that is rich, sultry and seductive. With Mexican origins it’s not hard to understand how this plant is ideally suited to warm weather gardening

Vetiver: reed, known as chrysopogon zizanioides, is a perennial bunchgrass native to India, packed with therapeutic properties

Yarrow: a flowering plant in the family Asteraceae. It is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Asia and Europe and North America

Ylang-Ylang: a tropical yellow, star-shaped flower that grows on the Cananga tree, steam distilled from flowers of trees grown in Ecuador and Madagascar

Yuzu: a citrus fruit, the size of a tangerine, is a plant in the family Rutaceae of East Asian origin referred to as the ‘sour mandarine’ – it is a crossbred fruit between the Ichang papeda and Satsuma mandarin

Sources: Wikipedia, Fragrantica, WebMD, History of Perfume, Basenotes, Perfume Society, Dummies.com, DIYNetwork, Byrdie.com, TheSpruce.com, UrbanCultivator.com

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