Visit to Kerala and Tamil Nadu 2—Floral Extraction Facility
Visit to Kerala and Tamil Nadu -- November 1995
Part 2: Floral Extraction Facility
Early Monday morning I was picked up by one of the company drivers for the inland journey. We journeyed through the rich farmlands of the coastal region characterized by rice fields, coconut groves, banana and rubber plantations and numerous other warm climate crops woven together in a beautiful tapestry. This is the part of India I know so well and love. Even though India has so many problems, yet the life of the rural communities possesses a real charm to those people from the West that have had the opportunity to live close to the land and her people. There is something about the ancientness of India and the culture that has come out of it that has an unmistakable value that I hope can blend with the need for material advancement. Some of the technology of the West could greatly improve the lives of the common people but I do hope it will not mean the sacrifice the parts of the culture that are so rich and profound. It is a delicate balance to strike.
The third division contained the equipment for the extraction of floral concretes. It is here that the flowers of tuberose, mimosa, and jasmine were on a commercial scale. There were at least ten large stills in which perforated trays three feet in diameter were stacked 16 deep one on top of the other. The flowers of one tray are kept from squashing the flowers of the lower tray by a raised ring on the center of each tray about 4". Each tray holds about 34 lbs. of jasmine or 82lbs. of mimosa or 68 lbs. of tuberose. Thus an entire still filled with each one of these flowers would equate to 250, 600, and 500lbs respectively. There were a total of ten stills which gave the capacity to process a significant amount of flowers on any one day. In the process of making extracting the fragrant principle from the plant the stills are filled with the single flower and washed three times in a hexane solvent for about 20 minutes each time. The concrete separates out from the solvent when it is later subjected to a gentle steam distillation. Only tiny traces of the solvent remain in a properly made concrete. From 2,200 lbs. of fresh flowers one can expect to obtain about 5.5 lbs of concrete for jasmine, 14 ounces of tuberose and 16.5 lbs. of mimosa. The concrete must be further refined to produce the absolute which is used in the perfume industry so it is easy to see why these products are so precious and costly. But because of their highly concentrated nature only a minute amount of the product is required to have a marked effect on any fragrance desired. The complex nature of these fragrances is such that they are tough to synthesize and that is why the true absolute is still preferred for the most sophisticated perfumes.
On Tuesday we began our first expedition for this purpose. Mimosa is a wild crop growing in the higher regions of the Nilgri Hills at about 5,000 to 6,000 feet. So early in the morning we left by jeep to climb up to the area around Conoor to witness the harvesting of this delicate yellow blossom which grows on the species of tree know as Acacia dealbata . Whenever I take such trips through rural India I feel a unique happiness and pleasure in witnessing the simple sights along the way. Much of the life of the country people is as it has been for centuries. All along the way one sees the bullock carts hauling goods to the market or teams of bullocks plowing the fields. Cows much grass by the wayside, and one comes across herds of goats and ducks as well. I even spotted an occasional elephant. The village people often have, in my eyes, really beautiful features and the faces of the children in particular are possessed of an innocense and purity that is a delight to behold. The homes are humble but adequate and often set amidst well cultivated fields where one sees all the tools and equipment used in cultivating the soil. The natural arrangement of all these things creates one perfectly balanced scene after another. Amidst it all one sees the religious life of the people reflected in their temples, mosques, or churches which are spread throughout the landscape. It is this part of India which is rarely scene by most Westerners that can cause one to bend their head in deep reverence for the agricultural way of life that has been the heart of the Indian community for many centuries. It is the foundation upon this great and sublime culture has been built. The power of these scenes is magnified for me as it takes me back to the time of my life from 1971-1976 when I worked in the fields beside these people sharing in their simple ways and learning to see life through their eyes. Such experiences can never be forgotten and grow more precious with time.
The trip was a uniquely Indian experience as the road to Conoor is characterized by 40 hair pin turns on a steep ascent. Our driver, well acquainted with the road, was eager to make this ascent as quickly as possible and so he zipped pass slower cars, buses, transport lorries, and any slower conveyance with adroit skill. The spaces that he squeezed through were often not much wider than the vehicle itself so our trip did not lack in drama. The landscape we passed through was unlike any I had yet seen on my extensive travels through India in the early years of my life. Waterfalls cascaded out of the mountains that were bedecked with spectacular trees, vines, shrubs, and flowers of many colors and fragrances.This was not a cultivated landscape but natural and wild. Most of the plant material was unfamiliar to me but I saw great masses of sky blue morning glories, golden sunflower-like flowers, lantana of various colors and hues, umbrellas like trees aglow with scarlet flowers and countless other unfamiliar plants. The air was charged with vitality and vigor.
As we went higher and higher the vistas before us became increasingly beautiful. The air was deliciously cool and refreshing. Eventually we came to the area where the great tea plantations were located, a sight quite different than the untamed beauty of the ascent but charming in its own right for these large estates bear the signature of order and cultivation. In a small village outside of Conoor we halted while the agent spoke with some of the villagers. In a few minutes he had gathered together four of them who knew where a few prime specimens of the mimosa we were seeking yet remained in bloom. They guided us to a dirt road that was but the width of the jeep we were in and then we began our ascent to the top of the mountain. The air was redolent with a refined and exquisite odor which turned out to be coming from the flowers of this very mimosa tree. Eventually we came to the end of the road and the site of the Conoor Municipal Dam. It was a totally unpopulated area with a large artificial lake, towering eucalyptus and pine trees with an undergrowth of various plants including mimosa. We crossed the foot path over the dam to the area containing a few of our trees in full bloom. Our cheerful and able village harvesters went to work swiftly and efficiently. One man scampered up into the upper story of the tree to gather flowers not accessible lower down. Another fashioned a long pole with a hook out of readily available materials so that the willowy branches could be bent down and gathered from the ground. Two others busied themselves in gathering. I happily snapped away with my camera at this lovely scene and the villagers were delighted to have me taking pictures of their work. Within a half hour we had two containers filled with the delicately fragrant flowers and were on our way back across the dam to the jeep. It was an unforgettable experience as it was my first chance to witness the harvesting the flowers of the East. To document this is a vital part of my project because it helps one to understand and appreciate how much work and effort goes into producing those subtle fragrances that enrich our lives. In India, this industry is a labor intensive one involving a huge labor force and these people that work so hard to cultivate and harvest the plants deserve recognition for their essential role in the process. I consider it a true honor whenever I have the chance to be in their presence because there is some real humility and sweetness that permeates their lives. With our mission fulfilled we merrily bounced down the road to our the village of the harvesters and there we parted ways to begin our descent to the plains. It was a fine and exciting ride home as I had the two containers of mimosa delighting my nose with their fragrance and the varied beauty of the landscape to charm my eyes.