The range of essential oils and absolutes available to us is quite amazing. Even within one genus we can explore and exhilarate in many different aromas. Recently I sent out a newsletter on lavender which included a number of different lavendula oils distilled/extracted by different means and from different countries. Many of you enjoyed the experience of sampling the various dimensions which lavender has to offer.
This time we will explore the different dimensions of Petitgrain as there are several major oils distilled from the leaves and twigs of the Citrus genus. The explorations that I am engaged in are purely from an olfactory standpoint. The interplay of major, minor and trace constituents in a single essential oil is a work of great beauty which changes from season to season, country to country and year to year and how those oils come into being through the environments they grow in, the people who tend the aromatic harvest, and the folks who distill their oils is the major focus of the work that I am engaged in.
In the domain of petitgrain oils we have a nice range of aromas represented although there is a definite "citrus" accent to them. I think most of you have had the opportunity to be near orange and other citrus trees, "the golden apples of the sun". In my work as a gardener here in California, I often prune orange, lemon and lime trees as they are quite common here in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are grown both for their beauty as ornamental specimens as well as for their fruit(particularly lemons). The glossy green leaves, with the vibrant orange and yellow fruits nesteled amongst them is a treat for the eyes and when coupled with the celestial aroma exhuded by the flowers one becomes aware that the citrus genus of plants is a true treasure in the botanical realm. One of the great treats afforded me as a gardener is pruning these elegant specimens. It is here that one realizes that the plant is a marvel of aromatic wonders. Not only do the flowers give off the "odour of angels" and the fruits the clear, penetrating fragrances that perk one up and lighten the heart, but the leaves and twigs also generate another spectrum of essences which are unique in themselves. As the plant distills water, earth,sun and air and converts it into the energy that the plant requires to live in a particular environment, a magnificent array of aromatic molecules is generated which is dispersed to the leaves and twigs, then the flowers and later the fruits.
What a plant. And when I am on my ladder carefully thinning out the plant to help focus her energy into the flowers and fruits to come, and to open the tree up so that light and air can freely circulate to all parts, the delicious aromas generated by the twigs and leaves become part of the reward for the work being done. So now, we can begin to enter together this world of the petitgrain oils which are the distillation of the leaves and twigs which adorn various species and varities of citrus trees.
First let us look at the origin of the name petitgrain.
petit grain, n. [Fr., lit. Ôsmall grainÕ: see PETIT a. and GRAIN n.1] Any of various essential oils distilled from the leaves and shoots (or, formerly, the unripe fruit) ofparticular citrus plants, esp. the orange, which have a sweet floral scent and are used in perfumery.
---Oxford English Dictionary
Origin of the name Petitgrain
Petitgrain, which means small grains (or fruits), is distilled from the fresh leaves and young branches of the tree. Historically, petitgrain was distilled from the immature, hard green fruit of the tree, hence its name. This soon proved to be uneconomical as the production of this oil diminished the yield of bitter orange oil from the mature fruit later in the season. Gradually the oil from the leaves and twigs became known as petitgrain. A good site for basic information on petigrain is:
The most commonly known Petitgrain oil is that which is known as Petigrain Bigarade essential oil. It is commonly distilled from the twigs and leaves of Citrus aurantium var. amara, the Bitter Orange tree which also gives us the lovely Neroli Bigarade oil(steam distilled or hydrodistilled from the flowers)and the Orange Blossom Absolute(solvent extracted from the flowers). There are several countries producing the Petigrain Bigarade oil including France, Italy, Ivory Coast and Paraguay.
The finest oil is said to come from the South of France(very seldom seen) where the bitter orange trees have not hybridized with any other citrus trees as has commonly happened in Paraguay.(In recent years there has been a concerted effort of growers of the bitter orange in Paraguay to replant their orchards with a pure strain of bitter orange so as to eliminate some of the problems of distilling leaves gathered from bitter and semi bitter orange trees).
"Two commericial leaf oils are recognized, petitgrain bigarade and petitgrain Paraguary. The former is obtained solely from leaves, petioles and often small twiglets of true bitter orange; the later from similar material from various forms of bitter orange common in that country" ---E. A. Weiss, Essential Oil Crops-
For people interested in working with completely natural oils it is important to realize that there can never be a set standard in terms of aromatic profile for even an oil as common as petitgrain . In the international perfume industry the main criteria for measuring the quality of petitgrain oil is its linalyl acetate content. Buyers for the industry expect to see the linalyl acetate at a certain level and so this is easily done by blending in natural or synthetic isolates of this component to meet customer requirements or official specifications if the plant itself has not created the required level of this aromatic constitutent.
"In commercial oils, ester content as linalyl acetate is, in per cent(average in brackets): Paraguayan 45-55(49-52); Italian 45-79(50-60); Frenc 55-70(60-65); Brazilian 55-90(60-65); laboratory analysises quoted Indian(25), French Guinea(55) and Algerian(36)..." ---E. A. Weiss, Essential Oil Crops-
But a pure unmanipulated oil may or may not have a high linaly acetate content depending on some of the factors mentioned below.
1. Local climate effects leaf oil content and characteristics. Soil, water, altitude all contribute to variations in both major, minor, and trace constituents of the oil
2. Season of the year in which the material is harvested. In Paraguay the highest oil content generally occurs in January-June the lowest in August-Ocotober. In Italy the yeild rose as weather became warmer from February to April; in Brazil the highest oil content is in warm months but linalyl acetate content is frequently highest in cold months
3. The number of times per year the plants are harvested. Regular harvest means that younger leaves are mainly distilled and these have a higher oil content. This occurs in countries like Paraguay where the leaves are the primary crop. In some countries the leaves are of secondary importance so the yield of oil is lower.
4. Distillation of fresh or partially dried leaves. Fresh leaves yield more oil than partially dried leaves.
5. Length of distillation. If linalyl acetate content is of prime importance, then lengthy distillation has an adverse effect on the oil because of ester hydrolysis. Whereas this is considered a negative by the international fragrance industry it is a postive in the local industry because the aroma of that oil is preferred by the people of that country
6. Length of time the oil is stored, the type of container stored in, etc all effect the the quality of an oil.
Ernest Guenter in his classic work Essential Oils, Volume 3, gives a few more interesting insights about Paraguay Petitgrain Oil: Factors influencing the yield and quality of Paraguay Petitgrain Oil (Extracted from Ernest Guenther, Essential OilsVolume 3)
1. Selection of leaf material from the proper trees...(There are two local varities of bitter orange in Paraguay according to Guenther. One is the sour-bitter variety the leaves of which yields a good quality oil, and one which is semi-sweet leaves of which yield a poor quality oil. The semi-sweet variety should not be used for distillation and reputable companies organize their distillations so that only the correct variety is used.
2. Soil conditions and altitude. Leaves cut from trees growing in the plains give a lower yield and quality of oil than the leaf material from the Cordilleras
3. The season. Yield and quality of oil are highest from January to June and from then on fall off gradually. From August to October the yield and quality are poorest.
4. Condition of the plant material. Leaves from well-kept, airly and sunny plantings give a better yield and higher quality of oil than the leaves from dense forests and jungles. The material should be distilled soon after harvestiing.
5. Distillation of fresh leaves. This should be carried out as rapidly as possible, and with steam of slightly high pressure. To prevent hydroloysis of the esters, condensed water shound not be permitted to accumulate inside the still. The still should be insulated and contain a perforated false bottom(grid) to prevent direct contact of the plant charge with any boiling water condensed within the still. The condenser should be sufficiently large and efficient to permit rapid distillation. The most commonly available Petitgrain oil is that which comes from the Cordilla mountains of Paraquay.
The above factors are just a few that influence the quality of a particular oil. As one comes across significant differences of leaf oil composition even within one particular country like Paraguay one comes across even greater differences between oils coming from different regions of the world. So it is important to realize that if one is thinking that an oil is going to be the same from place to place, from year to year, etc then they may be sorely disappointed. If one is getting an oil that appears to have stable characteristics from year to year it may in fact mean that they are getting a "standardized" oil which is created through the expertise of laboratory technicians.
"The real beauty of natural essential oils is in their variety. Rather than trying to twist them to fit our needs, it would be far better that we began to cultivate our olfactory sense so that we appreciate and respect the great diversity of aromas nature blesses us with." ---Mr Bear
Also it may help us to understand that the real subtle dimensions of a particular oil may not be in the so-called "major components". These no doubt play their role but there are countless minor and trace components which help give the unique character to any single oil.
When we further extend our explorations of petitgrain oils into ones that are procured from other species and varities of citrus than Citrus aurantium var. amara, the question of linalyl acetate levels may have no relevance at all because for each specific species there are going to be different aromatic constitutents created via the plants own special tendencies. It is a world full of many delightful, sunny and cheerful aromatic explorations, which seem to be qualities which the Citrus world naturally radiate.
TYPES OF PETITGRAIN OIL
PETITGRAIN BIGARADE OIL (CITRUS AURANTIUM var. amara) In quality the French oil surpasses all other petitgrain oils, because the producers in Southern France employ for distillation only the leaves and petioles, eliminating any wooden branches or small fruit. Since neither the sweet nor the bitter-sweet orange is grown at all in Southern France, the plant material used there for the distillaton of petitgrain bigarade oil cannot possibly contain any leaves other than the true bitter(sour)ornage, a fact not always true in other producing regions. Odor description: pale yellow or amber colored liquid of pleasant, fresh floral, sweet odor, reminiscent of orange flowers with slight woody herbaceous undertone and very faint but sweet floral dryout notes Used in perfumery mainly fors its refreshing, sweet floral notes in citrus colognes, fougeres, etc... very often as replacement for Neroli oil
PETITGRAIN OIL (CITRUS AURANTIUM VAR. amara) PARAGUAY Largest in volume of the petitgrain oil. Grows wild, semi-wild and is cultivated in the interior of Paraguay. Distillation carried out almost exclusively from leaves and twigs of cultivated trees. Odor Description : pale yellow to dark yellow or brownish colored, mobile liquid... strong, bitter-sweet, woody-floral odor...somewhat harsh topnote fading quickly to heavy, sweet bodynote...bitter -floral with sweet an slightly woody undertone. Dryout comes quickly and is not tenacious but sweet, slightly woody-floral, delicate.. Blends well with: sage clary, palmarosa, citrus oils, clove Used in citrus-cologne types of perfume base; lends power and freshness in numerous florals, bouquet perfumes, Oriental blends
PETITGRAIN BERGAMOT OIL Distilled from leaves and twigs of bergamot tree which is grafted upon stthe stubs of bitter orange trees Distillation takes place in Calabria, Italy during the fruitless season when trees are pruned Odor description: green-yellow to olive-yello colored mobile liquid, possessing typical 'petitgrain' odor; bitter fresh, yet with sweet-woody background Strong resemblance to better grades of South American petitgrain oil...with emphasis on linalool-linalyacetate notes...fewer bitter-dry notes
LEMON PETITGRAIN OIL (CITRUS LIMONUM) Distilled from leaves and twigs and occasionally from undeveloped small fruits of the lemon tree Italy, Guninea, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco produce some quantity of th Lemon Petitgrain oil. Guinea is main producer from which best oil comes. Odor description: pale yellow to greenish yellow or light-amber colored liquid of very strong, fresh odor wish distinct bitter undertone, at times wood, in poorer oils grassy. Dryout should be rich and sweet , slightly floral-fruity
COMBAVA PETITGRAIN OIL (CITRUS HYSTRIX) A certain citrus tree in the Comorro Islands norwest of Madagascar and in other nearby islands and in Madgascar itself which produces large and very delicate fruits locally known as combavas. The oil is distilled from the leaves and twigs of this exotic tree Odor description: ... distinguished by its very delicate sweetness and freshness which is distinctly different than bitter orange petitgrain or other well-known petitgrain oils. Pale yellow to greenish yellow, mobile liquid of fresh-leafy, sweet-rosy odor, somewhat reminiscent of Guinea lemon petitgrain oil and eucalyptus citriodora oil
PETITGRAIN MANDARIN OIL (CITRUS RETICULATA BLANCO VAR. MANDARIN) : A very interesting essential oil is steam distilled from the leaves, twigs and occasionally from the small, undeveloped fruits of the mandarin tree, European type. Only Italy, Spain and, at times, Algeria produce small quantities of this oil. Spain supplies the best and richest oil. Odor description: Mandarin Petitgrain Oil is a dark olive green liquid of intensely sweet,rich, deep fruity, grapelike, floral odor in which a distinct mustiness is characteristic and a plum grape like fruity backnote lends a peculiar and very powerful, perfumery sweetness.
PETITGRAIN BIGARADE SURFLEURS D'ORANGER OIL Among the better known codistillation products of flowers and oils is the essential oil from steamdistillation of petitgrain bigarade oil over orange flowers from the same type of bitter orange tree. This product is almost exclusively a specialty of the Grasse houses, but there is no standard in respect to the ratio between petitgrain oil and the amount of orange flowers used in this distillation. A good oil is produced irregularly in Guinea. The oil should originally be a product from a mixture of leaves, twigs and flowers of the bitter orange tree, but since the trimming ofthe trees occur in a season when flowers are scarce. This is not very practical. An entirely different type of oil iscomposed by simple mixing of a certain amount of petitgrain bigarade oil with a certain much smaller amount of neroli oil. The three methods lead to three different products. The latter is of no interest at all to perfumers. The first mentionedmethod is the most common in use. The second method distillation of all three natural parts of the bitter orange tree yields an interesting distillation water. This water is rich in essential oil, a type of Orange Leaf and Flower Water Absolute which can be extracted by means of a hydrocarbon solvent. This absolute is related to the absolute of eaux de brouts.
Odor description: The mixed essential oil or petitgrain surfleurs d'oranger is a pale yellow liquid of fresh and sweet floral odor, reminiscent of orange flowers, of terpeneless petitgrain oil and having a soft, sweet woody, tenacious backnote. The orangeflowers seem to display themselves particularly in the topnote which attains life and brillance far beyond the effect of an ordinary petitgrain bigarade oil. The roughness of this oil is smoothened out or rounded off and the floral freshness is emphasized, lifted to a more elegant level of delicate harmony.
There are many other dimensions to the story of Citrus and the incredible palette or aromas they provide us with. This includes the ancient and modern stories behind the trees, the lands in which they grow, the people who tend and care for them, etc. A person who wishes to explore the role of Citrus fruits in ancient traditions could spend many hours and days in understanding the myths and legends that surround them in China, Spain, Italy, etc. Then one will come to know that the plants have a value that transcends a mere commercial one. The tree, its fruits and flowers are also celebrated in literature and poetry and this offers yet another avenue of exploration. One could also explore the econ0mic role of Citrus in world economy. The approaches to aromatic plants is in most cases quite diverse offering the poet, folklorist, scientist, economist, botanist, therapist,etc enjoyable hours of study.
But on a practical level, we do know, although it is often forgotten, that to produce the oil, we must first of all have living plants. These living plants must be cultivated and cared for by farmers and agriculturist in environments which suit the needs of the plants in terms of climate, water, soil, etc. In order to procure the raw material that is then converted into a precious essence, someone must cultivate and harvest the leaves and transport them to a place where they can be distilled. Those working in the distilleries must in turn do their best to capture the precious essence contained within the raw material presented to them.(This is a subject which I feel will deepen a lot in times to come. Much has already been discovered about distillation techniques but it is a subject that has many subtle dimensions to it and when one is thinking of doing very special distillations in which one captures as complete a spectrum of the aromatic constituents as possible, then it takes on another dimension of meaning. The same holds true with caring for the plants. Gradually we are returning to an understanding that nurturing plants through organic fertilizers, green manure crops, etc. can provide wonderful results. )
It is a work is often done by very simple people who have the knowledge of the land in their bodies. It is not the type of work that can be acheived by mental gymnastics or computers. In many cases it is a labor intensive endeavor which depends upon tools and equipment which have remained little changed for hundreds of years. It is true that some aromatic crops are now being cultivated using highly sophisticated mechanical means, but the majority of crops still require that people go to the field and harvest the crop by very simple means and then transport the aromatic wares to the distillery. It is often a hard work which deserves many many thanks from people like ourselves who can enjoy the benefit of such labor with very little effort. It is something to remember that today, even in this highly industrialized world that there are many people who still earn their daily keep by caring for the land. So when ever one reads the statistics of how much raw material is required to produce 1 ounce or 1 kilo of oil it will always prove beneficial to think of the plants, people, and places that have provided the essences. And if one feels a particular resonance with a specific oil, they may wish to learn everything about those environments that they can, the farmers who live in those regions, and the many special characteristics of the plants that provide those oils because it is definitely true that plants have unique personalities. It may even inspire one to travel to places where they can explore the processes first hand and share their new gained knowledge with others. What a joyful sharing such things can be and what a great subject to put ones attention on!!!!
Yield of oil:(This refers to Petitgrain Bigarade and Petigrain Bigarade Paraguay) Leaf and oil yield vary widely; in Paraguay individual trees provide 10-15 kg leaves annually and 200-300 kg yields about 1 kg oil; in Haiti, 300-400 kg about 1 kg of oil; in France 500 kg for only 1 kg of high quality oil.