Oudh (sometimes spelled ‘oud’) has become a phenomenally popular ingredient, but still divides opinion. It’s one of those ‘Marmite’ perfumery ingredients, which people either swoon over or clutch their pearls and scream while avoiding at all costs.
A key ingredient in old and new Arabic perfumery, renowned as an element within high-quality incense in Arabic, Japanese and Indian cultures, oudh has now definitively crossed over to the west. It’s rare, and seriously expensive, and even endangered: as it’s become more popular, high-quality oudh is becoming hard to source.
That’s because it takes almost forever to produce oudh, which is actually the resinous heart-wood from fast-growing evergreen trees – usually the Aquilaria tree. The agarwood is a result of a reaction to a fungal attack, which turns this usually pale and light wood into a dark, resinous wood with a distinct fragrance – a process that takes hundreds of years. From that ‘rotten’ wood, an oil is made – and then blended into perfume. The aroma of ‘natural’ oud is distinctively irresistible and attractive with bitter sweet and woody nuances: seriously earthy (and in small quantities, seriously sexy).
Collection of oudh from natural forests is now illegal under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endanged Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), but some is now beginning to be plantation grown in Vietnam.
As an alternative, perfumers have turned to synthetic oud, although trained noses will tell you that it smells plainer, woody and leathery – but without the warm, balsamic qualities. There truly is an oudh for all tastes, now!
Instantly cooling and utterly refreshing, mint has been infused for centuries in various preparations to be taken as a herbal remedy for digestive complaints, to soothe inflamed skin and also to splash on as a tonic for the senses.
In Greek mythology, mint is seen as “the herb of hospitality“– early records show mint was strewn over floors to deodorise and freshen rooms, as stepping on the leaves helped to spread its scent through the room, masking noxious odours best left undescribed…
Correctly known by the name Mentha (also known as mint, from Greek míntha) there are many differing varieties – the species ranging from 13-18 depending on who you ask, and proving rather indistinct to categorise exactly as hybridisation between the species occurs naturally. Indeed, there are so many varieties and cross-overs (see below for a selection from Wikipedia’s extensive page), that to date, no one author has successfully categorised them all.
Mentha aquatica – water mint, marsh mint
Mentha arvensis – corn mint, wild mint, Japanese peppermint, field mint, banana mint
Mentha asiatica – Asian mint
Mentha australis – Australian mint
Mentha canadensis – American wild mint
Mentha cervina – Hart’s pennyroyal
Mentha citrata – bergamot mint, orange mint
Mentha crispata – wrinkled-leaf mint
Mentha dahurica – Dahurian thyme
Mentha diemenica – slender mint
Mentha laxiflora – forest mint
Mentha longifolia (syn. Mentha sylvestris) – horse mint
Mentha piperita – peppermint
Mentha pulegium – pennyroyal
Mentha requienii – Corsican mint
Mentha sachalinensis – garden mint
Mentha satureioides – native pennyroyal
Mentha spicata (syn. M. viridis, M. cordifolia) – spearmint, curly mint (a cultivar of spearmint)
Mentha suaveolens – apple mint, pineapple mint (a variegated cultivar of apple mint)
Mentha vagans – gray mint
Highly aromatic, merely brushing against the dark green leaves releases the potent scent, all varieties of the plant have some common characteristics – mostly perennial, mint simply adores to be near water, pools and in partial shade.
Traditionally used as a medicinal herb – mostly in order to treat stomach ache and nausea – the Menthol mint essential oil (used at 40–90% concentration in compositions) has long been enjoyed for its skin-cooling and spirit-reviving properties in Colognes, perfumes and cosmetic products, and overall, mint is enjoying something of a resurgence in both male and female fragrances over the past few years.
Used by the handful for a bracing freshness or plucked by the leaf to add just a hint of breeze, mint is a favourite that’s here to stay.
Do you love licorice? Do you hate it? Most of us fall into one camp or the other, but even if you’re not a licorice-licker, you may still find its subtle aniseed-y, almost caramel-y note in perfumery intriguing and beguiling. It’s used to beautiful effect in gourmand fragrances, and blends with woods and earthy notes, too.
The word ‘licorice’ (or liquorice) comes from the Old French licoresse, and originally from the Greek meaning ‘sweet root’ (it really is, if you’ve ever chewed a licorice stick). It’s been around for thousands of years: archaeologists found Roman licorice along Hadrian’s Wall, and it was also uncovered in the pyramids. Though reminiscent of fennel and aniseed, Glycyrrhiza glabra is not actually related to them, however.
But did you know that licorce is used in love spells…? Sprinkled in the footprints of a lover, it’s said to keep them from wandering. And in a fragrance…? Equally bewitching.
Linalool is a fragrance compound found in rosewood oil and other essential oils, including petitgrain, coriander and lavender. Its spicy-floral character works perfectly in many different florals – though in small quantities; a known sensitiser for a very small percentage of wearers, it’s one of the ingredients which perfume houses must compulsorily list on a label.
Lime blossom (a.k.a. linden, or Tilia cordata) almost seems to drip with honey. (In fact, if you’ve ever parked your car under a linden tree in full flower, it does just that, dropping sticky, furry and fiendishly difficult-to- remove syrup onto the paintwork…)
Tall and stately and one of the oldest trees in existence, it’s said to date back 70 million years. The flowers of the tree are wonderfully nectarous: a magnet for bees (linden honey is particularly delicious). Although linden – also known as ‘tilleul’ in perfumery – can be extracted from the dried flowers, it’s usually recreated synthetically: beautifully sweet, exhilarating, bright as a summer’s day.
(It’s completely unrelated to lime trees, by the way: the name ‘lime’ evolved from the 16th Century Middle English word ‘lind’.)
Zing! A top note of lime makes for the brightest and most energising of first encounters, in a fragrance – lighter and sweeter than a lemon, but at the same time more intense. ‘A fantastically juicy, tart citrus note,’ explained perfumer Julie Massé to The Perfume Society. ‘When you smell it, you can almost feel it smarting on your tongue…’
Citrus aurantifolia is native to India, where lime’s used in Tantric rituals to ward off evil spirits from the body. Today, limes are farmed in many places (South Asia, Florida, Italy, Cuba and Mexico), and to capture a lime’s fragrant bounty a process of expression (squeezing) or distillation can be used. Just one downside to this uplifting fruit: the oil must be used with caution: anything but the teensiest squeeze can prove ‘phototoxic’, staining the skin if worn in sunlight.
Smell lime in:
Evody Pomme d’Or Floris Limes Jo Malone London Lime, Basil & Mandarin Revlon Charlie Silver Thirdman Eau Monumentale
The lily of the valley is The Perfume Society’s ‘adopted’ flower: we simply love the French tradition of offering nosegays of this delicate nodding white bloom on 1st May to people you love and admire. (And we’ve adopted it ourselves.) The tradition goes back centuries – to Charles IX, who inaugurated it in 1561. Since then, lily of the valley has also made its way into countless bridal bouquets (including that of Kate Middleton for her wedding to Prince Willliam); in many countries, it’s linked to this day with tenderness, love, faith, happiness and purity.
Almost spicy, so green and sweet, with hints of lemon: that’s lily of the valley – and a more spring-like scent it’s hard to imagine. The flowers themselves are really mean with their oil, though, and synthetics are more often used to recreate lily of the valley’s magic: Lilial, Lyral and hydroxycitronellal are among them.
As well as featuring widely in ‘soliflores’ (so-called ‘single note’ fragrances, which are often actually a lot more complex than that), lily of the valley works its magic in many other fragrances, used to ‘open up’ and freshen the other floral notes in a blend – as a clever writer on the Perfume Shrine blog puts it, ‘much like we allow fresh air to come into contact with a red wine to let it “breathe” and bring out its best’.
There are over 100 species of lily and it always slightly breaks our heart to buy a bunch and discover: they’re not always scented… But many varieties – the Madonna lily (named as a nod to the purity of the Madonna), the Casablanca Lily and the Ambrée/Stargazer Lily most definitely are, and their subtly different scents are all caaptured in perfumes: intoxicating, heady, rich and sweet, reminding us of jasmine or tuberose. (‘Headspace’ technology is usually used to capture the scent: the air around the bloom is analysed, and the aroma compounds flawlessly recreated in the lab.)
Lilies have been used in perfumery since ancient times: they were very well-loved in Egypt, as part of a perfumed ointment ‘based on the flowers of 2000 lilies’, while the ancient Greeks used Madonna lilies to make a perfume called Susinon.
They’re wonderful in the home, possibly the perfume-lover’s must-have bloom. So long as the lily flowers you buy are indeed fragrant, they’ll pump their sweetness into the air without fading for a couple of weeks at a time…
The powdery sweetness of lilacs fill the air in suburban streets and parks in late spring: short-lived, but utterly beautiful, with their pollen-y, jasmine-like softness, and tantalising hints of almond and roses. As perfumer Andy Tauer tells The Perfume Society, ‘Lilac in perfumes is the note of spring, the promise of summer.’
Lilacs were introduced into Europe via Spain around the 16th Century, from the Arabs. The early fragrant use of the flowers was in pomanders. Our favourite lilac legend, though, is that the deep floral fragrance was believed in Celtic cultures to transport humans into fairyland and the spiritual world.
A fragrant oil can be solvent-extracted from the foamy blossoms of the Syringa plant (it comes from the Greek, meaning ‘pipe: shepherds made flutes from lilac wood and it was believed that whoever heard their music would never forget it). Nowadays, a synthetic form of lilac’s often used in contemporary perfumery, as it’s possible to recreate the tender natural fragrance perfectly, more reliably – and year round.
Do smell deep, though, and see if you can detect intrigue beneath the soft surface. Because Andy observes: ‘My white lilac blooms early, due to an early spring in Zurich. I am convinced that I can detect a hidden note of car exhaust, modern car, there. How cool is that? It goes to show: flowers are more than what we see. I love them for that.’
Put a few leaves of lemon verbena, or Aloysia triphylla, in a cup, add boiling water – and you’ve an incredibly refreshing drink. Add a little lemon verbena to a fragrance, and it delivers a brisk, pure, floral-citrus scent, like bruising the fragrant leaves of this shrubby plant between your fingers.