May 082012

Without Remedy: An Exploration of Scent, Plants, and Perfumery

Excerpted from the now available Spring 2012 Issue of

Plant Healer Magazine

by Kiva Rose Hardin

White Honeysuckle, Lonicera albiflora

Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”

– Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Scent, above all else, distinguishes. One lover from another, grass from tree, cream from honey, cardamom pod from vanilla bean, our child from all others. In the complex array of notes and tints of the aromas we’re daily immersed in, the unique nature of each person and place can be discerned just by breathing in. Each day I inhale the distinct maple and cinnamon notes of our daughter’s skin, the butterscotch and vanilla of the Ponderosa Pine forest that I live within, the sage and spice of the winds that travel the Gila. Each of these is unique to the rest of the world. No one else’s child smells like ours, no other mountains taste this way on my tongue as I exhale.

Smell is incredibly complex. For example, a single rose emits about 172 different odor molecules   and has a physiological impact on the human nervous system similar to Valium in its relaxing actions, and Gardenia jasminoides has a similar effect. For those who’ve had experience in aromatherapy or herbalism, this will come as no surprise, and probably elicit eye rolling at science’s somewhat belated attempts to catch up with what traditional medicine and the human senses have known for millennia.

While conventional medicine has, for the most part, removed itself from the realm of the senses, herbalism remains a healing art entirely interwoven with sensory knowledge even as we integrate more modern scientific ways of understanding illness, medicine, and the human whole.  One of the elements of herbalism I have invested the most time and energy in passing on, is herbal energetics. Energetics rely innately on sensory observation and interpretation of patterns and physical phenomena, both our own and those of the folks we’re working with.

The taste of a plant tells us an enormous amount of information about how it will interact with the body. Our sense of smell is also incredibly important in interacting with our medicines, not only in perceiving what actions the herb may have, but also in our personal connection with the ally. Scent evokes memory more intensely, insistently, and urgently than any other sense. What we learn or experience is forever tied to the scents of that time and place. Taste and scent tie us to a plant ally on a level so deeply imbedded in us, that it would not be amiss to term it cellular.

The human brain is also capable of what’s called predictive coding, which means that by the time you actually breathe in a potentially familiar scent, you brain has predicted what it’s most likely to smell. This can helpful when it comes to discerning spoiled food from good, or telling one flower from another, but if we’re not careful it can also allow us to slip into olfactory laziness where we forget to actually smell things because we’ve convinced ourselves that we have it already stored in our brains.

In addition to reminding ourselves of the true complexity of scent, practice will refine and expand our sense of smell. Another aspect of this practice takes us beyond simply being able to smell something, to what is called olfactory memory. This allows the skilled and sensitive nose to not only fully smell a scent but also to match it to its source or find its similarities to other smells. Strangely enough, this is not necessarily an inherent ability and even those with a developed sense of smell are unable to match an odor with its origin without a visual or other sensory cue.

Desert Buckthorn (Redroot), Ceanothus greggii

Conversely, olfactory memory can be one of the strongest triggers for memory, for good or for ill, possible for the human mind. The signature perfume of a former lover, the scent of a beloved grandmother’s skin, the odor of spiced food from a lost homeland, the distinct wine richness and iron weighted smell of blood, the inhale of a wildflower-tinted breeze specific to a certain meadow, all of these can evoke intense pleasure or ravaging grief in the most stoic of us. Fragrance is a portal into our most primal selves, unlocking doors long barred and sealed with a single, poignant breath.

Some scientists say that intolerance to certain smells, usually chemical, is a sign of the sensitive individual’s lack of ability to adapt to new smells, but I have a problem with the idea that all smells should be adapted to as if safe or acceptable.  Some we should certainly be noticing and then removing ourselves from the effects of.  People who are chemical intolerant often have great difficulty in being near strong scents, primarily synthetic, such as perfumes, cleaning products, and room fresheners. The consequence of continued exposure for these people can range from sneezing fits to debilitating headaches to nausea and vomiting.

Referring to a dissertation by Linus Andersson this subject, Science Daily summarized:

“Sensitivity to smell impacts the entire body…. People who cough more when they inhale capsaicin, the hot compound in chili peppers, also have heightened reactions in the brain to other smells. Besides the fact that intolerant individuals perceive that smells grow stronger, effects are also seen in mucous linings and in the brain.”

Some of us are better than others at tuning out what we find unpleasant or unacceptable, or even elements we like, once we’ve become accustomed to them. Whether this tuning out of sensory input is a way of adapting to potentially overwhelming stimuli, or sensory numbness probably somewhat depends on the situation and level of shutdown. The normal mucus in our nasal passages act as a conductor to scent, and being in a somewhat humid and warm environment will also enhance our ability to smell things in a more complex and detailed way, whereas cold or dry conditions can make it more difficult to pick out subtle or faint scents. Humans have a comparatively weak sense of smell in relation to many other animals, and especially compared to most top tier predators. Nevertheless, what we do smell effects us intensely and intimately, touching the primitive reptile brain with a fierce kiss that invokes passion, rage, fear, and wonder in a way that little else can match.

Food of Gods, Seduction of Men: Botanical Scent in Adornment, Ritual, and Devotion

Asmodeus, god of lechery, enlists fragrance as his assistant, filling the night with lethal honeysuckle, unfailing acacia, wanton lime-blossom, to ravage hearts that remember and shatter ones that resist.

-Colette, Fragrance

from the Slav Epic by Alfonse Mucha

Perfumery is an ancient art, and one that is intimately entwined with medicine, magic, seduction and religion. It has been revered, outlawed, and obsessed over by turn, depending on the cultural context of the time and place. We may first think of France when hear the word perfume, and certainly our perfumes even now are based in classical French methods. Nevertheless, the origins and reach of perfume are far older and broader.

One of the first known perfumers was a woman name Tapputi in ancient Mesopotamia, two thousand years before the birth of Christ, but the art of perfumery seems to have its roots in ancient Egypt, with records referring to perfume going back at least 3,000 B.C. Perfume as we think of it now only arrived in Europe in the 14th century, it’s popularity most concentrated in Hungary before spreading to Italy, and finally France in the 16th century.

Despite the elaborate and complicated history of perfume as precious and rare substances, new fragrances now seem to be released on the market every time a commercial flashes on the TV screen. These new perfumes are often represented by a scantily clad, surgically enhanced pop star and given the fact that they frequently smell like nothing so much as bubblegum, suntan lotion, and public restrooms, it’s not surprising that we often forget what an art fragrance creation truly can be. On the other hand, perfumery has also long been at least much about covering up what we don’t want others to smell as much as enhancing or creating a scent we want to impart. In Renaissance Europe, perfumes were tools of the privileged to mask the scent of unwashed bodies and the open sewers that ran through the cities, and were applied not just to skin, but to every surface that would hold scent.

I have very mixed feelings about the sustainability and ethics of large scale essential oil production, given the enormous amount of plant matter needed for even minute amounts of these precious substances, even from companies who claim sustainability. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the absolute pleasure of both creating and wearing botanical perfumes. Many complain about the short livedness of these fragrances, generally lasting from two to eight hours (depending on the person’s individual skin chemistry and the plant essences involved), and yet I much prefer the short-lived but lush authenticity of an entirely botanical scent  over the clinging longevity of chemicals that carry nothing of the wild spirit of the flowers, leaves, roots and resins that I consider the embodiment of true perfume.

Subjective as scent is, there are certain ones that have widespread appeal, not least the heady blossoms of Jasmine, and the dark richness and wild honey of Roses that make up the heart notes of the world’s most well known and loved perfumes. Deeper are the base notes, tenacious in nature and lacking the quicksilver volatility of top notes. From the butter-sweetness of Sandalwood to the forest berried notes of Spruce, Pine, and Fir absolutes. Perfume is an entanglement, an evolving seduction as layer after layer of scents evaporate on warm skin, blooming not on top of human flesh but in conjunction with our own unique aromas.


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New Mexico Locust, Robinia neomexicana

  One Response to “Without Remedy: An Exploration of Scent, Plants, and Perfumery”

  1. Once again, after reading your engaging and informative article, I am glad you are on the side of ‘good’ Kiva Ringtail Rose. With your evocative imagery and lush language, you probably could sell me on the crappiest, insipid herb available.
    Instead you re-reawaken my desire to smell the things around me, and let my mind dance back to where the ‘smell memory’ takes me.
    Madison avenue’s loss, is our lovely gain
    Thanks again Kiva

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