"Why do bulls and horses turn up their nostrils when excited by love?" Darwin ponderedWhere_is_the_love deep in one of his unpublished notebooks.  Scientists long ago documented a rich array of animal pheromones, everything from seal, fox and civet, various rodents, boars, beavers, musk deer . . . even the effluence discharged by whales.  Discovering biochemical bouquets for attracting mates as well as marking territory and used for defense, as is the case with the noble skunk.  And, we took them as our own for exotic and sought after perfumes, not putting much thought into human scent, assuming our unique evolution and poor sense of smell lends to the idea that unique olfactory-challenged, sight-oriented hairless bipeds would be the species that conquers the Earth.  Hah! 

I don’t doubt that many of my readers here, like myself, dismiss the notion that we humans are bereft of scent-driven socializing.  That just because early scientists in autopsy couldn’t find the same hardware in humans, those two little pits, the VNO (vomeronasal organ) in each nostril, we had been left out of the savory realm of scent.  So, our olfactory prowess was dismissed and discarded, those early analysts  nodding their heads in agreement that humans simply did not rely on scent to any appreciable degree . . . and even physiologists declaring in the 1930’s that humans lacked the brain apparatus necessary to process VNO signals.  So, even if we had a VNO, the thinking was our brains wouldn’t be able to interpret its signals.

So it goes, the scientific dogma for most of the previous century that humans do not rely on scent to any appreciable degree.  I’m here to report that reports of our olfactory devolution have been greatly exaggerated!  And, it will come as no surprise to readers here that physiologists did discover a functioning vomeronasal organ inside the human nose. Using microscopes unavailable to early nasal explorers, discovering pits lined with receptor cells that fire like mad when presented with certain substances.  And probably less surprising that the discovery was prompted by a venture capitalist searching to cash in on manufactured human pheromones.  Tom Tykwer’s 2006 movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, featuring Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s dark quest for the ultimate perfume ingredient and its exquisite period sets could have us fantasizing a clever 17th century feminine entrepreneur doing a brisk business selling handkerchiefs scented with her body odor.  Or, who knows, perhaps it is the next olfactory market evolution yet to come.

Getting back to smelling each other and our pleasure therein, it appears we are also profoundly equipped with attraction-beckoning pleasant odor-producing capability . . . human sweat, urine, saliva, breast milk, skin oils, breath and sexual secretions all contain scent-communicating chemical compounds.  Zoologist Michael Stoddart, author of The Scented Ape, points out that humans possessThe Lovers denser skin concentrations of scent glands than almost any other mammal.  We have long believed that humans don’t pay much attention to the fragrant or the rancid in their day-to-day lives.  Part of the confusion resides in the fact that not all smells register in our conscious minds and that they are rejected when we don’t want to think about them anymore.  In studying aromatherapy, we learn that our conscious mind can refuse to acknowledge the presence of odor, especially after prolonged periods of smelling it.  We are, therefore, advised to  diffuse in time periods according to other protocols and parameters not related to actively and consciously detecting the aromatic blend being diffused.

As we study and learn more about DNA, there is a segment called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), codes which function as the immune system’s eyes for recognition.  This recognition triggers the immune system’s teeth – the killer T cells – who then swarm the intruders. Studies in mice have proven that females choose by evaluating males’ MHC profiles and choose those most dissimilar to their own to avoid inbreeding.  It was during early studies involving humans that we discovered we were capable of discerning small differences in the immune systems of mice. This led to further tests in which women rated men’s body odor and sexiness . . . exactly like mice do.  We much prefer men with scents that vary the most from our own. 

Although, even that is complicated in that there are still anomalies to the general rule of choice yet to be definitely ascertained. Doctors have known since the mid-1980s that couples suffering repeated spontaneous abortions tend to share more MHC similarities than couples who carry to term. And, if we don’t also know and accept same sex attraction by now, we might remain in those dark, dank ages.  Those who might be offended by the notion that animal senses play a role in their attraction to a partner need not worry. As the role of smell in human affairs yields to understanding, we see not that we are less human but that our tastes and emotions are far more complex and sophisticated than anyone ever imagined.

Perfume_Bottle_AntiqueWhile this ramble may give you something interesting you may not previously know, on this Valentines Day, you’re probably more interested in a simple bottle of perfume, rose-scented tea and the ever-beloved chocolate delight.  Just remember, if you haven’t developed an awareness yet, while you are nibbling on that lover’s ear, to sniff a bit . . . and judge for yourself whether he/she is the one. 

Love and Smelly Kisses,
Marcia

 

ambergris 192x259All natural aromatic substances that exist in Nature have a purpose other than to smell good in perfumes.  In the case of ambergris, it is produced in the stomach of the sperm whale, where it serves to protect the intestinal lining against the tough, horned snout of cuttlefish, a kind of squid that the whale swallows whole.  All very practical, as we most assuredly find in Nature.  While most teach that it is secreted as vomit, some argue that it also passes through the feces. Some, especially commercial, American perfumers usually avoid it because of legal ambiguities. It was banned from use in many countries in the 1970s, including the United States, because its precursor originates from the sperm whale, which is an endangered species.

Historically, it was considered the second most treasured commodity to come from the sea, second to pearls.   After being excreted by the whale, it would be collected from the surface of the ocean near the islands of Sumatra, Molucca and Madagascar, and was referred to as “the gold of the ocean”.   The hardened shape, resembling fossilized lumps of amber (albeit grey in color), thus derived the name “grey amber” or ambergris.  It is a known fact that certainlate twelfth century incense burner 308x163 kinds of ambergris are known to float in the ocean for up to a hundred years. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes.

We humans have chosen to not fully embrace our own animalistic odor and instead we mask it with myriad smelly cover-ups.  Probably originating in hygiene and sexual modesty that ultimately fevered the Puritanical movement.   The enigma that we are drawn to smells that reflect our deeper centers of pleasure and love perfumes rich in products of animal origin (any animal other than human, that is) only confirms what complex and contradictory beings we are, especially when it comes to sexuality.  It is true that those perfumes with a ‘hidden’  pungency, unidentified intellectually in our awareness, are extremely popular.

Avery Gilbert challenges us to  stop randomly studying aromatic molecules in the laboratory and to “start observing odor fluency where it happens naturally.”  He reminds us that Charles Darwin was a “careful observer” and “attuned to smell”.  In Darwin’s words (speaking of the musk deer, another animalic odor): “On the banks of the Plata, I have perceived the whole air tainted with the odor of the male Cervus campestris, at the distance of half a mile to leeward of  a herd.”  Darwin recorded odors, along with other facts like species, place and time.  I mention this because I, like many of you, struggle with adequate descriptors for odors and Avery makes a perfect case for getting out in Nature herself as it might serve both perfumer and writer.  Since I, also, cannot disconnect my work with aromatics from the importance and joy of relating to unabashed Nature, I very much like the way he thinks in this regard.  

Pomade 155x297One of the earliest devices for enjoying aromatics in the fourteenth century actually derives its name from ambergris.  The ornately designed apple-shaped globe, sometimes decorated with gold and silver, with small individual sections held together with hinges was called a pomander, from the French pomme d’ ambre or apple of ambergris.  Originally, a simple, but pungent rolled ball of ambergris  would suffice, but art emergedpomade open 293x299 to house the scent, like this lovely ornamented creation pictured here.  The chambers were filled with scented paste and powder, using beeswax and other aromatics, each chamber sometimes housing a different odor.  Aristocrats of both sexes would carry these devices to occasionally sniff to ward off the malodorous smells of the street.  Larger ones were attached by a chain to the belt or worn around the neck and smaller ones, no larger than a thimble, were connected by a tiny chain to a finger ring.

During the Renaissance, the "girdle" (not to be confused with the modern-day "corset")The History of Jewellery was an important accessory made of leather, textile or flat metal chain that formed a belt-like strap worn diagonally along the waistline, draping from just above the hip on the right, downward to the left thigh. The girdle was typically accessorized with items like a purse, keys, knives, lockets, girdle books, decorative bangles, or a pomander.  The bangles or pendants (just as the pomanders themselves) could be bejeweled, enameled, or decorated with cameos, and were fastened to the girdle with equally decorative clasps. Of course, it was also one of those perfumed fallacies that the pomander would keep one from getting the plague.

The early gastronomer Brillat-Savarin created a recipe for ambergris-laced chocolate in 1826, perhaps for the tables of Casanova, Madame DuBarry and Madame de Pompadour. And, Nostradamus believed the chewing of lumps of ambergris could increase the production of seminal fluid.  Jean Paul Guerlain observed that ambergris “was to perfume creation what cream is to haute cuisine: an exquisite binding agent.” Since we find in history the use of ambergris as a spice in food, his observation is more than metaphorical. Musk and ambergris notes in perfume composition are of great significance and are a used in the composition to produce a sense of pleasure via ancient neural pathways without so much as a conscious thought as to the true nature of the stimulus.

Chinese pomander_181x285Since we are in the middle of celebrating the Chinese New Year, it is worth mentioning that the Chinese considered ambergris to be a potent aphrodisiac. The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon’s spittle fragrance", lending yet another allusion to the current Chinese Year of the Dragon.  The early Chinese also used their version of pomanders like this small one pictured. 

In the eighteenth century, it was made into one of those “single-note” perfumes, like jasmine and neroli.

Styles and attitudes change and during the Restoration and into the later years encompassing the July Monarchy animalic scents fell into disfavor.   The more erotic scents began to be replaced with less controversial floral and herbaceous compositions.  Women became more worried about “being provocative”.   The newspaper Les Messager des odes et de l’industrie from 1853 identifies ambergris as “the primary perfume ingredient for women of easy virtue (cocettes) . . . and in the decade just preceding the Revolution, Mercier, the chronicler of social customs wrote that the decline of favorability for scented gloves was due to their “violent odor.”  Ultimately, strong animalic scents were banned and only worn by women of questionable morals. 

Septimus Piesse, the early nineteenth century chemist-perfumer, lamented that the scent of ambergris “clings pertinaciously to woven fabrics and is still found in the material after passing through the lavoratory ordeal” by which he no doubt means washing of clothes. I would argue that Piesse exaggerated somewhat and that one must always consider the final odor note in a composition after the melding of all others, as well as all other variables when evaluating the odor of an aromatic ingredient of natural origin.

In perfumery, it is the finest of all fixatives and will delay the volatility of other scented ingredients in a composition.  It is one of those perfume substances that sometimes draws revulsion when one learns of its origin, however, in the raw it actually has a relatively mild odor -  marine, slightly fecal, reminiscent of balsamic leather with a slight wet, sour aspect.  And, of course, we must keep in mind that odor can differ greatly from one batch to the next depending on the origin,  age and processing method to obtain a perfume ingredient.  

At Samara Botane, when we have the material available, we make a strong alcohol tincture using a Soxhlet extraction procedure which can then be diluted to the perfumer’s preference. This process produces ambrox and ambrinol, which are the main odor components of ambergris.  In perfumes, once married to other notes, ambergris becomes quite warm, earthy and velvety.  Some natural perfumers who wish to steer clear of animal ingredients,  appear to get an ambergris doppelganger by combining labdanum, olibanum and vanilla. 

 

Pot_w_grasses_250 I want to continue exploring gardening ideas that will address climate disruption and help each of us in our local environments.  I certainly have noticed drastic changes in our state that can only be attributed to either increased warming, or, conversely, increased rainfall and ice/snow.

As an example, trees in old growth forests are dying in increasing numbers and most scientists conclude that longer, hotter summers are the primary cause.  This trend is affecting both young and old trees, in crowded and sparse stands and at different elevations.  The reason is warmer average temperatures across the West, says Nathan Stephenson of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, which creates greater stress on trees from lack of water, leaving them vulnerable to disease and insects.   The rising death rate could produce a cascading decline that leads to less habitat for fish and wildlife, an increased risk of wildfires and vulnerability to sudden forest die-offs.  The study examined data between 1955 and 2007 in 76 research plots in BC, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Arizona, and has no predictable conclusions and is challenged by some who resist the idea of climate change or disruption altogether.

In my own garden, I have seen a couple of plants mysteriously die, some well established trees (native and non-native) just giving up the ghost abruptly.   For the past several years, I notice that cool weather crops (lettuce, leaf vegetables) simply cannot sustain into late summer and bolt even with good mulch and shade cloth.   Here are some thoughts that might help you avoid frustration in the garden while learning more about the changing climate in your area.  Investing in a little research with your county extension agent might also save you cash otherwise invested into a disappointing garden that’s not designed to stand up to a changing climate.

Plant Selection  I’ve finally outgrown the habit of choosing non-native, non-local and hybridized species which sometimes don’t do well under the best conditions and are certain to fail to thrive with the challenges that come with global warming.  Look for heritage varieties that you can save seeds or take cuttings from.  When purchasing plant starts, make sure you ascertain that they are from a local greenhouse and are grown specifically for your area.  If you live in an area where rainfall is predicted to drop, check out regions close by with less rainfall and choose native plantings (especially large trees and shrubs) that thrive in a more arid climate.  Here in Puget Sound, we are trending to more rainfall, more snow, longer and colder winters, so I will adjust accordingly.

Lawns   I have never been a fan of mowing grass (and I doubt you are, either) so I’m slowly turning the golf-course sized lawn the previous owner put in into other planting areas that more suit my lifestyle.   In one part, I am letting the grass give way to the native moss and turning it back to a natural forested area.  This will serve as a privacy barrier as well as eventually reverting back to a self-sustaining ecosystem.  I covered good ideas for maintaining healthy lawns in the blog on May 5.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch  Adding layers of biodegradable organic matter to the soil surface of your vegetable and flower beds serves as both a protective barrier and nutrient source.  This will make a huge difference to water retention and help with weed control.   An investment into a good composting system and worm bed will pay you back in spades.   I’ve learned over the years that maintaining good soil is the primary chore for a healthy garden.

Animals and Insects  Beneficial critters will need to adapt to the inevitable changes in the plants they rely on, either directly or indirectly.  The timing of natural events in relation to breeding that has been fine tuned over millennia is being thrown into disarray.  We can help by planting species that are beneficial and provide food sources for insects, birds and other animals that help our gardening efforts.  The recent concern in the decline of butterflies and bees is a concern and providing habitats such as Mason bee blocks and planting butterfly attractors will be a great boon to your success.    

This will give you some ideas to start with and we’ll revisit this in later blogs.

image Special (through Tuesday, May 26):  In addition to your 5% online discount ,take an extra 10% off all hydrosols.   Good time to stock up on lavender,  helichrysum and Healthy Skin blend for the harsh effects of summer sun, wind and being outdoors.  Many others to choose from.  Orders over $35 will also receive a free decorative tea light holder (pictured at left).    Enter “Earth Day #4” (no quotes) in promotional code on checkout page.
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