The weather here has been warm and sunny for the past week or so. Whenever I go outside I smell flowers, especially jasmine, which is all over campus, and roses, which are right down the street in abundance. The grass is starting to dry out and turn brown, but due to the long break from writing this spring I haven’t finished with the “green” perfume materials for my Wednesday posts. In keeping with the theme of grass and green, I’ll push on with the ever-popular grassy material, vetiver.
Chrysopogon (formerly called Vetiveria) zizanioides is a large, clumping grass native to India, where it is known as khus. If you ever see “khus” listed as a perfume ingredient or note, it’s just vetiver. Because of its extensive, deep-reaching root system it is used in some places for erosion control. I have read that it can also be used for pest control when planted around other crops because it attracts a stem borer that lays eggs on the vetiver plant, but when the larvae hatch they are so impeded by the hairs on the vetiver leaves that they cannot move and feed, so they die. This is yet another example of how amazing plants’ defense mechanisms are.
Vetiver is one of the most renewable of the natural base perfumery materials. Like any grass, it grows quickly, spreads, and is propagated via offshoots. The roots are distilled for oil that is used in food flavorings and perfumery, but the green tops can be used as feed for livestock, so the entire plant is useful. Vetiver is also used for water purification, especially for removal of industrial chemicals and heavy metals. The leaves can be used to weave mats and other textile products.
DNA tests have shown that almost all of the vetiver grown throughout the world is from the same source in India, but growing and distilling conditions result in a variety of different nuances. Indonesian vetiver has a smoky note, but Hatian vetiver has a cleaner, purer scent, as does the Indian ruh khus. Most vetiver oil is fairly viscous and light golden to amber or brown in color, but vetiver from India is typically green, supposedly because it is distilled in copper, but I wonder if artificial color is sometimes added, especially to the low-end versions. Although attars are traditionally distilled into a base of sandalwood, some distillers have started to use vetiver oil as a base. It seems to work quite well, and is a better choice than the phthalates that are often used to make cheap attars.
Vetiver essential oil is one of those materials that improves with age, so I like to buy in bulk well in advance and keep the oil for some time before using it. Vetiver oil has an earthy, greenish, slightly sweet, rooty scent that makes an excellent base ingredient for any green and/or earthy fragrance. It fits well in a variety of blends – in fact, it can blend pleasantly with just about anything, which is probably one of the reasons why it makes a good base for modern natural attars. Compared to some of its relatives, it is fairly subtle, so won’t hijack a blend, but rather acts as a fixative and provides an earth-toned background. I’ve used it in quite a few of my perfumes.
Vetiveryl acetate is a derivative of vetiver, with a softer, crisper, drier, and purer scent than the complete oil. It is extremely tenacious, drying down to a minerally-woody scent that is really beautiful. A little bit goes a long way. To date, I’ve used it in one of my perfumes, but now that I have a supply, will probably use it more in future.
Just as the plant has a multitude of uses, so the essential oil of vetiver has a multitude of uses in perfumery.
What is your favorite fragrance that contains a clearly detectable vetiver note?
[Vetiver plant photos from Wikimedia; vetiver mat and "ruh khus" photos from retailers' websites.]