The Spring Solstice is upon us, which gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about some of our favourite spring and summer perfumery flowers! However, not all of the flowers in perfumery can be extracted from their natural source, which means we have to take an alternative route and build an accord with synthetics. But remember, synthetics aren’t a bad thing! Sometimes, it’s impossible to extract a scent from a flower (because they’re just so stubborn), which is why we have to recreate them.
We typically extract the fragrance from flowers in two ways: steam distillation, and solvent extraction. Steam distillation extracts the essential oils at temperatures near 100°C, whereas solvent extraction involves placing the flowers into a rotating drum before being coated with a solvent like Hexane. This solvent dissolves the flower, leaving behind a waxy substance containing the oils called a concrete, which is then further dissolved in ethyl alcohol, burned off, and finally results in the absolute we use in perfumery!
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive into some of our favourite spring and summer perfumery flowers!
There are two common rose products used in perfumery, rose essential oil and rose absolute. Rose essential oil is extracted through steam distillation, which is a complicated process and uses highly-controlled conditions. Did you know it takes an average of 60,000 roses to produce one ounce of oil, and 10,000 kilograms rose blossoms to produce one kilogram of oil?
Rose absolute is extracted through solvent extraction, which yields a slightly larger amount as opposed to using distillation, which is why rose absolute tends to be a bit less costly than rose essential oil! Rose absolute is prized for its deeper, more sensual and honey-like facets and is more authentic to the smell of the actual rose bloom.
Jasmine is a small and delicate white flower with a surprisingly potent and sensual scent. In perfumery, Jasmine absolute is used which is made through the process of solvent extraction of the flowers. If we used steam distillation to extract jasmine, the high heat would cause the petals to deteriorate and form a dense mass that steam can’t penetrate, rendering the oil inside of the petals useless. However, even with the solvent extraction process, this is still considered a low efficiency process and yields a low amount of oil, meaning jasmine oil is very expensive! The smell of jasmine can be described as floral, sensual and narcotic, with green fruity notes of banana and an animalic and leathery undertone.
Narcissus, also extracted through solvent extraction, is like burying your nose in the Spring itself — or as Julie Massé explains it, ‘an opulent sensation of green-leaf, or the hissing of hot, wet summer lawns – a strangely intense and yet cool floral.’
Narcissus is a very powerful flower, and in a closed room, it can be quite an overwhelming scent. Only a touch of it is needed, which means perfumers should approach using it in a fragrance with caution. Narcissus actually received its name from the Greek work ‘narke,’ which means ‘to be numb,’ and alludes to the effect the oil can have!
Tuberose, a sweet, exotic, and velvety floral flower is another expensive one in perfumery — it takes over 3,600 kilos of flowers to produce just half a kilo of tuberose. But don’t let the word “rose” in its name fool you, it has virtually nothing to do with rose. Instead, tuberose is related to the lily!
Also known as the ‘carnal flower,’ tuberose blossoms are so powerful, only a few stems can fill a room with their scent for days, or even weeks. In Victorian times, the tuberose symbolised ‘dangerous pleasure’ — which is what perfumers are aiming for when they use it in a fragrance. Its intoxicating and voluptuous essence will leave you wanting more.
Orange flower, which comes from the small white flowers that blossom on the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantia), is also extracted through solvent extraction, resulting in an absolute that is rich and sweet. Orange flower is also widely used in perfumery due to its versatility — you can find it in cologne, Oriental chypres, and petal-perfect florals. Neroli essential oil is obtained from the same flower, but through the process of steam distillation, resulting in an olfactive profile that is greener, brighter and more citrusy.
Now, let’s get into two of the flowers that can’t be extracted from their natural plant: lily of the valley and lilac.
Lily of the Valley
The Lily of the Valley is a mysterious plant, because its eluded itself from all forms of extraction, even modern CO2 extracts. This is because the flower produces the scent only at the point of release (none is stored in the flower itself), so it simply can’t be extracted. Because of this, we have to take a synthetic approach in recreating the fresh and transparent floral scent of lily of the valley, meaning you’ll often see molecules lilial, cyclamen aldehyde, hydroxycitronellol, or mayol used, among others. Many of the molecules used to recreate lily of the valley are bound by legislation restrictions, which threatens the use of this beautiful and iconic flower for future perfumers.
Lilac is another tricky flower used in perfumery — nearly all lilac scents available are synthetic. In fact, there is no such thing as a lilac essential oil, because the flowers only bloom for about two weeks a year. This means if there were a lilac essential oil that exists, it would be very expensive to both consumers and perfumers. Also, when you try to extract lilac from typical extraction processes like distillation, the result doesn’t smell like lilacs, and it destroys the scent.
It is possible, however, to extract lilac through CO2 extracts, but the result is very expensive: several hundred dollars for only one ounce. Which means many perfumers use a mix of natural and synthetic ingredients to mimic the scent of lilac. Molecules like phenyl ethyl alcohol, heliotropin, and anisic aldehyde help bring the powdery and balsamic lilac accord to life.
Those are just a few of the spring and summer flowers we use in perfumery — if we listed them all, who knows how long this blog post would be?
Let us know in the comments: what's your favourite spring and summer flower?