Sunday, November 7, 2010
Spikenard is, in my opinion, a much under-appreciated natural perfume ingredient. I hardly ever see it on lists of perfume notes, even though it makes an excellent base note. Maybe it’s too strong and raw and earthy for most people’s taste, but I really love the way it grounds a composition, works with other materials, and increases longevity.
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to what spikenard is. There’s something called “American spikenard” (Aralia racemosa) that is in the ginseng family and has nothing to do with the spikenard that’s used in perfumery. As far as I know, American spikenard is not used in perfumery, even though the roots are reported to have a mild, anise-like scent. The spikenard I’m talking about is Nardostachys grandiflora, which is sometimes called Nardostachys jatamansi. From what I have read, it seems that the two names are used interchangeably to denote the same species of plant. To further confuse the issue, the common name for spikenard is “jatamansi” in India, Tibet, and Nepal, where the plants grow.
True spikenard is a plant in the valerian family, native to the Himalayas, with pink flowers and fragrant rhizomes. The rhizomes are the part used to make the essential oil. Spikenard has been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in perfume and incense, and even as a flavoring for food. I can understand why it has been used as a culinary spice since it has a little bit of a cumin-like scent. However, spikenard mainly smells like a super-charged vetiver, all earthy and rooty, with some pungent spiciness, a little bit of a patchouli-like note, and some floral notes, with slight variations depending on which type it is.
I have three different types of spikenard, red and green from India and “jatamansi” from Nepal, which is a red one. There’s not a lot of information available explaining the difference between the red and green types, but one source I found speculated that it depends on the method of distillation, the temperature at which distillation takes place, etc. It seems to me that it could also depend on whether the rhizomes are fresh or dried when they are distilled. I find that the red spikenard is “drier” and more aromatic than the green, which is more “wet” and earthy. The Nepalese “jatamansi” spikenard that I have is a little lighter and more floral smelling than the Indian varieties.
I first discovered the longevity of spikenard many moons ago when I first started experimenting with making soap scented with single essential oils. After storing for a while, I was disappointed to find that many of the essential oils quickly faded away. The spikenard was exceptional in that it maintained its full strength. One bar of the spikenard soap got misplaced and resurfaced years later during a cleaning bout. I was surprised to find that it was still as fragrant as it was when freshly made.
I have used spikenard in a number of different fragrances including Little Stars, Luzonica, Red Cattleya, and Kyphi, and consider it an essential part of my perfumer’s palette.
[Spikenard plant illustration from Wikimedia Commons]