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, June 22, 2016

SCENTS OF GRASS: THE CYMBOPOGONS

Last week’s materials post was on vetiver, so this week’s will continue with three related grasses that are used in perfumery and other aromatic applications, Cymbopogon citratus (lemongrass) Cymbopogon nardus (citronella) and Cymbopogon martini (palmarosa). Like vetiver, these are all in the grass family, growing as big clumps, but for the Cymbopogons, the essential oil is derived from the tops of the plants, not the roots. All of these species were probably originally native to India and/or Southeast Asia, but have become widespread throughout warm parts of the world due to culinary and agricultural uses.

Lemongrass is most commonly thought of as a food flavoring due to its extensive use in Asian cuisine. Lemongrass oil is obtained by distillation of the green parts of the plant, with most of the aroma contained in the base rather than the outer parts of the leaves. I think of lemongrass imparting a delicate flavor to Vietnamese cuisine, and working well with coconut-based curries. The essential oil contains citral, limonene, citronellol, geraniol, and many other molecules that have insecticidal properties and mosquito-repellant properties, as well as medicinal properties, especially anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal activity.

Lemongrass essential oil has a characteristic, unmistakable top to mid-range scent that can be quite heavy, strong, and overpowering if used in perfumery, so needs dosing with a light hand and with the proper accompaniments. Given that most of the lemongrass constituents, and all of the main ones, are available as pure aromachemicals (that’s for another post!) the perfumer has the option of creating a unique “lemongrass” accord to use, or choose which aspect of it to emphasize in a blend.  I used lemongrass essential oil in Kyphi, but I think if I used it in another blend I might opt for a lighter reconstruction that’s more like the flavor one gets in delicate lemongrass-flavored cuisine.

Citronella, the evil cousin of lemongrass, contains large quantities of citronellal, citronellol, geranial, limonene and other “lemony” molecules. It is an important source of these and other isolated aroma chemical molecules. Like others of its genus, it looks like a small clump of pampas grass, not a very attractive sight. Perhaps the best known use of citronella is as an insect repellant, with citronella candles traditionally burned to keep mosquitoes away from outdoor gatherings and to scent insecticidal sprays. Because of this association, in my opinion, citronella does not work well in perfumery. Who wants a perfume that smells like bug spray? Having said that, the aroma molecules obtained from citronella have a multitude of uses in perfumery, and are probably present to some degree in the majority of perfumes.


Palmarosa is yet another one of those plants that looks like pampas grass. The green part of the plant is distilled once it has flowered,, but plants can live for many years, regrowing the parts cut for distillation. The essential oil contains mostly geraniol and geranyl acetate, along with linalool, myrcene, farnesine, and ocimene. As in the case of other essential oils, the reported percent of constituents, and the constituent profile itself varies depending on whose publication you read. Apparently the composition differs depending on which part of the plant is used, and I’m sure it also varies by season, harvesting techniques, and distillation techniques. 

Palmarosa essential oil smells sort of like a mixture of rose geranium and lemongrass, not too surprising given that it’s a Cymbopogon. It seems a little sharp and raw by itself, and I have not used it in a perfume. I can see how it could work as an excellent substitute for rose geranium. However, I can’t see how it would work as a substitute for rose, although it seems that it has commonly been used to adulterate rose oil or absolute. It is reported to have antiseptic properties and to be very good for the skin, with “anti-aging” properties. I’ll have to try it in my formula.

[All plant photos are from Wikimedia; product photos are from retailers' websites. I see one of them used the Wikimedia palmarosa image in their advertising.]

7 comments:

  1. Hello Ellen, here is a short documentary (in french)http://videotheque.cnrs.fr/doc=2855
    about the re-creation of antique perfumes discovered in Pompeï. It seems that they contained a lot of lemongrass and roses and was use by everybody as a daily hygenic product. We generally associate antiquity's smells with incense and oliban but in fact the people had a quite clean odor of citronella or geranium.

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    1. Hi Frederic, Thanks! I'll have to check out the documentary. I'm not at all surprised that those antique perfumes contained a lot of rose and lemongrass because those are easy to make oil or other sorts of extracts from. Olibanum was probably saved for burning on special occasions.

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  2. I have a set of 'therapeutic' EOs which includes palmarosa. I like layering it with floral fragrances that seem too sweet on my skin. The grassiness of the palmarosa really mellows out the overall scent and the geranium? component seems to add some focus to the blend.

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    1. Anne, I think palmarosa is used a lot in aromatherapy and other "therapeutic" sorts of blends, in soap, and in a lot of all-natural perfumes that smell like therapeutic blends. There definitely is a sharp rose geranium note in palmarosa.

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  3. I love palmarosa and lemongrass in massage blends but the effect of either is too "spa" for any of my perfumes. I've been trying to grow lemongrass on my sand dune for years but it does not like the hot salty breeze one bit.... Thank you for putting all of this info together in one post, it's great!

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    1. Marla, I think I need to try growing lemongrass. It might do OK here, and if it's harvested for cooking that would (theoretically) control its size. Growing on a sand dune must be a challenge! Yes, lemongrass and palmarosa are great in massage blends, but not so much as noticeable notes in perfumes.

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