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.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


It probably seems like I’ve been writing a lot about lavender this summer, but it’s because I live in a part of the world that’s a hotbed of lavender cultivation activity. Recently, I’ve been receiving an education about lavender distillation, growing and evaluation from Mesha Munyan, who is one of the established local growers.

I guess it’s not surprising that we grow good lavender, because the climate here in the Pacific Northwest is similar to that of Provence, especially in our back yard and in certain microclimates on the Olympic Peninsula around the town of Sequim. In fact, Sequim has been the venue for several International Lavender Conferences.

Last Sunday Mesha got together with Michael, Victoria Jent (of EauMG) and me, to talk about the process of lavender judging and demonstrate the various properties that are considered desirable (or not) in lavender. There are a number of species of Lavandula, and a seemingly infinite number of hybrids, varieties, and named cultivars.

Naming of lavender is confusing, to say the least, with multiple synonyms for every species, hybrid, and variety.  Ones that is commonly seen for sale in garden centers is L angustifolia (top right photo, also called L vera, L officinalis, English lavender, common lavender, true lavender, etc.). It’s the typical narrow-leaved variety with tall spikes of small flowers, and is the main one used in perfumery. In all species, most of the oil is not in the flower petals or leaves, but in the calyces, which are the the bulbous structures beneath each flower, where the seed are produced. 

Another common species is L stoechas (at left, also called French lavender, Spanish lavender, butterfly lavender, etc.). It blooms early in spring, with fat spikes that have a few large flower petals sticking out. L dentata (photo below, right) looks similar to L angustifolia, except that the leaf edges are toothed instead of smooth, and the leaves are a little wider. Just to confuse things, this species is also called French lavender or fringed lavender. And there are others. L latifolia is also called Portuguese lavender or spike lavender, but there’s also a L spica that seems to be an old-fashioned name for something else, but it’s not quite clear what. The list goes on. Within each species there seem to be a practically infinite number of varieties and named cultivars.

Different species and varieties of lavender can be crossed to produce all sorts of hybrids, so of course the question is, “which ones yield the best oil for perfumery”? To start to answer this question, we sniffed samples of oil from angustifolia, stoechas, and the catch-all hybrid term “lavandin”, also known as “lavender grosso”, which is commonly used to designate oil from inter-species hybrids of all sorts, often those between angustifolia and latifolia. I think that’s right, although after a while all of the nomenclature becomes a blur.

Oils from L stoechas and lavandin have a strong camphorous component that makes them easily identifiable and poorly suited for perfumery, unless one specifically wants a camphorous scent. Lavandin also seems to have a distinct “cat pee” smell that makes it useful only for highly specialized purposes. 

Once we got to angustifolia, the real fun started. Every variety of this species has a distinctive scent, and that scent also varies depending on the distillation and aging process. Going through all of the different lavenders was like a wine-tasting, with descriptors that are every bit as complex as those used to describe wine. Some smelled like the typical linalool-rich, coumarinic-floral lavender that we’re most used to, but others had unexpected nuances like the one with a note that smelled almost exactly like freshly cut, moderately ripe pears. Others had notes that were metallic, reminiscent of other fruits, green leaves, hay, mulled wine, and various types of flowers. International judges have checklists with a long list of descriptors, both good and bad.

Lavender is much more complicated than most people realize. Every time I learn something new about it, it becomes more apparent that there’s far more to it than the catch-all name “lavender” would suggest. 

[Photo of lavandula dentata from Wikimedia because the one in my garden (labeled "French lavender"!) isn't blooming right now. The two clowns with the lavender bundles in their teeth are David Falsberg of Phoenicia Perfumes and Mesha Munyan] 


  1. The other day Brad and I went around to several local nurseries looking at and smelling various lavenders. We had planted L. stoichus down in Yachats years ago and never really cared for it that much. At Flower World we found some light, pinkish flowered lavender, perhaps a shorter growing version of angustifolia, that had a buttery, fruity scent. It was beautiful but I'm not sure if it would be vigorous enough to thrive on our long front bank. I really need to get a hold of the books that Mesha showed us. Even though new cultivars are always showing up I need a basic reference if we are going to put all the time and money into planting that slope in lavender. I never imagined that lavender selection and cultivation could be this complicated.

    1. Gail, If you recall, some of Mesha's varieties are pink-flowered. The 'Melissa' oil that we distilled was from a pink-flowered variety, and she also has one called 'Hidcote Pink'. The one you describe with the buttery, fruity scent, sounds lovely!

      It's my impression that all lavender grows vigorously here, as long as the soil is well-drained in winter, so I would imagine that any variety would thrive on your slope. The nice thing about stoechas is that it blooms so early in spring, and it's now blooming a second time. Of course, the bees love it, so it gives them an early start, before the angustifolia kicks in, and a late-season treat after it's through.

    2. Yes, I remember the pink flowered lavender at Misha's and was actually surprised to find something like it at Flower World. The biggest problem with that bank will be to create some terracing so we can actually access the plants without falling down the slope. Also we might have to start all of our own lavender plants. The cost of purchasing plants for three rows of lavender across that sloping frontage is nothing to sniff at.

  2. I suspect strongly that the conditions the plants are grown in changes the scent, also. I only have L. angustifolias heere (zone 4) and they all smell very similar, but in different parts of summer they smell different to me! The temperature, amount of water are the two variables I can come up with.

    And they all smell sweeter than the EO. I swear something gets lost in the processing.

    1. Laurie, something always gets lost in the processing. If you work with essential oils, you quickly learn that they're not a faithful rendition of the actual plant smell. You're right that growing conditions can make a big difference, but processing methods probably make an even bigger difference.