The sun has been shining. The sky is blue. The long winter of unrelenting rain feels as though it is finally abating in favour of spring. Slowly the buds are forming, the leaves appearing and the hedgerow is white with blackthorn flowers massing along spine-laden stems. My trip to the workshop is becoming a delight.
The circadian rhythms that guide the measure of our day now create the pleasure of increasing, productive energy as the days stretch into spring – it is a time of awakening. In plants the recognition of Spring produces growth, regeneration and vitality. As a plantswoman this is such an exciting time; plans made during dreich winter evenings begin to reach fruition, seeds are sown and the year ahead is mapped out in planting and harvests full of possibility.
As a maker, I’m so conscious that rainfall, sun and condition of the soil can significantly change the scent, growth and blooming of a plant – every year is different. The terroir is dynamic, constantly evolving, it is that subtle variable which offers every batch of essential oil and flower water its own unique identity. The beauty of working with plants is the never knowing what you will be given – the adventure in alchemy, the opportunity to delight in the difference, the challenge to use the best method of extraction for each bloom – an understanding of how each petal or leaf will be persuaded to release its scent in the purest form.
Apart from distilling, which beautifully separates flower water from essential oil, I love enfleurage. It is an equally ancient method of extracting scent from blossom by laying the flowers on a bed of solid oil, refreshing them many times as their scent fades until the oil takes on the perfect scent of the flower. It is rarely commercially viable these days partly because it requires a great deal of labour to pick and prepare petals, but more importantly because it needs patience – the time taken is determined by the flower not the picker and it can take a whole season for the petals to impart sufficient scent to the oil.
Modern commercial perfumery can’t wait. Economics of production require vast amounts of plants flowering at the same time for industrial sized production. Failing that, a chemical extraction or approximation of scent is good enough. But it’s not. Slow production, patiently waiting for blooms to appear, gathering them when they are ready is a joyful and respectful process; it allows the plant to set the pace. Moreover, it gives the gatherer permission to take the time to savour the experience, to stop and appreciate fully that moment when the scent envelops and intoxicates – Honeysuckle, Roses, Orange Blossom or Jasmine on a warm summer evening evoke memory and mesmerise the senses.
Often a love of scent starts with gathering rose petals, squashing them in water and then shaking them in a jam jar to release the delicate fragrance. It is almost a childhood rite of passage – a tentative journey into scent. What the best small batch distillers and plant workers do, is to try and capture the perfect purity of scent, patiently and carefully, slowly working with the plants to produce the very best natural essential oils and flower waters. Ancient methods in modern times work if we embrace small scale, mindful production and have the patience to wait…