Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Kate Horowitz

Around the world in nine sto­ried scents

With scents both in­vig­o­rat­ing and sooth­ing, es­sen­tial oils have be­come a sta­ple of spas and mas­sage ther­a­pists. Still, their power goes well be­yond won­der­ful smells. Re­cent sci­en­tific stud­ies have proven the wis­dom of an­cient peo­ples in us­ing es­sen­tial oils as reme­dies for ail­ments from al­ler­gies, joint pain, acne, in­fec­tion and stom­ach trou­bles to sleep­less­ness, fa­tigue and anx­i­ety.

We call es­sen­tial oils “es­sen­tial” be­cause of their source: the con­cen­trated ex­tracts (or essences) of roots, leaves, blos­soms and fruit. They may not have got­ten their name by be­ing im­por­tant, but im­por­tant is ex­actly what they are. The his­tor­i­cal, med­i­cal and even spir­i­tual threads of these aro­mas are wo­ven into the fab­ric of his­tory around the world.


There is per­haps no plant more Aus­tralian than the eucalyptus ( Eucalyptus glob­u­lus). The stately trees, also known as gum trees and stringy bark trees, bear their celadon leaves and creamy white flow­ers high above the for­est floor.

Early Aus­tralian set­tlers learned of the plant’s medic­i­nal value from abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, who used it to treat coughs and other res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems. By the mid-1800s, botanists and phar­ma­cists from Europe had set up shop near Syd­ney, steam-dis­till­ing the oil and ship­ping it around the world. De­spite its suc­cess abroad, eucalyptus oil has re­tained a dis­tinctly Aus­tralian ap­peal.


Many trees are called rose­wood, but only one — the Brazil­ian rose­wood ( Aniba roseadora) — pro­duces true rose­wood oil. Rose­wood trees grow in the heart of the rain­for­est, along the Ama­zon River, where trop­i­cal bees visit their pink and yel­low flow­ers, and tou­cans feast on their pur­ple fruit. Like so many rain­for­est species to­day, Brazil’s rose­wood trees are in de­cline and in need of pro­tec­tion.


To speak of sandalwood is to speak of In­dia. Sandalwood has been cul­ti­vated in In­dia for more than 5,000 years. Its oil is some of the most sa­cred in the world, and is used to per­fume tem­ples, deepen med­i­ta­tion and anoint stat­ues of the gods.

The sandalwood tree it­self ( San­talum al­bum) is rather more hum­ble, pre­fer­ring to grow in dry, rocky soil. The best oil is ex­tracted from the tree’s roots, which take their nour­ish­ment not from the earth but from other trees around them.


The tall grass called vetiver ( Ve­tive­ria zizanoides) is ap­pre­ci­ated as much for its fine fra­grance as for its com­plex sys­tem of lace­like white rootlets. Vetiver is na­tive to In­dia and In­done­sia, where sea­sonal del­uges can wash away huge quan­ti­ties of soil and farm­land and cause land­slides. The grass’s roots may look del­i­cate, but in a rain­storm they re­main an­chored to the earth, hold­ing the land in place. These prop­er­ties have not gone un­no­ticed by ac­tivists, who have be­gun a lit­eral grass­roots cam­paign to plant it, thus pre­serv­ing the landscape while cre­at­ing jobs for lo­cal peo­ple.


Per­fumers know it as oud. The peo­ple of Viet­nam call it do tram, the wood of the gods. By any name, agarwood ( Aquilaria crassna) is a trea­sure. Alone, the ev­er­green tree is un­re­mark­able. But when it be­comes in­fected with the fun­gus Phaeoacre­mo­nium par­a­sit­ica, agarwood be­gins to pro­duce an in­tensely aro­matic, musky resin. The resin is made into per­fume and in­cense and in­cor­po­rated into sa­cred cer­e­monies, while the oil is used in tra­di­tional medicine. In Ja­pan, a sin­gle piece of agarwood made fa­mous in a sixth-cen­tury book is still on dis­play in a mu­seum.


An­other tame-look­ing plant with a sto­ried past, myrtle ( Myr­tus com­mu­nis) fig­ures in an­cient rit­u­als, his­tory and mythol­ogy. Myrtle has grown wild in the rocky hills sur­round­ing the Mediter­ranean since time im­memo­rial. The ev­er­green shrub was a sym­bol of vi­tal­ity, used at fu­ner­als to pay trib­ute to the de­ceased and at wed­dings to cel­e­brate union. The plant also ap­pears in the epic of Gil­gamesh, widely be­lieved to be the old­est known story on Earth. A sup­pli­cant makes an of­fer­ing of myrtle in­cense, and even the gods them­selves can­not re­sist.



Sweet or­anges get all the glory, but true con­nois­seurs of bouquet and fla­vor know to look to the bit­ter or­ange ( Cit­rus au­ran­tium). Bit­ter or­anges, also known as sour or Seville or­anges, are a cross be­tween pome­los (enor­mous, tart fruits) and small, sweet man­darin or­anges. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s sour-or­ange groves are strik­ing to be­hold, with their glossy green leaves, vi­brant fruit and spicy aroma. These or­anges have been used in Mid­dle Eastern cui­sine since the Re­nais­sance. To­day, the fruit and their essence can be found in liqueurs, haute cui­sine and every­one’s break­fast fa­vorite: mar­malade.


Most fre­quently found to­day in soaps and sa­chets, laven­der (genus La­van­dula) was once the work­horse of plants. The an­cient Egyp­tians used laven­der oil as a per­fume and as a preser­va­tive in mum­mi­fy­ing the dead, while the Greeks used it as medicine. The Ro­mans cooked with it, used it as in­sect re­pel­lent, and even bathed in it. In fact, the word “laven­der” may come from ei­ther the Latin lividus, “bluish,” or from lavare — “to wash.” When the Ro­man Em­pire fell, so did the pop­u­lar­ity of bathing and plumb­ing. As a re­sult, over sub­se­quent cen­turies, the strong, fresh scent of laven­der be­came a fa­vorite among Euro­pean roy­alty, who used it to mask the odor of their cas­tles ... and sub­jects.


Most of us as­so­ciate oregano ( Ori­g­anum vul­gare) with Ital­ian food, but its roots can be traced back to the gods of the an­cient Greeks. The word “oregano” comes from the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganos (joy), mak­ing this lit­tle herb a mountain of joy to those who en­coun­tered it. Leg­end told that the oregano plant’s sweet smell was cre­ated by Aphrodite, god­dess of love. With her bless­ing, Greek cou­ples donned oregano gar­lands at their wed­dings. The Greeks also ap­pre­ci­ated its medic­i­nal uses. Hip­pocrates, the fa­ther of medicine him­self, wrote of its uses for stom­ach and res­pi­ra­tory trou­bles.

We travel to see new sights, but so of­ten it is the unique scents and fla­vors of a place that make mem­o­ries. The next time you step ashore, take a good look at the won­ders around you — then close your eyes and take a deep breath.

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