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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

EXPLORING PALO SANTO

In my Wednesday series exploring perfume materials I have to start somewhere, so will begin by considering a new essential oil that I recently acquired but have yet to use in a formula.

Palo santo, aka Bursera graveolens,  is a deciduous tree that grows throughout Central America and parts of South America. It is in the same family as frankincense and myrrh, so the wood is resinous and aromatic. The trees are attractive, with chunky trunks and branches, compound leaves with broad leaflets, small yellow-white flowers, and small round fruits. 

A long time ago I had bought a small bottle of palo santo essential oil, but didn’t like the smell, so never used it. However, late last year I bought some palo santo wood chips for burning and was immediately wowed by the fresh, clean, green smell of the wood, both in its raw state and when burning. I suddenly understood why palo santo wood was used by the Incas in purifying rituals and is still used for similar purposes in aromatherapy.  It really does smell exceptionally clean and uplifting. I decided to give palo santo essential oil another try.

I bought a good-sized bottle of palo santo oil from a reputable supplier, and after smelling two different versions have learned that there seems to be a lot of variation in palo santo oil from different sources. The new oil has many of same the fresh, green notes that the wood has, but I do detect a small amount of “off”-notes similar to those in the original bottle that I got.  I would characterize these contaminating notes as “greasy moth balls and pea soup”.  This seems to be something that is generated when the wood is distilled, not something that is in the raw wood itself.


I really want to use palo santo in a fragrance, but will need to find a workaround to mask the “off”-notes and enhance its unique suite of clean, green notes. 

I will be traveling this weekend through next Thursday, so may miss next Wednesday's materials post. If you would like to be entered in a drawing for a sample of palo santo oil diluted to 25% so that you can apply it as a perfume and experience the material by itself, leave a comment relevant to this post. Unfortunately, due to exorbitant international postage costs for small packages, this is a US and Canada only drawing. There will be a few international giveaways in future, so keep watching for them. 

[Images are from Wikimedia or a retailer's website] 

13 comments:

  1. Hi Ellen,
    At one point I had a small bottle of what seemed to be an "OK" Palo Santo. It too smelled rather pea-soupy. What was really hard to take was its persistence. I could smell the stuff for three days after taking a single whiff. I don't know where this bottle ended up but while I was searching for it I found Catamara Rosarium's Agua de Palo Santo. She lists the only ingredient as Palo Santo Essence. This is a lovely fragrance - tangy, fresh, earthy and green with just a bit of a fruity character and sweet woodiness. No pea soup and no greasy mothballs.
    Azar xx

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    1. Azar, the fresh, green, earthy fragrance is what Palo Santo should smell like. I don't know what "essence" means, possibly a tincture.

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    2. Ellen,
      Maybe Catamara's partner Marcus (the distiller)
      created that essence for the perfume?
      Azar xx

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  2. Do you know what method they use to get the palo santo oil? It sounds like maybe steam distillation? Pea soup+greasy moth balls does NOT sound pleasant, though! What kind of workarounds can you do get rid of or mask the off-notes?

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    1. Yuki, the palo santo I have is steam distilled. I think adding something to brighten the bright aspects of the palo santo and adding whatever will mask the "greasy pea soup" notes. It's going to require some experimentation.

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  3. I love palo santo wood, but just make incense cones from it. I have the oil and I've experimented with it, but it's so overwhelming, even in dilution. The cones are great, though! No need to include me in the drawing, as I have a goodly supply at the moment. Keep us posted on your experiments!

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    1. Marla, palo santo incense cones sound great! I like to just burn the straight wood, which is probably very similar. I will certainly provide updates on the palo santo experiment.

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  4. How have I missed knowing about this material? I've not heard of it before! The wood itself sounds lovely; the green pea soup less so. Nothing against pea soup, but I'd rather not smell like it.

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    1. Laurie, You my not smell the "pea-soup" note in dilution or when combined with other things. I don't think many perfumes use palo santo.

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  5. Myrrh is tenacious on my skin, but fairly linear. I can smell the essential oil on my skin two days after application. Does palo santo have the same longevity since it's related?

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  6. Anne, palo santo has medium longevity, about like frankincense.

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  7. I have a Palo Santo essential oil I picked up at a Farmers Market. It was sold by a woman who brought it from South America. I wish I could find her again and buy some more because it's gorgeous. It smells fresh, green and smoky/incense. She also sold me a stick of wood to burn and I actually prefer putting a small piece of that in my medicine bag for the smell. I am giddy with the thought of you using it in a blend. I'm curious to see if you'll go with the thick honey as in Golden Cattleya, the dark chocolate as in California Chocolate, or perhaps something that tells a story as in Tropic of Capricorn, one of my all time favorites? It's really fun to wait and see what you'll do.

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    1. Linda, so far the palo santo is partnering nicely with the materials I'm experimenting with. I think I want to preserve and enhance the magical green freshness of it as much as possible, so am going to avoid gourmand notes, although that might be a really interesting direction to take it. I can see it going well with bittersweet chocolate honey or white flowers. You just gave me some more ideas!

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