What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


One of my recently discovered raw materials is the essential oil of African bluegrass, Cymbopogon validus. I used it in several of the DevilScent variations, and have come to really love and appreciate its unique properties.

Cymbopogon is a large genus of grasses that were originally native to old world tropical regions, especially India and Africa, but are now widely cultivated throughout the world. It includes lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), which is commonly used in cooking, gingergrass (Cymbopogon martinii), palmarosa (a variety of C martinii), and citronella grass, sometimes called giant turpentine grass (Cymbopogon nardus). Both C martini and C nardus are used as insect repellants.

Most of the Cymbopogons have a sharp lemony and/or ginger-like aroma, but African bluegrass is an aroma unto itself. When I first tried a small sample, I was surprised by the complexity and musky character of the oil, and I was even more surprised that it lasted over a month on paper. It is a base note par excellence. Yes, its top notes include a sharp, lemony-gingery-geranium scent, which gives way to a grassy, hay-like scent, but these are just embellishments on top of the main base notes, which are something like well-used bed sheets, unwashed hair, dog, and something indescribably dusty-musty. It serves the same function as ambrette, which I love, but I think I like African bluegrass even better when I want a cool, gray color instead of a warm, beige one. When I see published descriptions of African bluegrass oil, I have to think that whoever wrote them only sniffed the top notes from the bottle and didn’t bother waiting for the drydown.

In the DevilScents, I used African bluegrass to lend the scent of a bed that’s been the scene of much activity, and to enhance the impression of well-worn leather, which is especially hard to duplicate using all natural materials. In combination with a little sandalwood absolute, it gives amazing tenacity.

I have to say that my feelings about writing this are mixed, since I wouldn’t want every perfumer in the world to jump on the African bluegrass bandwagon. However, despite the good news that this is a wonderful material to work with, the bad news is that it’s hard to find and relatively expensive. I suppose in the end, it’s worth spreading the word if demand for Cymbopogon validus were to become great enough to promote increased production and availability of the oil, which theoretically should be no harder than lemongrass to grow and distill.

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win a sample of African bluegrass oil and a sample of one perfume in which I used it. The drawing will be on Wednesday, May 16.

[African bluegrass photo from Plant Database; couple in bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893]


  1. Hi Ellen,

    Is the dusty, musky scent of African bluegrass anything like Judith Muller's old perfume "Woody Modern"? When I first smelled that fragrance I was struck by its dusty, unwashed character. It reminded me of not so clean hair, very funky but somehow comforting. "Woody Modern", however, seems to me rather warm and not grey or cool.

    I wonder why African bluegrass is not a more popular ingredient, if only for its tenacity if nothing else. I will be very interested to smell what you come with using this essential oil.


  2. Gail, Yes, you are correct that the dusty-musky scent of African bluegrass is similar to Judith Muller's "Woody Modern". Her Bat-Sheba has some of that vibe, too. Maybe both of these had African bluegrass in them!

    I suppose that in the emotional sense it would be a "warm", comforting scent, it's just that I visualize it as a "cool" color. Think of a warm, cuddly, heather grey sweater that's been worn a lot.

  3. Hello Ellen
    African bluegrass,according to what I read in your post seems uncannily familiar with cistus~( disturbing 'lived in' aromatic presence). From the description of your devilscent project mods it seems to be a perfect note to work with. Thank you for sharing your finds and experiments as it makes perfume appreciation more interesting!

    1. Yash, African bluegrass is nothing like cistus, but you're right that it would go well with cistus. I'm glad you like reading about my explorations and experiments!

  4. It sounds very intriguing. A part of me is afraid to try it thou. But if you think it might be better than ambrette then it is a must try.

    Thank you.


    1. Celina, don't be afraid to try anything! If you don't like it, then you'll know. If you do like it, you'll have made a wonderful discovery that you might otherwise have missed.

      I'm not sure African bluegrass is "better" than ambrette. To me it fits in the same general niche, but serves a different purpose. In some contexts, ambrette would be "better". It just depends on what I'm trying to accomplish.

  5. I'd be very interested in trying this - thanks for the draw, Ellen!

  6. Gail, Yash, Celina, and Dionne, you're all entered in the drawing!