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Fragrant Botanicals

Published on February 4th 2021
A close up of a flower
A scent so divine that one would swoon at a mere whiff of it. Perfumes are ancient in that they strive to hold on to a memory by capturing a scent. Many may associate a specific smell with youthful summers or first loves. It is not a secret that such memories are dear to one's heart.
Today we will venture deeper into the ancient art of botanical scents. We learn a bit of perfume history, richly scented flowers, local botanicals and where to go to learn how to make your very own perfume.
flowers in a bowl

The history of scent

Perfumes date back to the turn of the century where ancient texts dictate the process of constructing scents for offerings. In the 3rd century BC, Theophrastus detailed the process by which perfumes were made from Crocus, Iris, Lilium and Rose. It was a delicate process taught to only the most talented of artisans.
Fun fact | Ancient perfumes made from flowers would lose their scent quicker than other botanicals, especially if exposed to light.
A close up of a flower

Ancient Gardens | Egypt


We briefly touched on flowers of antiquity in the Ancient Gardens | Egypt article, where scents were used as part of offerings. Like the Egyptians before them, the Pompeians used extraction methods (depicted on murals) that stayed in practice for millennia. Today, the process has evolved somewhat, but the raw materials remain the same.
Extracting a scent can be an arduous process, but it is less so when the compound occurs in high concentrations.

Flowers with a strong scent

The way a flowering plant is grown can vastly affect the scent profile in the petals/leaves. There are specific regions in India, where the climate is perfect for maturing roses making the essential oils derived from said roses a rare commodity.
Fun fact | Sun, nutrients and temperature can affect the production of volatile compounds that produce a scent.
Strongly scented flowers such as Jasmine, Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), Magnolia, Vanilla, Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), Wisteria or even Lemon blossoms often grace the covers of perfume and are a favourite to many gardeners. These strong scents have a way of wafting through a room or garden often overpowering other scents during peak flowering.
If you have a sensitive nose, you might opt for subtler scents (to know why your nose might be different scroll down).

Local botanicals

It is no wonder that with the abundance of flowering plants that litter Southern Africa, we would also have a diverse bouquet of scents. You do not need a Vanilla Orchid from Mexico to get a vanilla smell in the garden. Moraea ciliata, an indigenous iris, produces the same vanilla smell while attracts butterflies (bonus: it is drought tolerant).
Tip | If the Latin name includes “fragrans" (e.g. Babiana fragrans), it refers to the plant's ability to produce a discernible scent.
For more details on fragrant plants dig into the article below.
Other prominent scents such as Saffron, Rose or Cinnamon are all produced by vibrant native plants such as Falling Stars (Crocosmia aurea), Rose-Scented Pelargonium (Pelargonium capitatum) and Fragrant Blue Babiana (Babiana fragrans). All great options, but how does one choose? One thing to take into account is the nose!
A close up of a flower

Can you smell it?

One's ability to detect (or smell) a particular scent is down to genetics. You may be able to detect a gorgeous sweet smell, while your better half cannot detect a whiff. How does this work?
Humans can have several hundred receptors in their nose. If your genetics makes you miss one (or a few), then you will not be able to smell certain compounds. Another way to explain this is by looking at dogs. Dogs have a larger number of receptors and can therefore smell compounds that we, as humans, cannot.
Fun fact | Olfactory studies indicate that men have lower olfactory acuity (sense of smell) than women, but are more sensitive to bourgeonal (lily of the valley).
Fun fact | A study on pleasantness showed that food-associated smells (e.g. vanilla, citrus, cinnamon) was the most pleasing across all demographics. Floral scents had the highest variability, meaning a particular floral scent could be wonderful and awful depending on the individual.
This ability to smell also explains why some wear a lot of cologne/perfume (to be able to smell a portion of the perfume that is at a low concentration) while the same amount will give others a headache.
perfume kit

Make your own perfume

The processes for creating an essential oil and/or a perfume are two different skill sets, but luckily several proprietors offer workshops on both. This will make an outstanding gift for Valentine's Day, anniversaries or birthdays. It is also a great way of learning to use your own plants as source material.
Here is a list of company’s that offer such services:
Western Cape:

A scent in the garden or on the arm is equally as precious when accompanied by a memory. Remember to share your memories in the comments below.

(1) Poinar, G., & Poinar, G. (2020). The antiquity of floral secretory tissues that provide today’s fragrances. Historical Biology, 32(4), 494-499.
(2) Day, J. (2013). Botany meets archaeology: people and plants in the past. Journal of Experimental Botany, 64(18), 5805-5816.

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