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Plants and perfume

When we think of perfume, we immediately think of flowers and their strong fragrances. However, the world of plants contains other materials that mankind was quick to discover and exploit to create fragrances.

PART 1 : Plants used in perfumery

Perfumers don't limit themselves to flowers to obtain the raw materials essential to perfume creation. In fact, other parts of plants can be exploited to extract precious aromatic substances.

These may include :

  • Flowers such as rose, lily of the valley, lilac, mimosa, violet...

  • Fruits such as citrus, vanilla, coconut, peach...

  • Leaves for lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage, mugwort, mint, patchouli, eucalyptus, geranium...

  • Roots for iris, vetiver, gentian...

  • Woods for sandalwood, cedar, birch...

  • Barks for cinnamon, amyris...

  • Resins and gums for myrrh, frankincense, benzoin...

  • Perfume plant seeds for cardamom, coriander, ginger, anise, juniper berries, nutmeg, pepper...

Which flowers are most often used in perfumery?

  • Roses play a central role in the creation of floral-based fragrances.

  • Fleur d’oranger

  • Jasmin

Did you know? In addition to plants, animal substances such as musk, amber and beeswax absolute can also be used in perfumery. Find out more about animal substances in perfumery here.

PART 2 : Extraction

The extraction of these fragrant substances varies according to several factors, such as their concentration in the plant, their sensitivity to heat, and budgetary constraints (as some techniques are costly). The most common method is steam distillation, which produces an essential oil. However, other methods are also used, notably enfleurage and maceration, which produce absolutes. In the case of citrus fruits, extraction is often by simple pressing of the zest, which produces an essence.

Distillation : is an extraction method used in perfumery to extract essential oils from plants and flowers using steam. This technique is still used today. Plants are placed on a perforated surface at the top of a tank. For example, rose petals are immersed in water (a considerable quantity, 1,500 liters of water for 500 kg of roses), inside a distillation apparatus called an alembic, which consists of a large tank topped by a long bent pipe. The mixture is then heated to boiling point. As the steam rises, it captures the fragrant compounds of the flowers and transports them through a cooling system. The resulting liquid is an essential oil mixture, also known as essence, which is then separated and collected in a container called a "florentine" or "essencier".

Diagram 1: Distillation diagram Source: Horssentials

Enfleurage : is a perfume creation method that involves immersing raw materials in a fatty substance to absorb their aromas. There are two variants of enfleurage: hot enfleurage and cold enfleurage. Although this technique was widely used in the past, it has been completely abandoned today, as it has several disadvantages :

  • Low yield: 1 kg of grease could absorb 3 kg of flowers.

  • A manual technique requiring demanding know-how and skilled personnel.

  • A very long process.

  • A large number of materials (frames, threshing machines, etc.) were required.

Photo 1: Enfleurage source: bastilleparfums

Enfleurage is used for different types of plant, especially fragile flowers such as orange blossom or jasmine.

Solvent extraction : The plant's fragrance is dissolved in a solvent and then evaporated. This method produces high-quality, fragrance-rich products.

Diagram 2: Solvent extraction diagram Source: imao-belgium

This extraction process is recommended for obtaining active compounds from sources such as roots and barks. It is particularly appropriate when active substances are water-soluble but difficult to extract due to their inaccessibility.

PART 3 : A brief history

To understand the history of perfume, it's essential to look at its origins.

As far back as we know, perfume has always been present, in a variety of forms and uses.

The history of perfume begins with its trade, which began with the Sumerians (3rd century BC), a civilization located in Mesopotamia. Alexandria and all of Ancient Egypt soon gave considerable prominence to scents, developing a veritable cult of perfume. Essentially used for its "mystical" function. Indeed, as perfumes were primarily used in the worship of divinities, the raw materials were often used in their raw form, directly from flowers. Rituals generally involved the burning of aromatic essences in honor of the gods.

Did you know? The word "perfume" itself derives from the Latin "per fumum", literally meaning "through smoke".

Perfume was not only used divinely, but also therapeutically, reputed to relieve headaches and treat gynecological ailments.However, it was Queen Cleopatra who is credited with initiating the association between perfumery and feminine beauty. She was particularly fond of perfumed baths.

As for the Greeks, it was they who became true masters in the art of creating scented products. In particular, they invented the enfleurage technique, a method still used today, to produce the first liquid perfumes.

During the Renaissance, members of the nobility used perfumes to conceal body odors, as the practice of daily personal hygiene was not yet widespread. So, to mask unpleasant odors, they mainly used powerful fragrances such as amber, musk, jasmine or tuberose. What's more, the great explorations led by navigators such as Christopher Columbus, Magellan and Vasco de Gama brought with them new fragrant raw materials such as cocoa, vanilla, tobacco, pepper and cardamom.

It was also at this time that perfumers began to establish themselves in Paris, and the French nobility adopted the trend for perfumed gloves, eventually leading to the creation of the French guild of gantiers parfumeurs in 1656.

The 18th century saw the rise of personal grooming and cosmetics. Under Louis XV and the influence of Madame de Pompadour, the court of Versailles made immoderate use of perfumes. Indeed, it was dubbed "the perfumed court".

PART 4 : Synthetic perfumes

The nickname "silent flowers" has been bestowed on these blooms, which have never revealed their secrets to even the most experienced perfumers. Indeed, to this day, no traditional perfume-making method has succeeded in capturing their fragrance. These silent flowers produce neither essence nor absolute to be extracted to create a perfume. Yet they are often present as key ingredients in famous perfumes. Indeed, it's important to note that you won't find real lily of the valley in a perfume called "muguet", nor hyacinth in a fragrance bearing that name. How is this possible? While it's impossible to extract the scent naturally, it is possible to synthesize it.

Synthesis makes it possible to replicate "nature" in the laboratory. There are several ways of doing this:

-Fractionation : this separates the various constituents of an essence, isolating the interesting chemicals and removing those considered unnecessary. Here, we're not really talking about synthetic molecules yet, but about isolates: these are still natural raw materials that have been remodeled to retain only the desired aspects.

-Le head space : developed in the 1970s, this technique aims to reconstitute "in vivo" (within living organisms) all the odorous molecules of a raw material. This technique also offers the possibility of analyzing and reproducing any odor, whether it's the smell of the beach, the mountains or even the smell of a banknote.

To achieve a "headspace" technique, the raw material is placed under a glass bell jar filled with a neutral gas, which is loaded with odor molecules from the material. The collected gas is then analyzed using a variety of techniques:

  • Chromatography: This method enables the precise identification of the odorant molecules that make up the scent in question. It is commonly used to analyze and reproduce the composition of perfumes on the market.

  • Mass spectrometry: This technique measures the mass of the molecules present in the gas sample, enabling components to be identified on the basis of their molecular weight.

  • Carbon-13 NMR: Carbon-13 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is a technique for studying the structure of molecules by analyzing the carbon-13 nuclei present in samples. It can be used to characterize chemical compounds and determine their structure.

Did you know: IFF technology, with Living Flower, has captured the scent emitted by a rose sent into space. Embarked in October 1998 aboard the Discovery space mission, the rose called "Overnight Scentsation" developed more floral notes, quite different from those it had on earth. [learn more about plants in space].

Once odorous molecules have been identified or isolated, chemists can reproduce them in the laboratory using two main methods:

  • Chemical synthesis : this method consists of artificially recreating odorant molecules by combining different chemical reagents.

  • Creation of scents that do not exist in nature. Like calone, a molecule born in the 90s that evokes marine and iodine scents, or ethyl-maltol, which gives perfumes that regressive, gourmand smell of baked fruit or caramel.

PART 5 : The perfume industry

In the 19th century, the perfume industry was severely disrupted by the advent of chemical synthesis. The classic perfumes of the time, mainly eaux de Cologne, were rapidly replaced by totally new fragrances. Synthetic molecules were less costly to produce, enabling faster production in large quantities. It was at this time that perfumery began to take on the form we know today.

Today, the global market for fragrances and flavors is estimated at 26 billion euros in 2019. Five groups share 74% of the global market:

  • Givaudan. - Swiss company founded in Zurich in 1895,

  • IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances). - American company with headquarters in New York,

  • Firmenich & Cie. - Swiss company,

  • Symrise. - German company based in Holzminden.

Founded in Grasse in 1850, the Robertet Group stands out for its specialization in the sourcing and processing of natural raw materials used to create fragrances, flavours and active ingredients for the health and beauty sectors.

Today, the Robertet Group is represented in over 50 countries, employs over 2,200 people worldwide and offers its customers a range of over 1,350 natural materials and products created in one of its 14 global creation centers.

In 2021, the total area devoted to aromatic and medicinal perfume plants (PPAM) was 67,462 hectares, according to Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) data:

  • Around 56% of this area, or 37,438 hectares, was devoted to perfume plants, of which almost 49% was dedicated to lavender and lavandin.

  • Medicinal plants accounted for around 30% of the total area.

  • Finally, aromatic plants accounted for around 14% of the total surface area of PPAM.

According to FranceAgriMer, French production of aromatic and medicinal perfume plants (PPAM) in 2022 will fall sharply. Compared with 2019, production in 2022 will drop by 60%. At 1,470 tonnes, this drop is remarkable after the record lavandin production levels achieved in 2020 and 2021, with 2,100 tonnes respectively.

This drop can be attributed to several factors, mainly linked to weather conditions and the conflict in Ukraine.

  • Reduced water reserves in soils in all production zones, caused by lack of rainfall,

  • Massive midge attacks on lavender crops

In addition, the conflict in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the PPAM industry in France. Production and transport costs have risen due to the disruption of supply chains and higher prices for raw materials, in particular the sunflower oil needed to manufacture some of the industry's products.

PART 6 : Villa Blu by Robertet

Villa Blu is a gas pedal whose mission is to support projects focused on nature and the environment. The initiative is supported by the aforementioned Robertet Group and other carefully selected strategic partners. Farm3 is delighted to have been chosen to be part of the first promotion of VILLA BLU by Robertet.

PART 7 : Incubateur du patrimoine

As part of our admission to the fifth class of the Heritage Incubator, Farm3 set up a "plant conservatory" project in collaboration with the CMN. This project enabled us to produce in our facilities, in a controlled climate, plants particularly used in the 18th century for perfumery, such as lemon balm and patchouli.

Conclusion :

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