Each one of us is on a unique and special quest during which we hope to gain appreciation of new and beautiful dimensions of life. Many of us have found a special connection to the world of aromatic plants and the wonderful essences extracted or distilled from them. Gradually we are learning that such precious gems of the botanical kingdom are the result of an intricate web of relationships between environments, plants, climates, farmers or gatherers, and extractors/distillers. The creative use of these radiant treasures is in the domain of practicing natural perfumery. Each and every part of this world is significant and each person engaged in it has a chance to offer some special gift which is a manifestation of their own inner beauty and goodness. As the appreciation for all the parts grows one has the opportunity to gradually increase the sense of wonder, mystery and awe that bestows on our lives that special glow which leads to fulfillment and contentment.
In my own journey, I have been drawn to working as closely as possible with the production side of essential oils, absolutes, and attars. It is but one small part of this whole fascinating world of study but as it is the domain in which I have the most practical experience, I may be able to share a few things which will be of interest to others. Repeated trips to India since 1971 created a great longing to understand as much as possible about the numerous aromatic gifts with which the country has been blessed since ancient times.
Even to this day if one goes into the heart of rural India, they will find many precious aromatic plants spreading their intoxicating aromas to the vicinity into which they live. Many are familiar to us and are even grown on a commercial or semi-commercial scale for both domestic and/or international markets. Peppermint, Spearmint, Lemongrass, Basil, Palmarosa, Cardamon, Black Pepper, Citronella, Carrot Seed, Costus, Spikenard, Sandalwoodan Eucalyptus are but a few of the more well known aromatic plants grown or wild harvested for essential oil production. But there are many others which are but little known outside of India. Kewda(Pandanus odoratissimus), Parijata(Nycthantes arbortristis, Gulhina(Lawsonia inermis), Bakul(Mimusops elengi0 and Sona Champa(Michelia champaca) are included in this group.
One more incredible flower, with which this story is concerned is Lotus or Nelumbo nucifera. Certainly the name and image of the Lotus is well known to many, but the fragrance of the flowers growing naturally in climates which are suited to them may not be familiar to most folks. When I first began to gain a practical understanding of India's ancient and modern fragrance industry due to the kind instruction of my fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlalka, who took me to many places throughout the country so I could see cultivation, harvest, distillation/extraction of aromatic plants, the longing to sponsor the extraction of lotus blossoms began to grow in my mind. One day while reading through the multivolume work called Wealth of India, which concerns the countries animal, plant and mineral resources I came across this small selection.
"The flowers of Nelumbo nucifera are used for ornament and as offerings in temples. Cut flowers stand transportation if picked as buds one or two days before opening. They were once used as a source of perfume, Lotus(Kamal) Perfume, which was highly prized; the present day lotus perfume is a blend of patchouli, benzoin and storax with phenylethyl and cinnamic alcohols. The honey from bees which visit lotus flowers is reported to possess tonic properties and considered useful for affections of the eye. The leaf stalk yields a yellowish white fibre..."
The mention of it being a perfume in bygone days really intrigued me and the seed idea remained with me as something that I should pursue. Then in 1998 I had a chance to visit Rajasthan with Ramakant and the experience that awaited us there seem to confirm that the idea of producing a true lotus absolute was not far removed from reality. Here is a journal extract which explains what we saw:
"Early next morning we were met by Navneet and we proceeded to a beautiful lotus lake several miles from the city. This was an unfrequented spot complete with a 450 year old summer palace(now in ruins) and a small temple. The cool fresh morning air blew across the lake lifting the ethereal fragrance of pink lotus for us to inhale and enjoy. The aroma of lotus is quite intoxicating and it is not hard to understand why the flower and its fragrance figures so prominently in Eastern religious tradition. Thousands upon thousands of flowers opened their petals to the light of the morning sun and this auspicious site seemed an appropriate opening to our explorations of the fragrant treasures ofRajasthan.
The lotus flower and its fragrance are of intense interest to us. Once upon a time a ethereal attar was made from the flower but now that art and craft is no longer practiced. Instead natural and synthetic ingredients are added to sandalwood to produce a similar type of odor to the lotus but not the lotus odor itself. In fact there are a number of different species of the genus Nelumbo each having their own distinct odor and so if, in fact, we can find some way to start producing as true lotus attar or absolute, we will need to be very specific about the species or cultivar used. The fragrance of the lovely pink-tinged lotus we were smelling is difficult to describe in any words. It was in its very essence, ethereal and delicate.Its sweetness is so subtle and profound that it steals into one heart and mind in a most unassuming way, but its effect was immediate and deep. It seems to touch a very high center in the brain and remind one of very noble and good spiritual aspirations. The symbolism of lotus in the East is so vast and deep that several volumes would be required to do the subject justice but one can say that it is primary importance in the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Indian people." http://members.aol.com/somanath/rajasthan2.html
Through a series of circumstances the opportunity to begin this work in earnest manifested in 1998. One of our colleagues in South India who had a nice extracting unit outside of Bangalore, expressed interest in taking on the project if I would provide the financial backing for this work. At that time I was working full time as a gardener hence financial resources were limited, but I thought that no matter what happens one should make an effort to do that work which is closest to the heart. So I assured him that I would produce that amount of money which would allow us to commence the extraction of lotus flowers to produce the concrete from which the absolute is made. Our colleague sent one of his trusted workers to do a complete survey of the area surrounding the extracting facility to discover what white and pink lotus ponds could be found. India is not a place where one finds things on a map, but requires traveling in rural areas where the only way to find something is to ask directions from local people. Gradually his assistant was able to locate ponds of significant size filled with pink and white lotus blossoms. Unfortunately the location of the white lotus ponds was to remote for picking and transporting to the extracting unit but pink lotus ponds proved accessible.
What is quite difficult for most of us to grasp is the actual amount of plant materials required to produce even a small amount of absolute or essential oil. When one holds a small vial of oil in thier hands, it is almost inconcievable that it might take hundreds, even thousands of blossoms to make a small amount of oil. In the case of lotus we also did not know in the beginning that the blossoms would yield so little concrete. Gradually we discovered that it would require approximately 25,000 blossoms to make 35 ounces(1 kilo) of concrete. When the concrete was submitted to alcohol washing, filteration, chilling etc to make the absolute it required 4 kilos of concrete to make 1 kilo of absolute.(Hence it requires approximately 2850 lotus blossoms to make 1 ounce of absolute) Generally speaking the yield of absolute from concrete is 1 kilo of absolute to 2-3.5 kilos of concrete but due to the extremely waxy nature of the flowers and the very low essential oil content the yield was much lower. It was therefore required a couple of months for enough concrete to be produced to make the absolute. As the flowers do not bloom all at one time, the blossoms had to be collected as available from many surrounding ponds and brought to the factory for extraction. Perhaps one day 200 blossoms would come, on another day 500, another 700. It was, in short, quite an undertaking to make that first kilo of pink lotus absolute. Finally in November of 1998 the first small consignment of this precious essence was sent and friends and customers had a chance to begin exploring this unique essence.
The problem then and now is to describe a fragrance which is very different than most we have encountered. Any absolute in its pure form is thousands of times more concentrated than the individual flowers so it is sometimes valuable to decompress the concentrated material with a dilulent which will not greatly alter the basic profile. One more thing I came to learn in the initial excitement of doing that first olfactory exploration of pink lotus absolute was that just as a beautiful blend needs several weeks or months to mature, so do most absolutes and essential oils. All the aromatic components have to settle into a balanced relationship with each other and this does not happen overnight. So one of the keys to a good olfactory exploration is to first realize that one needs a maturation time. With Pink Lotus I discovered that the absolute really began to find its character in the 6 month from the time it was extracted. Once the bouquet has matured then one can decompress the concentrated essence with something like a pure perfumers alcohol. It is then much easier to trace the aromatic journey of the absolute as it proceeds from top to base notes.
Even to this day though I have trouble describing any of the three lotus absolutes that are being extracted (as the project has evolved we have also successfully extracted white lotus from Tamil Nadu and Blue Lotus from Maharastra. The blue lotus is light blue in color and is not to be confused with the blue lotus of Egypt which belongs to the Nymphae genus. But it is very interesting to note that the blue lotus blossoms of Maharastra are much smaller than either pink or white lotus and that the consistency of the oil is much less viscous than the white and pink. It also has a lot blue tinge to it) These are plants of the water and their is something of that element that is incoporated into the bouquet. They also draw their sustenance from muddy earth which is constantly saturated with water and this again plays a part in their aromatic profile. With regards to Pink Lotus there is a definite rich powdery bouquet with a medicinal note appearing at the top. Behind this is a a soft ethereal bouquet which one would not call sweet.. It is almost resinous. I would say that of the three lotus absolutes, the pink is the lotus of the earth. It may be for this reason that Pink Lotus is sacred to Lakshmi Devi the Goddess of wealth. But there is hidden with this essence another dimension of refinement that one must explore themselves.
Perhaps others with a better grasp of olfactory description will assist in the description One thing amidst these vague olfactory wanderings that should be stated is that sometimes an image may be in our mind of what something should smell like and when we are actually presented with the genuine article as opposed to the creations from a perfumers palette(this is also a wonderful thing-just different) we may feel surprised. And this is particularly true when very little authentic material has ever appeared. There have been countless synthetic lotus essences created in perfume laboratories but once you come in contact with the authentic material one may wonder what the basis of those creations might have been. It may even be that some people would prefer the human created product. There is nothing wrong with that, but if one wishes to explore the natural essence one may have to surrender their previous impressions of what that essence should be like. The white is in my opinion the lotus of the sky. It opening note has a rich soft powdery note with very little medicinal accent. Behind this note is one which is even more ethereal than the one found in pink lotus, its resinous character is slightly sweeter. It has a very warm gentle radiance. It is sacred to Saraswati Devi the Goddess of Learning and Wisdom The blue lotus is in my opinion the lotus of the ether. It is so different than white or pink that one cannot make analogies between them. There is a hint of a very rich precious wood notes that one sometimes finds in true agarwood. It also has some of the character of a non-musty high ethereal notes of patchouli. But beyond that is a range of notes that are very clear and penetrating. It is a very potent, heady absolute.
Well so much for my ability to describe such things. It is a lot of fun to try but is probably as individual as the person smelling the oil. I hope this has been interesting for those of you who enjoy reading about aromatic plants.
Your friend, Christopher
Lotus - plant profile
Lotus, sacred lotus, Indian lotus, Chinese water lily, Egyptian bean (English)
Kanwal, kamal (Hindi)
Ambuja, padma, pankaja, kamala (Sanskrit)
Ambal, thamarai (Tamil)
Botanical name: Nelumbo nucifera
Family: Nelumbonaceae. Nelumbo is the only genus in this family.
Lotus is a water plant growing in the mud of shallow ponds, lagoons, marshes and flooded fields. It is native to parts of the Middle East, Asia, Australia and New Guinea. It can grow to a height of up to 6 m depending on the depth of water. It is found throughout India.
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Image: The lotus is grown in Kew Gardens.
Rhizomes - firmly anchored in the mud beneath the water surface, the lotus plant has long stems to which the leaves and flowers are attached. The crisp rhizomes are eaten in a variety of savoury dishes in India. The rhizomes are pocketed with air tunnels so that, when sliced, each disc looks like a piece of Swiss cheese or a snowflake.
Leaves - disc-shaped and up to 90 cm wide. They either float on or protrude above the surface of the water. They have long leaf stalks that are scattered with small bumps. Both leaves and leaf stalks are eaten as vegetables in India.
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Flowers - large and attractive with lots of petals. They tend to be rosy-pink or white coloured. They are sacred in Buddhist and Hindu religions and are frequently represented in South Asian art and literature. They are sometimes eaten as a vegetable in India.
Seeds - hard and dark brown. They can vary in shape from round or oval to oblong. They are sometimes eaten in India. Lotus seeds are also the oldest viable seeds ever recorded.
Lotus - history
Lotus is native to the Middle East, Asia, New Guinea and Australia. It is the most commonly featured flower in South Asian mythology and has featured in many South Asian religions through the ages. Lotus flowers have been used throughout history in South Asia and have been featured in Buddhist and Hindu art, architecture and literature. It was even a symbolically important plant before the religions at the time of the the Indus Valley civilisation. The flowers became symbolic of immortality and resurrection because people observed that they would grow from the bottom of dried up pools after the monsoon rains.
Despite its early use, it was Buddhism which first brought the lotus symbol to widespread use. Lotus medallions are prominent on the Buddhist places of worship at Sanchi in Madhaya Pradesh and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh dating from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. As Buddhism spread from India to Central Asia and China in the first few centuries AD, lotus flowers were used to represent Buddha. They featured on rosettes, scrolls, motifs and iconography.
The giant leaves of lotus plants were used as plates in ancient India, and its seeds and roots are still considered a delicacy. 11th and 12th century texts noted lotus dishes and feasts in which lotus leaves were consumed.
The lotus became a common feature woven into South Asia's culture. This continued with the advent of Islam in the 12th century AD. Lotus flowers had ancient connections with Persian culture, so they were already popular motifs on Islamic carpets, textiles and architecture. They feature in intricate patterns on perforated screens, tiles and ceramics.
Lotus - Food
The flowers, seeds, young leaves and rhizomes are all edible. In Asia, the petals are sometimes used for garnish, while the large leaves are used as a wrap for food. The rhizome (called ÂX in Chinese; pinyin: ?u) is a common soup or stir-fry ingredient and is the part most commonly consumed. Petals, leaves, and rhizome can also all be eaten raw, though transmission of parasites should be a concern (e.g. Fasciolopsis buski).
The stamens can be dried and made into a fragrant herbal tea. The lotus seeds or nuts are quite versatile, and can be eaten raw or dried and popped like popcorn. They can also be boiled down until soft and made into a paste. Combined with sugar, lotus seed paste is a common ingredient in pastries such as mooncakes, daifuku and rice flour pudding.
Lotus -- Other Uses
The leaves are used as plates for eating food off.
The distinctive 'dried seed heads' resemble watering-cans, are widely sold throughout the world for decorative purposes and for 'dried flower' arranging.
Lotus - Food
Lotus is a wholly edible species and is cultivated as a food plant in China, Japan, Hawaii, India and Korea. It is prized mainly for its crisp rhizomes and seeds, though the flowers and leaves are also eaten in some areas.
How it is eaten
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In South Asia, lotus leaves are eaten like vegetables.
In India, the rhizomes, seeds, leaves and flowers are eaten to some extent. The rhizomes are roasted or dried and sliced. They are used in curry, soups or fried as chips. They are also pickled or can be frozen and used as an ingredient in pre-cooked foods, and a kind of thickening powder may be prepared from the fleshy rhizomes.
The fruits are sold in Indian markets for the edible seeds embedded in it. The seeds are removed of their outer covering and embryo, which is intensely bitter. They are sweet and tasty and may be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, candied or ground into flour.
Young leaves, leaf stalks and flowers of lotus are eaten as vegetables in India. Its seeds are roasted to make puffs called 'makhanas'.
Lotus - Crafts
Because of its symbolic importance, the lotus plant has featured extensively in literature and art in South Asia. It has been used to make objects such as beads, clothing and lamps, and features in architecture.
Lotus and religious craftwork
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Lotus seeds are used to make rosaries for those who hold the plant sacred. These rosaries are from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
As a sacred plant to Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, the lotus is important in South Asian craftwork which tends to use natural objects as symbols. Lotus seeds are strung together to make rosaries for these faiths, while lotus leaf stalks are used to make wicks for temple lamps. In Myanmar, fibre is harvested from the stems of the lotus plant and spun into thread. This is then woven to produce valuable lotus fabric, which might be used as an altar cloth or for religious robes. A simplified shape of a lotus is used to decorate many craft objects such as carvings on houses, folk paintings and fabrics