Scent: A Natural History of Fragrance by Elise Pearlstine

This book is a monumental first in terms of its breadth and depth of revelatory information about plants, and how and why they developed fragrance. Not a simple topic by any means, but the author manages to tie every detail together. The book covers evolution, history, ethnobotany, ethnobiology, and natural perfumery. I am not aware of any book that throws such a wide net in a scientific and historical manner, and provides footnotes to allow the reader to delve further into a particular interest.

The author, Elise Pearlstine, is a natural perfumer of international renown and a PhD scientist in wildlife biology. This combination of skills and education give her a unique perspective of how people came to use plants that emitted fragrance from the earliest days, right up to the present. She offers the hypothesis that plants didn’t develop their scents because of the actions of people, but because of the interactions with animals, insects, microbes, climate, and other non-human factors. Yes, we have learned to use the plants from time immemorial, first in crude extractions, or burning fragrant resins, but before us, animals and insects interacted with the plant’s fragrance for other reasons.

Evolution stretched across millions of years, and the adaptations for attracting pollinators, repelling pests and diseases, and healing damage to the plants all had a role in the creation of specific fragrances for particular situations.

These fragrant chemical signals and responses are now hard-wired into both plants and the environmental creatures that co-exist with them. The fragrant molecules took eons to develop their particular chemical signature, and these volatile essences now form the base of our modern perfumery. The ancient trade routes brought spices, herbs, resins, and other fragrant materials around the world, and people desired the smells and taste of these products.

To think we might not have fragrant plants, at least to the degree we do, if it had not been the siren call of the plant (flower, typically, but not always), to the bee, bat, microbe, beetle, fungus, or moth. And what of the plant’s innate response to a wound in the bark providing a protective resin such as frankincense, or myrrh to ooze and heal the wound?

Some of the earliest recorded use of fragrant plants by people are recorded in ethnobotany and historical records, and often the first mentioned is frankincense “tears” as the solidified resin is called. I remember studying at the university in anthropology classes how when tribes in ancient Africa would gather for yearly meetings from far corners of their territory, they would burn frankincense as a religious offering. The scent was to travel up to the gods, but it was also possible (from later studies) that the smoke of the resin was antiseptic/antimicrobial, and helped prevent the spread of any potential respiratory infection among the far-flung gatherers.
[pullquote]To think we might not have fragrant plants, at least to the degree we do, if it had not been the siren call of the plant, to the bee, bat, microbe, beetle, fungus, or moth[/pullquote]

Elise goes in-depth in describing the fragrant woods and resins, meticulously covering the use of these products in detail, and showing their journey up to modern times and modern perfumery. There are lots of tips and ideas on how to use these essences in perfumery, and they are useful to the beginner and expert perfumery alike. To avoid redundancy, just know that she gives blending tips throughout the book for all the essences covered. The comprehensive index will help you quickly locate a particular oil to read further. I wish all books came with indices; they are invaluable in the search! She also provides a glossary of terms used in the book, a very helpful resource.

Topics covered in chapters also include spices, including spices of the Western Ghats, the Spice Islands, saffron, vanilla, and cocoa.

She then segues into the subjects of scented gardens and aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers, roses, perfumery topics from mandarin to musk, the humble beginnings of mint and turpentine, perfume notes, and fragrance and fashion, and industry and fashion. Can you see the scope of her research in these? Incredibly wide-ranging and inspirational.

To attempt to cover each subject in a review would probably be an injustice, due to the incredible detail in each chapter subject. I wish that when I was at the university studying plant science, botany, anthropology, economics, concomitant with my beginning studies in perfumery, I had obtained this book. If I were a professor teaching ethnobotany, ethnobiology, or anthropology, I would recommend this for my students.

Scent – Elise Pearlstine
Publisher: Yale University Press 2022
272 Pages
Available from most booksellers

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