< Back to Newsletters

Gulhina / Henna Flower

Gulhina / Henna Flower - Flower of Paradise

"oh odour of Paradise:
of flowers of henna"
 --Street call of flower vendors of Damascus and Cairo


Acquaintance With the Henna Flowers

On evening in the month of July, in the city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan we had gone to visit an ancient religious and secular site on the rulers of the Rajput kings in times past."We reached Jodhpur about 4:00 in the afternoon and proceeded to our hotel. Our contact in the city was Mr. Navneet Soni and we called him once we reached our room. He joined us shortly after we had refreshed ourselves with a nice shower. Plans for the coming days were discussed and we then proceeded to a beautiful spot on the outskirts of the city called Mandore. Mandore was the site of the former capitol of the area and was established in a fertile gorge surrounded by rocky hills. The Parihar Rajputs ruled here from the sixth to thirteenth century and built a charming palace complex surrounded by beautiful gardens. We entered this ancient site through a park of towering trees, shrubs, flowers and waterways. Temple like structures called chhatis were prominent features of the landscape. They marked the spot where past rulers had been cremated. Other magnificent buildings graced the landscape and we enjoyed the fine mood created by the gentle post-sundown light. Luscious smells of henna and jasmine flowers wafted on the night air." Rajasthan Journal, 1996

On several previous occasions I had seen the henna flowers in other parts of India but on this particular evening, perhaps because of the time of day, the setting we were in, and the sweetness of the odor emanating from the flowers, I took more careful note of its unique olfactory characteristics.


Olfactory characteristics of Henna Flowers

In its fresh form one perceives a delicate, sweet floral note. Folded within this first impression is a tealike odor which one can discover in the leaves also. Visually the tiny pink or white flowers are displayed in large pyrimidical panicles at the terminal end of the shrubs branches. Each floret, in its closed form like a tiny pearl opens into a delicate star with a golden center out of which the sublime perfume exhudes. The entire panicle with opened star shape florets is a pleasing site. The large shrub or small tree with greyish brown bark and a plentitude of thin branches lends itself to being trained as a tightly clipped hedge. It is often seen in this form in the gardens of India. For the production of the leaves for making henna paste, it is not maintained in such a rigid form but allowed to grow into its natural , gently spreading shape.


Uses of Henna Flowers

In reviewing different articles on Henna(Lawsonia inermis) the preponderance of information regards the cultivation, harvest, preparation and use of the leaves but there are a few scattered references to the flowers and their uses. It is reported that a hydrosol or floral water use to be prepared exclusively from the flowers as a soothing skin wash.(Cosmetics from the Earth, by Roy Genders) In the Indian Materia Medica, the author reports that the Jewish community prepared a fragrant water from the distilled flowers which was used for baths and for perfuming oils and ointments for anointing the body. He also states that this water was used for embalming.


Henna/Mehndhi Paste

In the past few years the ancient Indian and Middle Eastern tradition of applying the vibrant red paste created from henna or hina leaves(Lawsonia inermis) to the hair, hands and feet has spread into the western world. People have fallen in love with this custom of drawing elaborate patterns on the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet.  There is a growing body of knowledge on henna paste, its aesthetic and practical applications but up to this point little has been discussed on the perfume of the flowers and its current use in making the traditional attar, known as Gulhina. Since the delicate odor of the flower offers us a unique contriubution to the world of aromatic essences it is worth discussing the little I know on this subject.


Gulhina Attar (Hydrodistilled Essence of the Flowers)

In the months of August/September, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Gulhina Attar is prepared. Following the traditional techniques of hydrodistillation in copper vessels, the flowers are loaded into a big cauldron that holds up to 45 kilos of flowers. The vessel is filled with enough water so that the flowers float freely. Then a wood fire is ignited in the clay and brick stove upon which the cauldron rests. The aroma ladened vapors pass through a angled bamboo pipe into a smaller, long necked copper vessel containing sandalwood oil. The flowers are slowly distilled for 8-10 hours over the course of the day. Then the receiving vessels is allowed to sit overnight so that the oil and water separate. The following day the water is decanted off and the sandalwood containing vessel is reattached to the larger distilling vessel via the bamboo pipe. The same process is repeated again and this procedure is followed for 15 days or until the sandalwood becomes saturated with the odor of the henna flowers. Some clients wish to have a 20 day henna attar made, some a 25 day attar which simply means that the strength of the attar is increased by the additional number of days of distillation. Naturally the cost rises with the number of days of distillation.

The odor of the attar if it is indeed pure, is a balanced combination of tea-like aroma of the leaves and the soft sweetness of the flowers. In the living flower the predominating first note is a bit lighter and sweeter but in the attar the two aromas coexistent in a balanced form. I think that it is virtually impossible to capture many of the most ethereal notes of any living flower as the whole life force of the plant is directly connected to the earth at that time. A well distilled oil can approach this domain but never completely capture it.(at least in my opinion) Perhaps there is the ambience of the environment itself which helps create a mood which cannot exactly be replicated when one leaves that place. When one is standing in the presence of a plant in its natural environment all the five senses are gathering in the impressions of that place and it penetrates very deeply into the heart.

In saying this I am not downplaying the importance of the ethereal essences to be distilled from these gems of the botanical world. There can be no doubt that the distilled oil of that plant can bring a world we have visited back into focus. It is one of the most powerful means of doing so. And the same oil can produce very postive effects on a person who has never encountered that plant in its own habitat. One of the great gifts of aromatic botanical treasures is their oil. There are many many people who cannot leave their work to explore the world in which they(the plants) live. So in the grand dispensation of nature arrangements have been made to transport those precious essences from the world in which the plants live and breathe into cities and towns where people can inhale them and at least for a brief period of time be transported into a world of great beauty and sublimity. Precious essences like Henna, play an important part in keeping our sense of wonder and innocense alive. They are in their own silent way, agents of transformation.


Henna Flower in Literature

How aromatic evening grows! The flowers
And spicy shrubs exhale like onycha;
Spikenard and henna emulate in sweets.
Blest hour! which He, who fashioned it so fair,
So softly glowing, so contemplative,
Hath set, and sanctified to look on man.
 -- Scene from Hadad  by James Abraham Hillhouse, 1789-1841

Hands cling to hands and eyes linger on eyes:
thus begins the record of our hearts.
It is the moonlight night of March; the sweet smell of henna is in the air;
my flute lies on the earth neglected and your garland of flowers is unfinished.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.
 --Excerpts from The Gardener by Ravindranath Tagore

Scent from Paradise in showers!
Maidens, fit for bridal bowers,
Here are fragrant henna flowers!
--"Street Cries" from Idylls and Lyrics of The Nile (1894),  H. D. Rawnsley, 1851-1920:

And oh! what odours the voluptuous vale
Scatters from jasmine bowers,
From yon rose wilderness,
From cluster'd henna and from orange groves,
That with such perfumes fill the breeze,
As Peris to their Sister bear,
When from the summit of some lofty tree
She hangs encaged, the captive of the Dives.
--" Flores Poetici", No.1, The Edinburgh monthly magazine, Volume 8


Internet Resources on Lawsonia inermis/alba


University fact sheet on Lawsonia

Camphire - (Heb. copher), mentioned in Cant. 1:14 (R.V., "henna-flowers"); 4:13 (R.V., "henna"), is the al-henna of the Arabs, a native of Egypt, producing clusters of small white and yellow odoriferous flowers, whence is made the Oleum Cyprineum. From its leaves is made the peculiar auburn dye with which Eastern women stain their nails and the palms of their hands. It is found only at Engedi, on the shore of the Dead Sea. It is known to botanists by the name Lawsonia alba or inermis, a kind of privet, which grows 6 or 8 feet high.

Exquisite jpg photo of rubra variety of Lawsonia inermis

The Egyptians are said to have prepared both an oil and an ointment from the flowers for making the limbs supple.Lawsonia alba, Lamarck. (Nat. Ord., Lythraceae). Henna, or Alhenna, is produced from this plant, which is much esteemed by the inhabitants of India andother Oriental lands. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have spoken of it as the "best of herbs."  Dioscorides speaks of it as a plant "whose leaves dye the hair of an orange color." In Africa and Asia, and among the muslims especially, the custom is in vogue of dyeing the feet and hands orange-yellow, a practice said to have prevailed among the ancient Jews and Egyptians. The coloring matter, which appears like a brown-resinoid material, is a sort of tannin to which the name hennotannic acid was given by Abd-el-Aziz Herraory.

(Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease)