< Back to Newsletters

Jasmin Sambac 1

Jasmin Sambac - India's Moonlight of the Grove

The First Jasmines by Rabindranath Tagore

(This poem is from The Crescent Moon by Tagore)

AH, these jasmines, these white jasmines!
I seem to remember the first day when I filled my hands
with these jasmines, these white jasmines.
I have loved the sunlight, the sky and the green earth;
I have heard the liquid murmur of the river
through the darkness of midnight;
Autumn sunsets have come to me at the bend of the road
in the lonely waste, like a bride raising her veil
to accept her lover.
Yet my memory is still sweet with the first white jasmines
that I held in my hands when I was a child.
Many a glad day has come in my life,
and I have laughed with merrymakers on festival nights.
On grey mornings of rain
I have crooned many an idle song.
I have worn round my neck the evening wreath of
BAKULAS woven by the hand of love.
Yet my heart is sweet with the memory of the first fresh jasminesOften we read that in India, jasmine is called the "Moonlight of the Grove." Naturally we associate this beautiful name with the delicate flowers of Jasmin grandiflorum which is the plant that was cultivated in Europe for its ethereal floral notes that have won their way into the hearts of those who cherish fine perfumes.  But to the Indian heart and mind, this name refers to an entirely different species of the plant, Jasmin sambac. It is only in recent years that this absolute has found its way into palette of Western perfumers. Its use is still far less wide spread than the more widely known Jasminum grandiflorum. Even though the two plants belong to the same genus they each possess distinct aromatic characteristics. I will attempt, in this article, to bring to life the feeling and emotion which this exquisite flower conveys to the Indian heart, the importance of the plant to the agricultural community, traditional uses of the plant and its oils, conventional and traditional distilling techniques, and how its aroma differs from that of Jasmin grandiflorum.

Rabindaranath's poem, "First Jasmines's," captures in a most elegant and succinct way, the emotion which arises in the Indian heart when this flower is inhaled. Innocense, sweetness and purity are considered key inner emotions which the flower's essence is capable of awakening in those who let its aroma penetrate into the center of the brain which registers olfactory impressions. When we seek to understand fragrance within a cultural context, we need to carefully consider a world which is almost entirely different than our own for wisdom and knowledge. There can be no doubt that when any body of wisdom whether it be East or West is pursued to its depths that one may find certain universal links but the outer form which it takes is almost always unique to a particular time and place. Indian culture in all its richness and variety, has a long tradition of passing down wisdom in a non-verbal way and the symbols used to convey very powerful messages have a history which is often thousands of years old. Fragrant flowers have been at the very core of religious worship since ancient times and these fragile, colorful and aromatic gems of the botanical world carry with them potent messages which can be understood by the person of highest intellect or the simplest country farmer. Family and community, even to this day, are very strong in India, and the teaching of this subtle language begins at a very early age and carries with it countless generations of power and meaning. When a simple Jasmine flower is held in the hand, or when it is placed about the neck in the form of a garland or it is strung in the long black tresses of Indian women it speaks a fragrant language to those hearts which is exquistely profound because it resonates without any need for recourse to spoken word and links the individual with a devotional attitude which encompasses millions of souls both past and present.

When I first went to live in India in 1971 I did not have a clue about the sublime inner world which is a part and parcel of Indian life. Even now I cannot pretend to fathom it, only a very rudimentary awakening has begun to occur which I hope may go on deepening. Yet the brief glimpses into this world which have been permited me have shown me through practical interaction with the land and its people that I am not completely off base in sharing some of the aforementioned thoughts. In the West we are use to physical demonstrations of love and affection which are quite alien to the Indian mind, and for a long time this puzzled me but when I began to actually inwardly experience the feelings of those around me, and that I was being totally surrounded by love and affection of the most rarified order, my bewilderment began to fade and a whole new world of tender and sweet emotions arose. I mention this because it is something like that with the role flowers and fragrance play in Indian life. It is not so much the outer apperance of things, but what the inner message is that gives it power and meaning.

Where I lived in South India, that is in the State of Karnatika on the Deccan Plateau, was a veritable floral paradise. Frangipani, champa, night queen, jasmine and numerous other flowers grew in abundance and perfumed the air where I lived. My olfactory sensibility had never been so keenly enticed as it was in this wonderful sub-tropical environment but as I got use to the simple routines of farm life, all of the senses took on a new and rejunvanated life. Gradually the complicated mental and emotional static that had accrued during my previous 20 years in the Western world began to dissipate and the beuatiful images of earth, birds, flowers, trees and simple farming people began to replace the impressions of the counter-culture life style I had grown accustomed too.(Suffice it to say that the full scale involvement with the 1960's California lifestyles had produced some unique arrangements of my brain cells). The actual physical environment in which a person lives definitely can produce a radical change in the sensory perspective through which they view the world and I think that in a sub-tropical environment ones the olfactory sense is stimulated to a heightened degree. One lives outdoors and even when indoors, windows are kept open so that fresh breezes constantly wash over one while one rests in the night. If those breezes carry the lovely night aromas of tropical plants like night qeen and mogra then one is more apt to began to notice and appreciate the world of natural aromatic delights.

As this world began to unfold for me, I did begin to take notice that Indian people were lovers in fragrance in many different forms. Food was cooked with aromatic spices, balsamic incense was constantly being burned to create a nice atmosphere, garlands strung with highly aromatic flowers were woven to celebrate religious and social occasions, along with many other fragrant traditions which lent a simple elegance to everyday and special occasion life. Perhaps the most widely used of all the exotic flowers was Jasmin sambac and without realizing it, I began to imbibe a wonderful dimension of Indian culture simply by inhaling the aroma of this simple yet elegant flower whose floral bouquet consists of many "themes" all distinct yet interconnected. In giving an account of this essence I know my words will fall short but some attempt must be made which can be supplemented at a later time by people more adept at this type of description. The opening notes of Jasmin sambac impress me as being heavy and sweet with a richness and depth that immediately draw one into the realm of profound mystery. The first impression of Jasmin grandiflorum is by my estimation, much more soft and sweet, in a sense more ethereal and light. As the essence of Jasmin sambac unfolds it reveals a sultry exotic warmth as if it was a vessel in which the rays of the tropical full moon were condensed and these rays were in turn transmuted into invisible fragrant exudations. The buds, in fact, open around 11 PM and the fullness of the odor permeates the atmosphere in darkest hours of the night. The warmth and sweetness of Jasmin grandiflorum on the other hand, is the gentle warmth of a fresh morning with buds softly opening to greet the beauty of the new day. They seem to be a crucible opening their elegant petals from which soft gentle aromatic light rays flow. The time of their unfolding is just before dawn and their ethereal perfume is at its peak just as the sun rises. As the aromatic theme of Jasmin sambac develops, one can detect very pronounced fruity notes intermingling with ones shared with the orange flower complex. It is truly the "Queen of the Night". As Jasmin grandiflorum resides into her base notes, one can pick up refined herbaceous, fruity notes which sometimes remind one of aromatic tea. I would call Jasmin grandiflorum, "Queen of the Dawn". Fragrance can act as a superb means of cultural transmission if that particular flower is a part of the inner heritage of the country where it is found growing. In this regard, I do think that the essences of flowers coming from different localities in the world can produce a "connection" with other times and places if we allow them to "act" upon us without to much interference from our rational mind.(Easier said than done!!!)

Now as I think back over 28 years of intimate association with India, many wonderful memories connected with Jasmin sambac come to the forefront of my mind. I really loved seeing the simple village women with the most elegant aromatic adornment conceivable, a sting of Jasmin sambac in their hair. It makes me happy to think that even the poorest peasant could afford one of the finest hair ornaments in the world at the cost of a few pennies. Going to the fresh flower market in Bangalore where the garland makers sat was a delightful experience. There in the shaded entrance to the market, they sat with their mounds of Jasmin sambac, rose, tuberose, and marigold nimbling weaving their creations of aromatic beauty to be used in temple worship, for honoring some holy person, or to consecrate a sacred wedding ceremony. The moist cool air in that sanctuary of flowers was filled with the deep, rich and mysterious bouquet of the Jasmin buds, co-mingled with the heavy, heady aroma of tuberoses; the fruity herbaceous notes of marigold, and the light, difussive, sweet and spicy ones of rose. This perfume was not simply a product of the current days assemblage of flowers but one which seemed to permeate the atmosphere as a result of years of collective engagement in this art and craft. If the subtle interweavings of this essence could be distilled it would be a remarkable essence indeed. Following this fragrant thread forward into the 1980's I remember helping create a simple "dias" or seat from which a kind and noble sage gave discourses in the heart of Bombay. It is customary in India to use Jasmin sambac as a symbolic decoration where saints and sages give discourses. Near where we were staying was a fine garland and flower market whose many stalls were mainly owned by people from South India. Happily we visited their shops and purchased long strings of jasmine flowers which we used to create a simple backdrop where this great teacher sat giving out the timeless teachings of all the great sages who came to remind searching hearts of their divine origin. In the ancient times, the aura of the flowers about a sage and the assembled congregation were said to inspire that type of atmosphere where the heart and mind would be inclined to remember that beyond time and space there was a pure and holy place where all duality was dissolved and only oneness remained. Finally on a very auspicious day, I met and married my wife in Mumbai and in her hair she wore a chaplet of Jasmin sambac.

Today, in India, Jasmin sambac continues to hold a very important place in the culture of flowers which thrives throughout the country. In fact, it may hold the central position. The center for growing plants on a commerical scale is around Madurai in Tamil Nadu States. Near the sacred city of Rameshwaram, seedlings are cultivated on a large scale for distribution to farmers throughout the state. It is said that the soil conditions and climate, coupled with the sacred aura of the holy city are responsible for the high quality of the plants coming from there. One gentleman who is a major jasmine broker told from that area told us that he daily sells 10-15 metric tons of the fresh flowers which are provided by over 2000 farmers. The peak season for harvesting the flowers is from March-July with smaller amounts produced in August/September and January/February. It is such a volatile market that the price of flowers can be as low as 15 Rupees per kilo and as high as 500. In India there are several auspicious times for marriages and during that season the flowers fetch the highest prices. He told us that the flowers are not only destined for cities in Tamil Nadu, Karnatika, and Kerala States but are air shipped to Bombay and New Delhi as well as oversea to places like Dubai.

For a Westerner who has not experienced an Indian wedding it would be difficult to conceive of how elaborate the decorations for such an event can be. A wealthy family will rent a large public or community owned grounds or hall where, overnight arrangements are made for hundreds or even thousands of guests to assemble. The floral decorations with Jasmin holding primary importance are fashioned into curtains through which the guests enter the marriage grounds. Jasmine and more jasmine bedeck the area where the bride and bridegroom receive the guests and the flower is used once again on the special stage which will hold the exchanging of the vows late in the night. I attended a wedding for 2500 people in January and was eye-witness to this incredible ceremony which began at 6:00 in the evening and went till 6:00 the following morning. An important part of the ceremony is when the bride and bridegroom exchange the garland strung with roses, tuberose and jasmine. One of the very interesting meanings of this exchange is that the flowers are considered representatives of the natural world and they are bearing witness to the union of two souls who are placing a circle of protection upon each other. In order to receive the garland their heads must be bowed in humility signifying the life long commitment to honor and cherish the relationship which will serve as a bridge into the spiritual life. Later when the couple begins their married life together, the room which is prepared for them is bedecked with jasmine flowers. The exquisite aroma of the flowers is said to be a life long memory for the husband and wife who remain true to their vows.

As mentioned before Jasmin sambac is widely cultivated in South India but in certain regions of the North, particularly it is also planted on a commericial scale. Other fragrant species of Jasmin are also planted near cities where large flower markets exist. But for the most part Jasmin sambac is preferred because of its excellent lasing qualities after plucking. It would not be an exaggeration to say that 10's of thousands of Indian farmers derive some part of their income from the cultivation of this flower.(In Tamil Nadu Jasmin grandiflorum has now taken on a significant role as it is grown for the production of the floral absolute mainly destined for overseas markets. The figures presented here pretain to Jasmin grandiflorum as that is the information I was able to collect when I visited Coimbatore in July, 1998 but they can be roughly translated to those for Jasmin sambac) A typical farm might have as much as 1 acre and as little as a quarter acre of Jasmin grandiflorum. One acre of land holds approximately 800-900 plants depending on the spacing. During the height of the season one plant can yield as much as 350 grams(12.5 ounces) of flowers per day. A yield of 2000 kilos(4400 lbs) of flowers per year can be gathered from an acre of land if it is well tended. One person can gather 1 kilo(2.2 lbs.) of flowers in a 2 hour period. It means that an experienced collector is able to pick over 80 individual flowers per minute or 5,000 per hour. These figures are worth noting because it can help understand and appreciate the emmense amount of human labor required to bring such delicate flowers to market.

When we stop to consider how many flowers is required to produce one kilo of Jasmin sambac absolute I think our whole understanding of the precious nature of the oil changes. Simply put it takes over 8 million blossoms of delicate jasmin flowers to produce 1 kilo of Jasmin sambac absolute. Each blossom must be carefully harvested by hand so as not to bruise the flower when plucking it. Bruised flowers will produce unpleasant off notes in the absolute and no good extractor will permit such material to be used in the preparation of the concrete. Since 1 kilo of oil consists of 1000 grams, it means that it requires 8000 individual blossoms to produce one gram of absolute. Now suppose a kilo of superb quality Jasmin sambac absolute costs from $1700-$2500 per kilo(this is roughly the range which one sees for this product) it means that 1 gram of absolute costs $1.70-$2.50. Breaking it down further we can find 1 gram of absolute contains about 25 drops which means that the per drop cost is 7.5-10 cents per drop. When we consider this price we must also remember that the actual harvesting of the flowers is only one step in the care of the plant. There is the pruning, cultivation of the soil, fertilizing, spraying, watering, etc. Many months of hard work go into caring for the plant before it can produce its blooms, during which time all sorts of natural calamaties can occur like disease, drought, flood, excessive heat or cold, etc. We need, as consumers, to remind ourselves again and again that it is a true miracle that such wonderful essences are still available and that we need to do our part to support the people and places where such work is still going on. Actually when I have stopped to really think this thing through, it seems impossible that such a precious and wonderful oil could be offered at such a reasonable price. It is only because the Indian farmers lead such simple lives that it becomes possible for us to enjoy and use in creative wholistic ways these exquisite products of nature.

For those not familiar with the process of solvent extraction to prepare the floral concrete followed by alcohol extraction to produce the absolute the following is selected from the journal I kept when visiting a jasmine extracting facility in Tamil Nadu.

"Inside the factory we were shown the basic set of extracting units. Three were kept for the extraction of Jasmin grandiflorum and three for J. sambac. The ones of J. grandiflorum had a capacity of 150 kilos of fresh flowers and the ones for J.sambac a capacity of 100 kilos. In a previous visit to India in 1995 I had seen units for Jasmin extraction of a much larger size so I was curious as to why they they had opted for the smaller ones. Mr. Sethuraman explained in these small units a much more thorough washing of the flowers with highly purified hexane could be done thus preserving the greatest amount of the highly volatile aromatic molecules in the concrete. They then showed us how the the flowers were loaded into the units. Circular perforated trays slide over a a central column within the extractors. Each tray holds 15 kilos of flowers that are spread in thin layers so the hexane can access all parts of the flower. One tray is stacked upon another with a special vertebrae-shaped piece of metal in between which prevents the tray above from sqaushing the one below. It is important that the flowers remain unbruised so that no "off" note appears in the final product. Once the extractor is fully loaded it is sealed and the process of washing with hexane begins. Two washes are done of one hour each for each batch. The solvent dissolves all extractable matter from the plant whch includes non-aromatic waxes, pigments and highly volatile aromatic molecules. The solution containing both solvent and dissolvable plant material is filtered and the filterate subjected to low pressure distillation to recover the solvent for further use. The remaining waxy mass is what is called the concrete and it contains in the case of J. grandiflorum as much as 55% of the volatile oil.

In this section of the factory they explained that careful records were kept on each unit as to how it was being maintained, its filters cleaned, the condition of its parts, etc. They had developed an in-house system of monitoring each part of the operation so that they could quickly track down any problem should a problem occur. Extreme care was taken with every system pertaining to the piping of solvent into the extractors, its recovery and storage as it was a highly flammable material and also if mishandled could injure those in contact with it. Mr. Sivaramakrishna was so keen on their operation being of an international level that he opted to have it ISO certified which meant that he voluntarily drew up a list of industry standards that his company agreed to adhere too, which is monitored by outside professionals a couple of times a year to assure that those standards were being met or exceeded. As part and parcel of that certification, they were regularly asking how they could improve their operation even further so that they could always abreast of positive innovations within the industrial world. This certification was and added expense for them as it must be paid for out of their operating expenses but he and his family felt that they should cut no corners in trying to produce the finest absolutes in the world.

Another part of our tour took us to the area where the absolutes are prepared. Here, in a much smaller area, the concentrated concretes are processed further to remove the waxy materials which dilute the pure essential oil. They also are poorly soluble in alcohol and other aromatic materials so their removable is, in most cases, a necessity.(One interesting exception is for the use of the concrete in the preparation of solid perfumes which has become popular in the last couple of years.) Often though the concrete is left, as is, until a firm order comes for a customer for the absolute as the waxes act as a good perservative for the essential oil. To prepare the absolute from the jasmine concrete, the waxy substance is warmed and stirred with pure sugar cane alcohol. In India this is the only pure alcohol available to distillers/extractors. In other Western countries pure ethanol is used. The temperature to which this solution is heated is from 115-155 F. During the heating and stirring process the concrete breaks up into minute globules greatly increasing the surface area of the original mass. Since the aromatic molecules are more soluble in alcohol than is the wax an efficient separation of the two takes place. But along with the aromatic molecules a certain amount of wax also becomes dissolved and this can only be removed by agitating and freezing the solution at very low temperatures(around -30 degrees F) In this way most of the wax precipates out. As a final precaution the purified solution is cold filtered leaving only the wax-free material. The alcohol is recovered from the dewaxed extract by gentle distillation under reduced pressure. Much care has to be exercised at this stage so that the more volatile componets of the extract remain intact. This process of alcohol removal from the extract is done in several stages until the final removal is done under vacuum. In fact, the whole process of preparing the absolute is as much an art as it is a science. The person doing it must have a "feel" for the material so that they can sense what is the right moment to perform each procedure."

In North India a different technique is utilized for the extraction of the volatile essence of the oil which is much older than the solvent/alcohol one. In the city of Kannauj, the ancient art and craft of "attar" production is still practiced. When the word, "attar" is used in India it generally refers to the hydro-distillation of aromatic plant materials into a receiving vessel containing pure sandalwood oil. Bela or Mogra attar produced from Jasmin sambac flowers is a costly and precious essence with characteristics quite distinct from the absolute. First of all the soil and climatic conditions of Uttar Pradesh, where Kannauj is located are quite different than South India. Every change in the environments in which the same species of plant grows can produce differences in aroma. The distilling technique itself will also affect the final product. In North India the flowers are harvested in early evening and placed in shallow bamboo baskets. They are kept in a cool place till late evening when the distillation process begins.These baskets are placed inside a copper still which holds up to 100 pounds of the harvested buds. Enough water is added to totally cover the baskets and the lid sealed.(See article on Wild Vetiver for the general description of traditional distillation techniques) In the production of "attar" the receiving vessel or "bhapka" contains 5 kilos of sandalwood oil. As the steam ladened molecules rise up through the bamboo pipe and pass into the chamber containing the sandalwood they condense into a liquid form and the sandalwood oil catches hold and fixes theof the minute particles of essential oil. After about 4-5 hours of slow distillation at low pressure, the bhapka becomes full of the condensed hydrosol and sandalwood oil so that it is removed and a new one attached. Then the distillation continues for another 4-5 hours.

The distillation is then stopped and the receivers allowed to totally cool down. At this time sandalwood oil impregnated with jasmine essence and the water separate. The following evening, before the new day's distillation begins, the water is drained off from both receivers and added to the water in which is suspended another batch of fresh flowers. The same process is repeated as the day before and this continues for 15 days until the sandalwood oil is permeated with the essence of Mogra. The essence it yields is very, very gentle in terms of the way it enters the olfactory perceptors. Upon analysis we have discovered that after 15 days that the attar contains only 3-5% of the floral essence dissolved in sandalwood oil. People who are used to inhaling pure essential oils or absolutes often feel that the oil is not powerful enough, but if one spends time with it and allows the essence to gently come out of the slowly evaporating sandalwood oil, it is quite possible that they will find a world of fragrant delight beyond the immediate appearances. It seems to me that this method may have been devised by the sages of old for the most appropriate way to inhale fragrances whether for aesthetic enjoyment or for opening up subtle blocks in the channels through which the life breath flowed to all parts of the body.(In a way one might say that these two things are interlinked) When one pours through the sacred ancient literature one comes to know that a whole science developed around the study of breath and its effect on the body, mind and emotions. A natural pattern of deep breathing was one of the most obvious signs of good health because it indicated that a persons mind and senses were in a state of equilibrium. Changes in this pattern due to poor living habits were key indicators that a person was heading towards ill health. The sages recognized that one of the best ways to make a person aware of their breathing and its importance in the overall system of health maintenance was through inhaling pleasant fragrances. The environment in which they lived was alive with healing botanicals and certain species of jasmine, being native to the country proved to be invaluable in this simple therapy. As towns and cities sprung up as the countries population grew, means for safely capturing and transporting the familiar fragrances of the countryside may have been evolved in the form attars so that those living in urban settings might also be reminded of the importance of deep breathing to maintain their good health.

Another method of extracting the essence of Jasmin sambac which is still practiced in North India is called Indian enfleurage. A brief description taken from my journal on the visit to Kannauj in 1996 describes this process:

"Before leaving we were shown the room in which one more special product is made using fragrant flowers. It was the Indian version of the French effleurage process. Effleurage as practiced in France was a method of extracting the oil of delicate flowers like jasmine and tuberose which continue to produce perfume long after being cut. These flowers were individually placed on a glass plate containing a thin layer of purified odorless animal fat called a chassis. These plates were stacked one on top of another and the flowers left for 24 hours so that all the perfume present in them and exhaled from them would become absorbed in the fat. Then these flowers were plucked off by hand and a new batch was placed on the fat. This process was repeated up to 36 times. This saturated fat was know as a Pomade.

The Indian method uses cleaned and husked sesame seeds in place of the fat. Fresh jasmineand rose are spread in alternate layers on the floor of a cemented pit. Exhausted flowers are replaced by fresh ones every 10-12 hours until the seeds are saturated with the perfume. The fragrance laden seeds are then placed in old fashioned stone grinding mill run by a bullock moving in circles and the oil is expressed at very low temperatures. Approximately 1300 lbs of flowers will be used to saturated 500 lbs of seeds. The oil produced from these fragrance saturated seeds will be designated as Sira(high grade) oil. Two lower grades are also produced called Baju(middle grade) and Raji(low grade). They are products obtained by using the spent flowers of Sira Oil . "

This type of oil is most often used in cosmetics, massage and hair oils. No detailed analysis of this product has been done but it is possible that it contains some special aromatic molecules as there is no heat used in the process. Each method of extraction has its own advantages and disadvantages and it may turn out that for a truly complete oil a balanced combination of attar, Indian enfleurage, solvent extraction, etc. might be used. When we claim the superiority of one method over another we may be missing some important link in the chain of fragrant molecules that constitute any particular oil. Very interesting research has been done to show the consitutents of rose absolute and rose otto(steam distilled oil) side by side and the range of aromatic molecules and their proportions can vary substantially. It is through the advances in quality control analysis that we are beginning to learn more about the effects of each type of distillation and extraction on each aromatic botanical. This may help us discover new and better methods for capturing the total spectrum of volatile contituents in the plant. If we are to truly honor and respect the plants and the beautiful gifts they give us in the form of their elegant oils, we need to ever improve the ways we distill and extract their oils. Progress is made not by distaining previous discoveries, but by looking at them closely and seeing what ancient and modern technologies have accomplished and then seeing if we can draw from the good points of each system to create something even more lovely.