April Violets

That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the Violet.
– Sir Francis Bacon, Of Gardens, 1625

Nostalgic and delightfully old-fashioned violet perfume has been made by Lownds-Pateman of Torquay since 1921.

The sweet violet (Viola odorata, aka common or English violet) has been prized for millennia as a highly-scented garden flower and medicinal herb, lending its delicious fragrance and vibrant colour to perfume, potpourri and food.

All parts of this plant, which contains salicylic acid, have therapeutic value. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) prescribed violets, which were used thereafter in folk medicine as an expectorant for respiratory disorders such as whooping cough, as a purgative, to encourage appetite, cure insomnia and treat eye, ear and skin infections.

Medieval culinary recipes called for violet-flavoured custards and omelettes, as well as a food colouring made from a syrup of violet blossoms and cowslip (primrose). Violet water and perfume, popular birthday gifts, would have been essential for keeping overpowering body odours at bay. Candied violets, a 19th century French delicacy, are still made today by brushing fresh flowers with egg white or sugar-water syrup and sprinkling with fine sugar.

Great-spurred Violet (Viola selkirkii)

The flower has been associated with purity and the Virgin Mary. Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine, so favoured the violet that it became a Bonaparte family symbol, and in the Victorian language of flowers, when plants were used by lovers to send discreet messages, the violet stood for modesty and faithfulness.

This blossom has appeared in many famous artworks, from medieval manuscripts to the late-15th century French tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, to Manet’s Bouquet of Violets and many more. Poets have opined about the modest mauve flower, too. A ‘nodding violet’ grows on a bank in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Goethe writes of ‘a pretty little violet’, blushing quietly in the meadow (Das Veilchen / The Violet), Wordsworth likens his dead sweetheart to a half-hidden ‘violet by a mossy stone’ in The Lost Love, and Cristina Rossetti frequently uses the short-lived spring blossom as a metaphor for youth and brief-flowering love. Here is an excerpt from To Violets by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):

Yet you are
More sweet than any.
You’re the maiden posies,
And so graced
To be placed
‘Fore damask roses.

V. odorata is native to Europe, not Canada. Nevertheless, sweet violets appeared in the grass at my childhood home – escaped garden plants that showed up every spring like uninvited yet welcome guests. We would gather them by the handful and set their short, delicate stems in a tiny silvered vase. The fragrance of these precious little nosegays lasted only a short time, but oh, how sweet they were!

When I was a young girl, my mother gave me a tiny cottage-shaped bottle of violet perfume. She had received it – empty – as a trinket from her aunt when she was a girl. To this day, it still retains a whiff of the fragrance, which is how I came to know the old-fashioned, sweet and powdery scent made since 1921 by Lownds-Pateman of Torquay. A couple of years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I purchased two bottles of the emerald-green perfume from eBay. (I gave one to my mom.) It’s still the same, heady fragrance that I remember, but I don’t know that I actually want to go around wearing it!

Such sweet attributes make the modest violet one of my favourite flowers. I do miss the little clumps that once adorned our lawn!

This Metropolitan “Violet Leopard” fountain pen, from Pilot’s Animal collection, pairs perfectly with J. Herbin’s dark purple Poussière de Lune ink. Shown with postcards from the early 1900s, each featuring spring violets.

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DIY Natural Solid Perfume

My family likes to get together two or three times a year to celebrate group birthdays. We decided long ago to forego gift-giving on these occasions and at Christmas; just cards (the sillier the better), good food and company are all that are needed. However, the women in the family can’t seem to help themselves and sometimes bring little goodies – inexpensive ‘just because’ tokens that we know will delight. The recipients are usually the other ladies; the men, who manage to stick firmly to the no-gifts policy, are almost always out of luck, and that seems to suit them just fine.

Our latest bash, which incorporated birthdays from January through March, happened to coincide with the Easter weekend, and we did it at a local restaurant. The goodies and treats were duly produced, and soon the place settings were marked by little bags of chocolate eggs, jelly beans, cocktail napkins in pretty pastels and other small trinkets. There was lots of ooo-ing and ahh-ing from the girls. The guys just sat there bemused, drinking their beers and shaking their heads at all this flagrant frippery.

Since I’m all about fragrance-making this month, I brought along little tins of handmade solid perfume made with pure beeswax, skin-loving almond oil and essential oils. Each woman got her own blend, and I tried to match the fragrance to her unique personality. See below for the recipes, but first, here’s the how-to:

Solid Perfume Basic Method: (makes one 0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL tin)

  • 1 tsp beeswax (pellets or small pieces, firmly packed like brown sugar)
  • 1 tsp sweet almond oil (or jojoba or apricot kernel oil)
  • 75 to 90 drops total essential oils
  • 0.5 fl. oz. glass jar or metal tin with lid

Pre-mix essential oils in a small container and set aside • Add beeswax to a Pyrex measuring cup and place inside a larger pot filled with a couple of inches of water to make a double boiler • Melt wax gradually over medium-high heat • When wax is mostly melted, mix in almond oil using a disposable wooden stir stick • Remove double boiler from heat, wait a couple of minutes to allow the mixture to cool slightly (but not start to harden); this will help preserve the integrity of the essential oils • Add essential oils and mix well • Carefully remove measuring cup and quickly dry off the outside so no water gets into the poured mixture • Working quickly, pour into perfume container; the wax will start to solidify almost immediately • Allow to cool and harden completely before adding lid

Apply with fingertips or cotton swab to pulse points • Perform a small patch test first • Do not get in eyes or mucous membranes • Do not wear perfume which contains citrus oils in direct sunlight • Avoid exposing solid perfume to extreme temperatures

Tip: To clean out the container you used to melt the beeswax, replace in double boiler and heat, allowing any leftover wax to soften. Wipe out residue quickly with paper towel, then wash thoroughly in soap and water.

Try the recipes below, or check out this list of essential oils to create your own spring or summer fragrance. The post also includes formulation guidelines for a balanced, lasting blend.

Lavender Lemon solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

This delightfully refreshing blend is my take on the big-name (starts with P) lemon blossom solid perfume found in natural food stores – the one that got me started on my fragrance kick this month. I made this bright scent for my sister-in-law. The number of drops needed are listed beside each oil. (t = top note   m = middle note   b = base note   f = fixative)

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 25 lemon (t) • 25 pink grapefruit (t) • 15 lavender (m) • 20 frankincense (b, f)

Citrus Woods solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

My sister, who, like me, favours citrus/herbal/woodsy combinations, got this one. The unisex scent is orangey with a darker, slightly mysterious undertone.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 15 lemon (t) • 15 pink grapefruit (t) • 20 sweet orange (t) • 10 cedarwood (m) • 20 sandalwood (b) 10 frankincense (f)

Like a May Morning solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

Anyone who loves the ’80s TV series Robin of Sherwood will recognize these words, used by our dashing hero to describe Lady Marion at their first meeting. It’s also my favourite diffuser blend, rendered here in a solid perfume. I gave this pretty floral to a dear relative who’s been going through rough times lately.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 25 pink grapefruit (t) • 35 bergamot (t) • 20 jasmine (m) • 10 cistus (b, f)

Springtime in Paris solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

This solid version of my spring blend was inspired by a charming book called The Little Paris Bookshop, lent to me by my mother. Naturally, that fine lady was the recipient of this fresh and floral perfume.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 30 sweet orange (t) • 15 rose (m) • 20 sandalwood (b) • 10 frankincense (f)

Moisturizing Hand Wash

You can make this recipe without the almond oil and glycerin, but the addition of these ingredients makes this hand cleanser silky and moisturizing. It works great if the bottle has a foaming pump – reuse an old one if possible; a regular soap or lotion bottle will work, too, but won’t dispense much foam.

Try these essential oil combinations in your hand cleanser, each of them featuring bright citrus to help deal with kitchen prep odours such as onions and garlic:

Sunny Citrus:  3 lavender • 12 sweet orange • 12 lemon (I made a bottle for myself and one for my mom, who loved it!)

Lemons ’n Roses:  8 lemon • 8 rose geranium • 8 grapefruit

Citrus Mint:  6 tangerine • 6 grapefruit • 6 lime • 6 spearmint

How To:

  • 16 oz. (500 mL) bottle with pump dispenser
  • ¼ cup unscented liquid castile soap
  • 1 tbsp sweet almond oil (or fractionated coconut/apricot kernel/jojoba oil)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable glycerin
  • up to 25 drops essential oils (a few drops more or less is fine)
  • 1 ¼ cups distilled water

Mix castile soap, almond oil and glycerin together and pour in bottle. Add your choice of essential oils. Add distilled water, making sure to leave room for the pump and to allow the mixture to foam up when shaken. Shake well before each use.

6-drop Diffuser Blends for Spring

Fresh and floral, clean and fruity, relaxing or invigorating – try these essential oil recipes in your diffuser to clarify and refresh the air in your home.

These are blends I’ve formulated and tested in my ceramic tealight diffuser, which holds about 2 tablespoons of tap water. If you own a different type, please follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

To Use: Add water to the bowl of your diffuser and drop in the essential oils. (Adjust amounts as desired.) Light the candle and enjoy! Caution: Never leave open flame unattended, and check the water level frequently.Sunrise:  2 lemon • 2 sweet orange • 2 peppermint

En Plein Air:  1 lavender • 2 cedarwood • 3 tangerine

 Raindrops:  1 vetiver • 2 peppermint • 3 lemon

Spring Cleaning:  1 rose geranium • 2 lime • 3 pink grapefruit

Herb Garden:  1 lavender • 1 rose geranium • 2 chamomile • 2 bergamot

Fresh Citrus:  1 lemon • 1 tangerine • 2 pink grapefruit • 2 lime

Springtime in Paris:  2 rose • 2 sweet orange • 2 sandalwood

Gillyflower:  3 clove • 3 lemon

Orange Grove:  2 sweet orange • 2 lime • 2 frankincense

And my absolute favourite:

Like a May Morning:  1 jasmine • 2 pink grapefruit • 3 bergamot

Parfumerie the Natural Way

Making a “natural” perfume is easy: simply combine essential oils with a carrier oil in a glass container, shake, and you’re done, right?

Well, sort of. There are some challenges: figuring out which scents work together, how much of each to use, and how to give your perfectly-blended perfume staying power. The following are some perfume-making basics I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, as I’ve blended, stirred, sniffed and blended again in the apothecary lab (okay, my kitchen):

Choose Your Oils
Use the scents you love, and stick with a small number – from a single note up to four, plus a fixative. Test combinations by dispensing a drop of each oil into your bottle, onto a cotton ball or makeup remover pad, or try out in a diffuser first.

Here’s a variety of essential oils suitable for making a fresh springtime or summer scent: (top, middle and base notes are indicated – see Get Blending, below)

Citrus: bergamot (t) • lemon (t) • lime (t) • Litsea cubeba (t) • mandarin (t) • sweet orange (t) • tangerine (t) • verbena (t)
Floral: geranium (m) • jasmine (m) • lavender (m) • neroli (m) • Roman chamomile (m) • rose (m) • rosewood (m) • ylang ylang (m)*
Herbaceous: German chamomile (m) • clary sage (m) • petitgrain (t-m) • rosemary (m)
Earthy/Woodsy: cedarwood (b) • cypress (m) • lemongrass (t-m) • patchouli (b) • sandalwood (b) • vetiver (b)
Refreshing: ginger (m-b) • grapefruit (t) • peppermint (t) • spearmint (t)

* I hate ylang ylang with a passion, so you’ll never see it in any of my formulations!

How Much?
If you don’t have a recipe, experiment, and be prepared for some failures* before you settle on the perfume you want. For a 5 mL bottle, I use a total of about 40 to 60 drops essential oils (taking up about ¼ of the bottle) diluted in a carrier oil. Start with a minimum number of drops per oil, keeping in mind that the mixture develops over hours and days, and strong-smelling oils tend to get stronger. Citrus oils are the most volatile, so use up to twice as much relative to your other ingredients. Don’t forget to record the amount of each oil used, including any adjustments, so that you have a final recipe that can be reproduced at the end of your labours – and the end of your bottle!

* Use up not-quite-perfect rejects in a diffuser, make into a foaming hand soap, add to bathwater, sprinkle on bedlinens, etc.

As you work, don’t forget to write down your formula!

Get Blending
Try to include top, middle and base notes so that you have a balanced formula that performs well and gives each scent element its fair due.

The “note” is the role each oil plays within a blend. Top notes (citrus, mints, delicate florals, soft herbals) provide an initial burst of fragrance which fades first, so you can usually use more of these compared to middle and bottom notes. Top notes give way to middle notes (more intense florals and herbs such as lavender, rose and jasmine); these are the heart of the fragrance. The anchoring bottom notes (rich, woodsy, earthy or resinous) support the others, add depth and are the longest-lasting components. Generally, the richer and stronger the smell of an oil, the more likely it is to be a middle or base note.

Set It So You Won’t Forget It
For a fragrance to last longer once applied, it’s important to include a fixative, an essential oil that is usually also a base note. Keep in mind that an essential oil perfume is never going to have the punch and staying power of a commercial perfume which contains a host of synthetic chemicals. Natural fragrances tend to be more subdued and wear close to the skin, which means you won’t give yourself a headache or knock over a room – a very good thing for you and everyone around you!

Some of the fixatives listed below, which are on the lighter side and suitable for spring and summer perfumes, can be harder to find in stores. You’ll probably have to buy them online, but they’re a worthwhile investment; I’ve found they make all the difference in the longevity of my blends. Since they’re less familiar than, say, lavender or peppermint, I’ve included their scent profiles for quick reference. How much to use? 5 to 8 drops of a fixative in your blend ought to be enough, especially if you’re using other base notes.

Benzoin (Styrax benzoin): (b) Warm, sweet, soft, vanilla-like, powdery • Possibly the most effective of the fixatives listed here, benzoin blends well with black pepper, copaiba balsam, coriander, cypress, frankincense, ginger, jasmine, juniper, lemon, myrrh, rose, sandalwood • Caution: Too much benzoin can lend a medicinal smell, so don’t go overboard. Also, it’s a sticky resin that may be difficult to dispense from the bottle.

Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus): (b) Sweet, woody, warm, resinous, with evergreen notes • Blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, cypress, frankincense, juniper, lavender, oakmoss, patchouli, pine, sandalwood, vetiver

Copaiba Balsam (Copaifera officinalis): (b) Mild, sweet, balsamic, vanilla-like • Blends well with cedarwood, citrus, clary sage, jasmine, rose, vanilla, ylang ylang

Frankincense, aka olibanum, boswellia (Boswellia carterii): (b) Woodsy, earthy, balsamic, spicy-sweet with slight lemony note • Blends well with bergamot, black pepper, cinnamon, cypress, geranium, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, mandarin, neroli, orange, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, ylang ylang

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha): (b) Warm, earthy, balsamic, resinous, dry, sometimes bitter • Blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clove, cypress, lemon eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lemon, neroli, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, tea tree, vetiver, ylang ylang

Peru Balsam, aka Balsam of Peru (Myroxylon pereira): (b) Soft, sweet, balsamic, mainly resinous with floral and vanilla undertones • Blends well with black pepper, ginger, jasmine, lavender, patchouli, petitgrain, rose, sandalwood, ylang ylang

Sandalwood (Santalum album or S. spicatum): (b) Mild, soft, woody, dry, sweet, somewhat balsamic • Blends well with benzoin, black pepper, chamomile, cistus, clary sage, clove, geranium, grapefruit, frankincense, jasmine, lavender, lemon, mandarin, myrrh, neroli, oakmoss, orange, palmarosa, patchouli, rose, rosewood, vetiver, ylang ylang

Happy blending!

Smells Like Spring

Over the next few weeks – the season of April showers and May flowers – I’ll be sharing my adventures in making natural perfumes and other springtime-scented goodies for the home and body. My theme for this month, then, is Making Scents of Spring. First up: DIY essential oil roll-on perfumes.

The novel The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George was a light and airy balm to my winter-weary spirits. The France of books and screen always gives me a much-needed boost, whether it be the Provençal countryside with its warm azure skies, lavender fields and cedars, or the cafés, boulangeries and rain-washed pavements of the City of Light. Charmant! After reading Bookshop, I was inspired to get out my box of essential oils to create three new seasonal fragrances, each of them incorporating some form of citrus to brighten and invigorate. Look for my recipes at the end of this post.

But before we go on, I’d like to offer an alternate title for this article: Natural DIY Perfumes – Debunking the Online Myth. Most recipes tell you to add a scant few drops of your favourite essential oils to a lot of carrier oil (usually 10 mL), et voilà! You have your own bespoke perfume. Well, oui et non. Yes, the result will be a lovely blend that smells great in the bottle, but it’ll likely be a transitory whiff that simply won’t offer staying power on the skin. After plenty of research, trial and error, what I’ve found is that a perfume that is actually noticeable and long-lasting requires a fair amount of essential oil and a fixative to help those volatile oils from evaporating dans un instant.

My next post will list a variety of essential oils perfect for creating your own light and refreshing personal blend, as well as information on fixatives – the most effective of which are less well known and harder to find. But first…

What You Need to Make Your Own Natural Perfume:

  • a few favourite essential oils, including one fixative
  • a stable carrier oil such as fractionated coconut (my favourite), apricot kernel or jojoba
  • glass bottle – I like to use 5 mL vials with rollerball tops for ease of application
  • small funnel and reusable glass eyedroppers (pipettes) for no-mess dispensing (optional)

How To:

Add essential oils drop by drop to the empty perfume bottle, sniffing as you work • Top up with carrier oil, making sure to leave enough room for the rollerball, which you will insert once you’re satisfied with the blend • Cover the bottle top tightly with plastic wrap and an elastic band, shake thoroughly, and let sit for at least 24 hours to allow the blend to develop • Shake and test periodically, adding more essential oil if necessary (I wear mine after each addition to see how it performs) • Push in the rollerball insert securely and close with the cap • Shake well before each use, and apply sparingly to pulse points.

Here are the scents I came up with for my (imaginary) trip to springtime France. The numbers are the drops needed for each essential oil. Top, middle, base and fixative notes are also indicated.

Fleurs de Provence essential oil perfume (5 mL)

A lemon-drop sun and fields of fragrant mauve stretching to a horizon of saturated blue. Sweet citrus and warm cedar round out the sharp hit of lavender in this decidedly feminine scent. The resinous evergreen notes of cistus (Cistus ladaniferus) work particularly well with the perfume’s other bright elements.

35 lemon (t) • 5 lavender (m) • 5 cedarwood (b) • 5 cistus (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

Rain on the Pavement essential oil perfume (5 mL)

If you enjoy sipping café au lait and nibbling orange brioche whilst admiring the reflected lights of la tour Eiffel in the rainwashed street, this crisp and slightly spicy fragrance is for you. Bonus: it’s unisex! 

20 bergamot FCF* (t) • 2 clove (m) • 10 sandalwood (b) • 5 cistus (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

* furocoumarin-free, which means the phytochemicals which cause skin to become photosensitive have been removed; sometimes labelled bergapten-free

Springtime in Paris essential oil perfume (5 mL)

This perfume is my favourite of the three: fresh and floral, with a subtle je ne sais quoi lent by the sandalwood. I use 5% rose and 20% frankincense in jojoba oil as affordable alternatives to the pure oils.

20 sweet orange (t) • 20 rose (m) • 15 sandalwood (b) • 5 frankincense (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

Notes & Cautions:

• Never ingest essential oils • Do not apply undiluted to the skin • Do a patch test first • Avoid using if pregnant • Some essential oils, especially citrus, can cause skin to become photo-sensitive, so keep perfumed skin out of the sun • Test to make sure the bottle doesn’t leak before carrying in your handbag • Keep perfume and essential oils away from heat and direct sunlight.