Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Rose Geranium Unmasked

Rose geranium is an ingredient common to perfumery, but it is unrelated to the common geranium. Derived from the leaves of pelargonium graveolens, the essential oil has a soft rose-like scent with an inkling of citrus. There are over 250 varieties of pelargonium, each with its own scent profile. Though the perfume arts may play favorites with a single cultivar, a creative gourmand may take advantage of several scented geraniums when it comes to creating flavor effects.

In a garden, scented geraniums are subtle and delicate provocateurs. The simple act of touching the leaves will delicately perfume the fingertips. In addition, brushing up against the plant will anoint passersby. This enchantment is a result of nature’s design--miniscule hairs at the base of leaves are attached to glands that generate essential oil. If one were to step back and imagine human hair capable of producing such an effect, the world would be an intoxicating place indeed. Perhaps this thought was not lost on fragrance designer Raymond Matts, who utilized headspace technology to capture the smell of his infant son’s head when he was creating Simply for Clinique.

Six fragrance families are used to categorized “scenteds,”as they are referred to in the gardening world. The categories include rose, mint, lemon/citrus, fruit, nut and pungent. ‘Nutmeg’, ‘Attar of Roses’, ‘Strawberry’, ‘Lemon Meringue’, ‘Apple Mint’, and ‘Ginger’ cultivars all smell like their descriptors and just scratch the surface when it comes to the world of flavor possibilities in the pelargonium world. The easiest way to capture the flavor of pelargonium is by creating a scented sugar, similar to the way one would use a vanilla bean to perfume granulated sugar. The process is simple, somewhat alchemical and well worth the patience it takes to achieve the desired result.

In a glass container assemble layers of fresh leaves between 1-inch (2-cm) of sugar, using four cups of sugar. Store in a warm area for at least two weeks (one month is optimal). The leaves will dry in the sugar and the essential oil will permeate the crystals. The scented sugar can be added to cakes, frostings, teas or as a finishing touch on fresh fruit. Another way to enjoy the flavor and fragrance of pelargonium leaves is to freeze them in an ice cube tray or use them neat, as a garnish in cool drinks. The use of pesticide-free leaves is imperative and there are many nurseries that utilize organic methods for cultivating pelargonium that will ship the plants anywhere in the U.S., in appropriate weather.

With so much to offer in terms of aroma, one wonders why more varieties of pelargonium aren’t utilized in perfumery. There are no easy answers to this question, though speculation leads to the assumption that pelargonium graveolens is more highly cultivated and thus less expensive to harvest. Perhaps particular olfactive pleasures are best experienced in the garden, where they can be shared and cherished for the delight they bring to all who thoroughly embrace them with their senses.


Photo of P. graveolens from Essential Oils Online.

Becker, Jim. Brawner, Faye. Scented Geraniums, Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996.