Bakula: India's Intoxicating Garland Flower
"I was in the courtyard beneath a young bakula tree so heavy with clusters of buds that bees swarmed thickly around its wine sweet perfume and the fallen flowers were in such great heaps I began to amuse myself weaving these into an intricate garland."
Bhavabhuti(8th century A. D.) Malati Mahavam
The lovely evergreen Bakula tree of the Indian subcontinent, with its small shiny , thick, narrow, pointed leaves, straight trunk and spreading branches is a prized ornamental specimen because it provides a dense shade and during the months from March to July fills the night air with the delicious heady aroma of its tiny cream colored flowers. In the morning the ethereal flowers which so graciously scented their surroundings with their deep, rich, honey notes during the evening hours, fall to the ground. People living in their proximity love to collect them as they retain their odor for many days after they fall. They are offered in temples and shrines throughout the country. Because of their ability to hold their fragrance for many days the flower has a special symbolic meaning when offered to the gods and goddesses. An offering of Bakula flowers signifies the unwavering devotion of the aspirant for the object of their devotion just as the bakul flower maintains its wonderful perfume long after it has fallen from the tree. The flowers have also inspired a popular saying, "true friendship lasts like the scent of maulsari(bakul)" They are equally prized for making into tiny garlands which can be woven into the hair emitting a perfume that is a delight to the wearer and to those who come in their company.
Not much is known of the flower and its fragrance outside of India but Stephen Arctander an acknowledged master of odor description sung its praises in his classic work, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. "The essential oil of Mimusops elengi is a pale yellow, mobile liquid of very delicate, sweet and extremely tenacious floral odor, somewhat reminiscent of orange flower and tuberose, or the more well known stephanotisits florabunda(gardenia undertone). A honey like, heavy-sweet undertone, is quite persistent, and this essential oil could, if it were made regularly available, certainly find uses as a modifier of countless floral fragrances."
Sitting at my desk, I have before me two exquisite absolutes and one attar of Bakula. Other than seeing the tiny garlands woven from the fresh flowers I have had no other contact with the flower. But in these tiny vials is a world of knowledge ancient and modern. A fragrance tells a story in itself and one may explore it through a variety of means according to ones temperament. Chemists, poets, mystics, therapists, artists and a whole host of folks from other disciplines can all enter the portals of creative inspiration by inhaling the rich and intoxicating aromas of such little known flowers. It is wonderful to see that from something so tiny can come so many paths of exploration.
This past summer I found myself in the fortunate position of sponsoring the extraction of Bakula in the form of an absolute with the hopes of igniting some interest in this delicious fragrance amongst aromatic plant lovers outside India. This experience ended up providing a whole new set of insights into the problems and solutions for extraction of floral essences. Since many people ask me about concretes and absolutes, I will make an attempt to share the tiny bit that I know because before using any any aromatic product we should try to understand the steps in its creation so we can find an appropriate avenue for its use. Every art, craft and science is in a state of evolution with each time and place making contributions to the total knowledge of the present era.
Regarding solvent extraction of floral essences, the practice was adopted in modern times to compensate for the rising cost of labor and time which was required for the practice of enfleurage and hot fat maceration which it replaced. Both the former and latter techniques are well documented in perfumery literature so to avoid redundancy I will go to the particular problems and solutions for solvent extraction. In the current scenario there are several important criteria for the production of high quality absolutes. Pure solvent, pure alcohol, high quality raw material and dedication to the art and craft of extraction in well designed equipment. In India, one cannot easily procure pure solvents and alcohol as extractors of essences can in the West. Hexane, though proclaimed as food quality by providers of this material in India, seldom provide the pure hexane which is required for making the finest concretes from which the absolute will be prepared. Indian extractors, must by one means or another, purify the solvent first, before using exposing flowers such as Bakul to it. Even with their best efforts Indian extractors may not be able to remove traces of impurity in the solvent. Often they may appear minute amounts but one should be aware of the fact that such things occur. What impact it has on the over all quality of the oil may be negligible, but I mention this so that people seeing trace impurities in Indian absolutes may understand that such problems may be beyond the range of most extractors to fix. Also there never has been to my knowledge any ISO standard created to determine what the acceptable level of both hexane and such impurities in an absolute might be. One can easily detect a high level of hexane(a couple of percentage points) in a carelessly prepared absolute as the odor of that solvent will be well pronounced detracting from the fine floral notes of the absolute. Once the concrete is prepared and the majority of solvent removed, the aromatic waxy substance needs to be washed with a high grade alcohol. Again such a product is hard to come by in its most refined form in India. Sugar cane alcohol is the type that is used in India but without special purification it is not of the same immaculate quality that is available overseas.
There is a solution to the problem. We have been investigating it and working on implanting it at the distillation and extraction facility of Nishant Aromas north of Bombay. At the factory site, a number of superb high fractionating columns are functioning which are used for producing isolates of essential oils for the indigenous and international flavor and fragrance industry. In a well designed fractioning column, natural isolates can be prepared of a specified purity so these same columns prove ideal for cleaning up impurities in the solvents and alcohol used in preparation of floral absolutes.. In the coming months many new absolutes will be prepared using solvent and alcohol of a high purity. Bakul(Mimusops elengi), Sontaka/White Ginger Lily(Hedychium coranarium), Sona Champaka/Golden Champa(Michelia champaca), Din ka Raja/Gardenia(Gardenia jasminoides), and Lotus(Nelumbo nucifera) are a few of the new generation of absolutes on tap for extraction using pure solvents and alcohol.
Another technique which has shown outstanding results is extracting the hexane prepared concrete with CO2. India has now begun to establish CO2 units in several localities and even the smaller 10 liter units are more than sufficient for preparing high quality extracts from concrete. The great advantage of this technique is that the less expensive solvent extraction units can continue to function in rural areas where fresh flowers are abundantly available and the concrete prepared within a few hours of picking. The concrete can then be sent to a central CO2 extracting facility(the equipment for CO2 extraction is very costly) where the lovely floral extract can be prepared. We have already initiated such a project with the extraction of a pure tuberose essence from tuberose concrete. This yields a product much more concentrated than the absolute with a delicate color and a rich full odor of tuberose. Within the CO2 units themselves are fractionating columns which allow one to remove almost all traces of hexane so those who are concerned with the possible irritating qualities of the solvent can be assured of the highest quality material. The CO2 extraction of the concrete also permits one to remove as much of the alcohol soluble waxes, pigments and other inert matter which are present in the absolute. Many people think that absolutes are pure essences but this is not true. A high grade alcohol dissolves certain waxes and other materials which are not part of the aromatic profile of the plant. These non-odiferous materials may be as much 35% in the absolute depending on the raw material. It does mean that the pure extract ends up costing several times more than the absolute but it is consequently more concentrated and can be used in greater dilution. We have adopted this method for preparing what we call contemporary attars. Here the CO2 extracted essence of the concrete is dissolved in pure sandalwood oil, the fixative par excellence, to make an ethereal floral perfume that represents the finest form in which the floral essence can exist.