A flower that is not as widely spoken off, mysterious in its nature, and most commonly closely associated with the Far East. Originating from the southern parts of China, specifically the province of Guangxi; the simple, intricate and miniature flowers vary in colour, depending on the variety: from silvery white, to golden orange, or even red. With a handful, you could quite easily have over a hundred flower buds in the palm of your hand!
Cook it, eat it, drink it, and most importantly smell it! The chances are, that you have smelled this sophisticated flower in perfumes before, yet simply didn't realise you were doing so: Escape by Calvin Klein, Osmanthus by The Different Company, Osmanthe Yunnan by Hermès, only to name a few.
Despite its tender and appealing nature, this bouquet is not for the indulgence of one’s eye, instead, it is a nosegay. It’s name fittingly translates into Chinese as Guilin; Gui 桂 meaning ‘sweet Osmanthus’, and Lin 林, ‘forest’. Therefore, as you dip your head into the ‘forest of sweet Osmanthus’, you are enveloped in its heady aroma. A sensuous mix of warm scents, from ripe apricots, peaches, jasmine petals, and tannic tea; to milky, butter-like, woody, and irresistible leather nuances.
A Little History
The name we use in the English language derives from Greek, ‘Osme’, meaning ‘perfume’ and ‘anthos’, the ‘flower’, translating as ‘fragrant flowers’. It belongs to the Oleaceae family, like the olive tree, as well as many aromatic plants including lilac and jasmine, and thus, by reason is colloquially called ‘fragrant olive tree’. The shrub blooms in September and October, producing the flowers that we love so much.
Inspiring culinary artists who are using its taste for jams, jellies, liqueurs, and even with savoury foods, such as raviolis, or as a flavour infusion. And on top of that addicting tea lovers with its taste and health benefits. Following the belief of traditional Chinese medicine, it is claimed that a cup of Osmanthus tea a day can improve one’s complexion! Additionally, Osmanthus also has antimicrobial, detoxifying, pain relieving, de-stressing effects, and even plays a role as an aphrodisiac. With pretty much all components of this miracle plant to be highly valued for health and wellbeing, from the bark and roots, to the essential oil, to the flowers; this plant could easily take the pedestal as a top superfood!
Yet what we shan’t forget and what’s most important to us, is its magic of enticing perfumers. Although the uses of Osmanthus in China do date back thousands of years, and despite the few single fragrances that we have seen in the late 20th century, such as 1000 by Jean Patou in 1972; Osmanthus is firmly considered to have been truly rediscovered in the 2000s! With a real boom since the year 2000, the aroma of this succulent yet fresh flower, alongside tuberose, myrrh, frankincense, and many others, sent people dreaming of the most exotic of things!
From Flower to Perfume
To obtain the oil that is used as our favourite perfumery ingredient, the process of extraction and purification must take place. It is specifically the orange Osmanthus flower that is used in perfumery. During extraction, the flowers are treated with volatile solvents to obtain a concrete, which is then washed with alcohol to obtain the Osmanthus absolute.
For those who want to dive deeper, with more detail on the absolute (as not all molecules can be captured with the process of hydro-distillation), the solvent extraction was developed to replace the method of ‘enfleurage’. The first extract that is obtained is the concrete, it is a very aromatic thick paste, containing lots of insoluble waxes (10 - 50%). The mixture is then purified into a second extract, the absolute, soluble at 10% in alcohol, which is more concentrated in aromatic compounds. Another process may be used: molecular distillation, yet this would result in an Absolute MD (MD meaning molecular distillation), which is less colourised.
How Does it Smell & What Does it Do for Perfume?
Within the first seconds of the bloom, you’ll be enriched with this scent. Oscillating between two nuances, one, the childlike sweetness, angelic, and fragile, and two, a scent of multiple personalities, floral, fruity, with animalic notes, all combined into one.
Osmanthus charms with its irresistible blend of fruits, the smell of the dry, yet velvety, candied apricots, alongside the acidulous and juicy plum. A few minutes into your smelling adventure, and the sour, acidic nuances strengthen, with back notes of something almost greasy, dense, and rather reminiscent of leather. Enveloping the bouquet of fruits, this leathery effect binds to them through tobacco and floral facets, thus giving this very vegetal material a purely animal soul, without the beastly feature. In perfumery, this ingredient is also closely associated with green tea.
The coppery orange, brown absolute substance, with a bright glow of golden light, is quiet in its strength, yet tinged with mystery as you catch a whiff of its magic. Despite being rather pricey, of approximately $4,000 plus for a kilogram of oil, it is fondly found in the repertoire of famous noses. Perfumers using Osmanthus must employ a set of subtle and effective dosages and associations to sublimate it or to incorporate it perfectly into their formula. Osmanthus is commonly blended with synthetics to amplify its peachy facets, and works effectively, producing beautiful perfumes, alongside leathery, suede-like scents, as well as florals.