Aromatica Poetica combines our love of literature with our love of smell in a colossal endeavor to promote and celebrate the oft-disparaged sense, the “fallen angel,” as one of our inspirations Helen Keller named it in her attempt to raise it.
We hope to give beautiful language to a sense that is usually denied literary efforts, and in such a way, to prioritize the sense of smell and by extension taste, so that people with different perceptual experiences can revel and write freely about the senses they know intimately.
As Keller writes, “We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a color-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense.”
And as Proust writes, “But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.”
Between and amongst these voices Aromatica Poetica plays.
Perfumer & Flavorist, which caters to professionals in the industry, has also provided much fodder for thought. From interviews with scent and flavor artists to investigations of molecules, the magazine has helped to crack open the previously top-secret, almost magical, world of perfumery and flavor, that most lay people do not even know are so closely related and intertwined.
We join these and other adventurers in shedding light on the science as well as the aesthetics of perfume, flavor, and olfaction.
We left our friends and drove according to my awesome navigation (with a little help from my iPhone) through Rocky Mountain majesty, seeking a place to stay. Using the fully accessible Google Maps I found and wanted a cabin on Bear Creek, but we were too late for that–disappointing not only because Bear Creek provided a marvelous soundtrack of white water rushing and barbeques for grilling and was idyllically located amongst sheer cliffs, but also because it was just a mile or two down the road from Cactus Jack’s, a biker bar whose tagline is “burgers re-built for dreamers,” that called to Alabaster and I with its absurd and romantic reference to a desert landscape.
By then dusk was falling and we really wanted to avoid Motel 6, and finally looking down the list I found Coyote Motel, and was enchanted. We’d decided that we would, from now on, call before driving the few but long mountain miles, and I did and she said she had rooms and sounded sweet. I was sold and we started following the complicated directions that miraculously took us from one county road to another and through darkening valleys and even a mountain tunnel to Blackhawk–a casino town.
I love that Alabaster lets me be the navigator. I call out the instructions and he listens and it makes road trips fun and interactive for me again–God Bless the iPhone! I haven’t had so much responsibility on a road trip since the old days of travelling with my best friend Indigo and playing navigator with a giant atlas and a magnifying lens.
Following my directions for Colorado county road this to junction that, we made our way to CO-119, and there, in the middle of nowhere, with signs advertising Liquor Store and Pawn Shop, was the Coyote Motel, and Alabaster was delighted. “This is something!” he exclaimed. “I’m not a writer, and I’ve got all kinds of stories–can you imagine the misery that’s happened in this room? Ok, fine, he waxed poetic about the gambling melodrama once we got our nips into our room, but he was pretty excited about this place from minute 1, though he admitted later he was concerned about the room, until we stepped in and found it very pleasant, with a bedframe of tree limbs, and a fridge and a microwave and tidy as one could want. But I had seen its rating on Google Maps that ranked it far and away above any motel 6, so I wasn’t worried. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
We walked toward the Coyote Motel office and I worried that it had taken us too long and that the 3 rooms that had been vacant when I called were now occupied but, as usual, my pessimism was in vain. No, the lady with the sweet demeanor on the phone smiled at our request and directed us from the liquor store counter around the corner to the motel rental counter–not around the corner into another door but around the counter to the other register.
Later, when we returned to buy our liquor and snacks Alabaster teased that she needed a different hat for each counter, and she said she’d get confused which one to put on. On that second trip to the one-stop-shop, Alabaster, knowing my interest in essential oils and the like, noticed aloud a sign that read “Rocky Mountain Organics,” and I was duly confused and excited. “I think I know that company!”
So we walked around and all the way down to the other end of the shop where a lonely guy stood waiting for someone to pawn their wedding ring or ski boots, and we asked what the Rocky Mountain Organics was, and he sort of shrugged as if to say, “I dunno.”
Then we went and picked out our vodka and frozen chimichangas and, thanks to me, a bag of Rockies Baseball peanuts still in shell just like you get at the ball park and returned to our room and Alabaster read some highlights from the little newspaper that we found on the night table. Colorado Gambler is an upbeat rag dedicated to local gaming, recreation, and entertainment. We laughed and drank and had a grand old time playing hooky from the folks for the night.
In other words, in addition to selling our electronics and buying our booze and our junk food and our night’s stay, we could have bought an eighth of organically grown sativa. But, you say, you don’t even smoke weed, and that’s true, but I have friends that do, and sometimes you have to live the story. Besides I would have liked to have seen our Coyote Motel gal put on her marijuana hat!
On the day of the hydrosols tasting with Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer (offered through New York Institute of Aromatherapy), my daily hallucinations were painted blue, an electric blue that did not want to let go its hold on my visionscape. In recent years, I’ve found that strong scents can change my visual palette almost immediately, but somehow that blue day would not give way except for the neon orange of the orange blossom and then the glorious yellow orange of the milkweed that burst through towards the end of the evening.
The way it worked was that each new hydrosol was spritzed into our wine glasses and mixed with a little filtered water. Then we all smelled and sipped and free-associated, allowing the mystery hydrosol to elicit thoughts, feelings, images and yes colors too.
To be honest, it was hard for me not to feel a little competitive. As a blind person, I want my nose to be best, but, as a person new to aromatic aesthetics, I realize this is ridiculous. For several of the hydrosols, I was sure what they were and I was correct, for a bunch, I had ideas of what they were, but having been derived from plants I’d never met before–black copal and palo santo for example–I was nowhere close, and I hate to be wrong!
After the first three I finally relaxed and allowed my mind to wander a bit and not get too hung up about being right. One cool moment was guessing #8 Beeswax correctly, but I had an advantage since, being enrolled in Skipper’s Hydrosols course at The School for Aromatic Studies, I knew that such a thing was possible. That was certainly one of my favorites, as it exhibited a strong distinction between its taste and aroma–the smell reminded me of the spirit of the plants that sustain the hive, while the flavor tasted of the building material itself, a glossy waxy sensation that was almost chewable.
Birkmayer encouraged us to think synesthetically, which in the case of #9 penetrated and offered a joyous blast of yellow orange. I did not know what it was, but I liked it. I was so entranced that I neglected my notes, so unfortunately I cannot refer back to words from the moment to explain the flavor, also it was number nine, so Alabaster–who was gracious enough to accompany me on this odd little tasting adventure–and I were a bit slap happy. We’re not yet persuaded by the concept of vibrational aromatherapy, but our heads were surely buzzing by that point in the evening!
For some of the hydrosols, we were encouraged to imagine an animal. People were not guessing the correct animal for this one and so Birkmayer mentioned butterflies and then I knew and said, “Milkweed?” And I felt justified in all my orange and yellow associations.
The common name milkweed derives from its milky nectar that can trap some nonnative insects, but Linnaeus, that taxonomist of all taxonomists, apparently named the genus asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Why? I wonder. Milkweed is a new world plant, likely brought back to Sweden by one of his students flung out to all corners of the world to collect new species for Linnaeus to inspect and name. Perhaps he did so because he learned that some natives of the New World used some species for healing, but so many plants have medicinal uses, this seems too easy an answer.
Asclepias speciosa, from which our hydrosol was distilled, is also known as “showy milkweed” because of its flamboyant flowers. It is the special food of the monarch butterfly.
The recognition of the monarch nectar brought me back to the Santa Cruz grove where the monarchs winter. I wrote a poem about seeing those butterflies, which I often visited during my years at UCSC (Go Slugs!).
How many times did I take my friends and family to the little Eucalyptus grove by the ocean, only to be disappointed by the cold and nearly inert clusters of monarchs clinging to the trees for warmth, but for a few flying bravely. The foreign eucalyptus grove and the beach at Natural Bridges are an easy walk but worlds apart.
Once, with a forgotten companion, I saw them fall from the sky mating in the warm afternoon sun. They dropped in our hands and flew apart and I believe it was all not a dream, though the memory has that quality of unreality that sometimes makes me doubt.
Melissa officinalis derives its name from the Greek word honeybee because the tiny white flowers are so attractive to bees. According to The Drunken Botanist: “The upper leaves and flowers are steamed distilled to extract this potent flavor, which goes into absinthe, vermouth, and herbal liqueurs. It is suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in both Chartreuse and Benedictine.”
As discussed in this article on St-Germain, Medieval monks and nuns used booze to preserve the healing powers of herbs. The famous Carmelite Water consists of Melissa officinalis macerated in rectified spirits with angelica, nutmeg, and other medicinal plants in a closely guarded formula that can still be purchased in German pharmacies for stomach upset.
Officinalis is a term from Medieval Latin that refers to the place where the medicines and other necessities of the monastery were kept. It denoted a plant (or sometimes animal) as having established use value as a medicine. It was Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish taxonomist, who first employed the binomial nomenclature that so plagues young botanists and plant enthusiasts today. Melissa officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and many more plants with the epithets officinalis (for masculine and feminine nouns) or officinale (for neuter nouns) tell us that the plant was known and used by at least the middle of the 18th Century, when Linnaeus published his several editions of Systema Naturae.
As Mrs. M. Grieve writes in her 1931 Modern Herbal, Melissa officinalis is also known as sweet balm or lemon balm. “The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness.” Grieve continues, “It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”
The essential oil of Melissa officinalis is quite expensive (about $60-70 for a 5ml bottle of good quality oil), so I decided to give the hydrosol a try. I ordered a 4 oz. spray bottle from PhiBee Aromatics, a family-run distiller in Arizona, who specialize in oils of the Southwest.
Melissa is native to the Mediterranean but has been naturalized in many places around the world. I messaged Clare to ask a couple questions about their hydrosols and she got back to me right away, among other things she mentioned that she often has a teaspoon of melissa in warm water before bed. I too put a teaspoon of Melissa hydrosol into a cup of warm water and added a shot of Bushmill’s Honey for an instant hot toddy–delicious!
Melissa officinalis is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), which includes many of the classic culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and like these others is wonderful in the kitchen. Yet, with so much commodification over the course of the twentieth century, a huge variety of plants used in the kitchen got compressed into a few, and many delicious flavors absconded from the typical American palate. The result is that when I encounter an herb like melissa I am delighted to find recipes that support its culinary use, for instance this one for lemon balm pesto.
Having lost the majority of my vision later in life, I still consider myself to be a highly visual person, but I’m trying very hard to hone my aesthetic appreciation of taste and smell. The hydrosol of Melissa officinalis has a delightfully lemony tang, but not like lemons. As Suzanne Catty puts it in Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, “more the idea of lemon in a flavor.” There is also something floral about it while it retains the herbaceous grounding of its culinary cousins. It’s a flavor that can go both sweet or savory. Catty suggests using it for steaming vegetables or fish.
Catty also tells us, “Melissa is calming to the body more than the mind but without being overly sedative. Use it for stress, anxiety, and childhood hysterics. Combine with rosemary while studying and with neroli to drink during exams.”
Melissa officinalis has long been renowned for its good effects on the nervous
system and to calm anxiety, and there have been a number of scientific studies to back up the anecdotal evidence. For someone who tends to get overexcited/angry, I can appreciate. The herbalist, physician and contemporary of Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote, “It maketh the heart merry and joyful and strengthened the vitall spirits.”
With that in mind, I’ve been spritzing myself day and night with melissa. Travelling around as an artist hobo makes it necessary for me to buy stuff and use it up. As much as I’d like to have palettes of aroma rainbows to choose from at all times, I can’t be toting around dozens of bottles. So I do the very unAmerican thing of using a few items for everything, thereby using up all my stock and replenishing as necessary. Taking a cue from the ladies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I like my beauty products to double as potable cordials!
Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.
I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.
Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.
For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.
I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.
I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.
First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…
Then I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.
Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!
“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”
Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.
“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”
Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.
I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”
The guy with the hard metal name was beautiful in my degenerate eye. Beautiful with a girlfriend. And a Volkswagen bus. This was around the time of the earthquake of ’89, when the influences of flower power still loomed large in San Francisco. I’d been pining for so long and then he said they’d broken up. We climbed into his bus and he put rose oil (adulterated, I recognize in my mind’s now more refined nostrils) under my nose and kissed me. When I give myself a little credit, I remember thinking it a cheap trick. I was young, but I knew enough to recognize that when it was over the smell under my nose was gone.
The guy with a name that reminds one of welders, returned to his girlfriend and told her what we’d done, which made her hate me. That hurt too. I then glimpsed adulthood, where quotidian comfort trumps experimental romance.
Then I moved from my mom’s place in the Richmond District to 1462 Haight Street. Out the front door to the right was Ashbury and below a diner. Lazing on Haight Street, breakfast eggs and potatoes stick in the craw. It is this stuckness of regrettable youth that stinks like All You Knead. To live above a mediocre diner, to smell its unclean smells, and still to eat there is a kind of willful anosmia.
Similarly, being 19, mostly ignorant and a masochist, I adopted the scent of fake roses, bought for 10 bucks down the street in a crystal shop or some damn woowoo place, as my own. Not sure if I made the connection, but I still loved the smell after the encounter with the guy named for a metal that was the material of which the VW bus that had so briefly cocooned us was made.
Recently, long since those days of low self-esteem and unrefined judgement, I’ve had the pleasure of smelling real rose oil, bought in a precious one milliliter vile, Rosa damascena, and it is sweet and innocent–pink flowered and pure. It is warming to the heart, not meant to bump you upside the head with a reification of sex.
These days I often look to aromatherapy books when I’m feeling grumpy . Keville and Green tell me that it was the poetess Sappho who dubbed rose the “queen of flowers”:
“The fragrance of rose inspired poets and lovers throughout the ages, and it has been used to ‘open’ the heart and ease grief, heartache, loss, and sadness. … Employed for relationship conflicts, envy, anger, and intolerance, it is comforting, supportive through crisis, and an aphrodisiac. It also helps alleviate depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, and lack of confidence.” I need to save my pennies for another tiny vial!
And yet, sometimes I feel guilty for my greedy nose, and wonder if it is, even now, worthy of the holocaust of hundreds of flowers. In Aromatherapy I read that it takes up to 60 rose blossoms to produce just one drop of essential oil.
Roses are difficult to raise organically, must be handpicked, and do not have many essential oil glands, so it is often adulterated.
In the essential oil of rose, or rose otto (usually distilled from Rosa damascena) there are hundreds of distinct chemical constituents. At the risk of boring you, but in the interest of proving my point, I will include a few here (from Essential Oil Safety): Citronellol (16.0-35.9%), Geraniol (15.7-25.7%), Alkenes & alkanes (19.0-24.5%), Nerol (3.7-8.7%), Methyleugenol (0.5-3.3%), and so on…
Many more exist in trace amounts, which gives rose its complexity, roundness and depth. Unfortunately, chemists working in the flavor and fragrance industry tend to ignore this fact. They isolate major constituents and reconstruct simple versions of a complicated fragrance. The distinctly rosy constituent geraniol, for example, can be added to rose oil to extend it, but in the process, flattens out the scent.
Isolating a single constituent of rose is like isolating a personality trait, and claiming to know something about the whole person. I doubt any of us would like that very much! Nobody wants to be thought of as only gregarious, only proud, only smart, only funny, only a pain in the ass, only pretty. A flowers unique essence is made up of many things, just as we are, and to pin a couple of trope constituents on a formula created in a lab and slap the term rose on it, is as unconscionable (and comes from the same sad impulse) as bigotry and the creation of stereotypes.
Artificial aromas and flavors are so one-dimensional. And we’ve grown used to it. Eat a cherry flavored candy and you may name it as such, but what resemblance does the cherry flavor candy have to the real thing? Almost nothing. And unfortunately so many of us are weaned on such artificial flavors that we must be reeducated. Even “natural” flavors ought to be suspect in our noses as what is meant by “natural flavors” are organic compounds isolated and reconstituted to create a one-dimensional and highly duplicable taste. Cherries taste all kinds of ways in nature but only one way in a Skittle.
Before I remove my teeth from this subject, allow me to worry the bastards over at Febreze.
I don’t know if you’ve witnessed their ad campaign centered around the tawdry word “noseblind,” but let me just say that as a blind person (extremely tolerant of the liberal use of blindness as a metaphor), I find this term infuriating. I am blind. It is not a great thing to be, but it works its magic in its own particular and mysterious ways. Don’t take it away from me because you are lazy, because you know no actual blind people, or because you fancy them so far away that they would not even be watching, sorry listening to, television.
Why not nosedeaf, thank you very much. Certainly viewers would sniff at the thought of it!
You, Febreze, peddlers of terrible synthetic smells, coiners of mean and unnecessary words, create that which you profess to mitigate. I’ve walked into stores scented with your fruity monstrosities and fell to my knees, praying for anosmia. Anosmia is by the way the word you are wanting, and I suspect a willful ignorance, and kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, who may be put off by a word they do not know, keeps you from using it.
AAAH! Sometimes I truly hate this world with so much contriving that the very truth one professes, is in fact its opposite. And people eat it up. With their thought deafness and their mind blindness, and, above all, their tastelessness.
Quit being satisfied with the fakes, people. Demand the real. It may cost more, but as I mentioned in Sandalwood Love, there is nothing wrong with embracing the scarcity and complexity of precious things. I think it is not going so far to say that if you can’t appreciate these things in a flower, how can you recognize them in a person?