The other day a customer contacted me asking me why no one has accurately recreated the scents of some of her favorite hybrids. It should be simple, right? Can’t one just do a chemical analysis of the molecules that are in the orchid fragrance, then put them together? In theory it should be as simple as following a recipe. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Of course it is possible to do a gas chromatography (GC) analysis of any orchid’s fragrance headspace, and this has been done for some species, sometimes multiple times in multiple contexts. Some of these data are available online. However, once that's done, there are several issues that make it difficult or impossible to reconstruct the scent of your favorite orchid plant with complete accuracy:
1. Orchid scents are not uniform across individual plants, even for cloned hybrids. My Cattleya Bob Betts may smell very different from yours. Even the flowers of a single plant can smell dramatically different depending on culture conditions, the weather on any particular day, and how mature the flower is. To further complicate things, the flowers may smell completely different in the morning than they do at night. Which version to use? If I use my morning, young flower, grown in cool sunny conditions version, you may not recognize it.
2. Orchid flowers are continually emitting a complete mix of base notes (large molecules), middle notes (mid-size molecules) and top notes (small, volatile molecules). In a perfume, the top notes evaporate after a while, leaving the heavier molecules, so the scent evolves over the course of wearing it, losing progressively larger molecules until you’re left with only the heaviest ones. To achieve a "live-flower" effect with a perfume, you would have to continually spray yourself, in which case you would quickly overdose with the middle and base notes.
3. Many of the chemical components of orchid fragrances are not available commercially to perfumers.
4. It is not practical (and maybe not even possible) to distill enough orchid flowers to produce an oil or absolute that could be used in perfumery. In any case, the products of distillation or extraction of any flower do not really smell like the fresh flowers.
These same issues apply to any sort of flower fragrance, but are easier to tackle in flowers like orange blossom or rose that can be cultivated commercially on a large scale and distilled by the ton to produce a natural oil or absolute with many of the characteristics of the original. Because of their huge diversity (over 800 genera and more than 20 thousand species) and the complexity of their scents, orchids are some of the most difficult flowers to try to recreate in perfume form.
[All photos are mine: Sedirea japonica (top), Phalaenopsis bellina (middle), Stanhopea wardii (bottom)]