Orange blossom is a fragrant ingredient that has been appreciated by all for centuries. Its scent, sometimes fresh and sour, is also sweet and smooth. It brings back memories of pastries of yesteryear and tickles our noses with its mysterious and emblematic fragrance. Discover the origin of orange blossom and the bitter orange tree, one of the perfumers’ favorite plant!
The origins of orange blossom
A little lesson in botany: the bitter orange tree
The orange blossom is the white flower of the bitter orange tree. Cousin to the sweet orange and lemon trees, this plant, also known as the wild orange tree, has been growing for centuries in sun-drenched lands. It can be found all around the Mediterranean Sea, from Italy to Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. When spring arrives, the branches of the tree are adorned with delicate and very fragrant white flowers, which then produce a small fruit called a bitter orange. The bitter orange tree has an important place in the world of perfume, as it is one of the few plants that can be used to obtain different types of essences and scented products. From the flower to the leaf, the branches and the fruit, each part of the tree will deliver a nuance and therefore a particular fragrance.
The appearance of a mythical flower
Native to India and China, the bitter orange tree is also called the Seville orange tree (Citrus aurantium) in reference to its Arab-Andalusian origin. Indeed, the craze for the orange blossom in Arabia spread throughout the Islamic empire, reaching Spain in the 9th century. But it was not until the 11th century that it spread to Europe where it was first introduced into Sicily and then Provence by the Crusaders. In mythology the orange tree symbolizes paradise and love. Its white fragrant flowers evoke purity and its fruit embodies fertility. Today, the orange blossom is still very popular, especially in aromatherapy. Its essence has many virtues, such as its soothing, sedative and antidepressant properties. Its uses are very varied, and it is unanimously recognized for its ability to calm anxiety.
Orange blossom: a royal perfume
The essence of the orange tree enjoyed great success in the 17th century thanks to a certain Anne-Marie Orsini, wife of Flavio Orsini, Prince of Nerola and Duke of Bracciano, who gave its name to the essence of Neroli in homage to the town of Nerola near Rome. This diplomat of the Spanish court and contemporary of Louis XIV perfumed her gloves as well as her bath water with orange essence.
The Sun King’s guilty pleasure
Now a fashionable scent, orange blossom is spreading throughout the French Court. It rivals the subtlety of jasmine and supplants amber and musk. In his memoirs, Saint Simon recounts Louis XIV’s taste for orange blossom. Indeed, he was passionate about perfumes from a very young age and then suffered from severe headaches. Only the sweet and soothing scent of orange blossom would have been bearable for him. It is known that he used to add it to his drinks. But it is in the inventory of the royal furniture that we find proof of its appeal, with solid silver syringes that were used to sprinkle the liquid in the king’s flats.
Highly concentrated fragrances or fragrances composed of high doses of musk or civet were no longer tolerated by the king, so heady perfumes were banned at Versailles. This is what greatly benefited orange blossom. It will impose itself both in the scents and in the decoration, from the Orangery of the castle to the Hall of Mirrors, decorated with solid silver basins containing bitter oranges. At the time, orange blossom water was certainly made on site at Versailles, in the perfume cabinet intended for the collection of rare essences from the flowers of the Trianon gardens. It was probably there that the stills delivered the precious perfume from the shrubs of the Orangery.
The use of orange blossom in perfumery
The bitter orange tree and its derivatives are flagship ingredients in perfumery.
- Petitgrain and the eau de Brout: The branches and leaves of the bitter orange tree can be steam distilled. This produces the petitgrain essence, which has a woody and invigorating scent. It is a major element of the eaux de Cologne. There is also another product, still little known, called eau de Brout. This is the water that is recovered during the distillation of petitgrain. Its fragrance is very floral with slight animal facets.
- Bitter orange essence: It comes from the peel of the bitter orange, which is harvested using the cold expression technique, by pressing the peel of the fruit. Its scent is very acidic, with a bitter and sparkling side that reminds us of the smell of clementine. It is a product that is also included in the formulas of eaux de Cologne.
- Neroli: In perfumery, the flowers of the bitter orange tree are also used, which deliver the essence of neroli, once distilled with water vapor. Neroli is a material widely used particularly in citrus fragrances. Its perfume is very sour at the beginning, to become sweet and floral afterwards. Neroli is a very expensive product (about 6,000 euros per kilo), with a very low yield. Orange blossom water is a product that is recovered in large quantities during hydrodistillation. It cannot be used in perfumery but is rather used to flavor our favorite pastries.
- Orange blossom absolute: There is a second method of extraction of orange blossom. By using volatile solvents, it is possible to extract the perfume and wax from the plant. In this way, a concrete is obtained which is then processed into orange blossom absolute. This product is much richer and rounder than neroli. It is usually used as middle note in compositions for its floral scent. It is a luxury product, whose average price is around 7000 euros per kilo.
The picking of the orange blossom
The orange trees of Grasse and Hyères, in the south of France, have had a great reputation since the 17th century. Today the region still keeps a confidential but very high-quality production. The majority of the production is nowadays located in Morocco and Tunisia. The flowers, or rather the buds grouped in small bunches near the leaves, are harvested by hand between the end of April and the beginning of May. Harvesting takes place at dawn, when the flower is most concentrated in odorous components.
It begins with a precise gesture of “turning” the flowers. The flowers must be just open enough to make them fall into nets on the ground. It is a meticulous work where each gesture is carried out with the utmost precision. This generally limits the harvest to about ten kilos per person. However, it takes no less than a ton of orange blossoms to obtain 1 kg of neroli oil! It is then imperative to treat the flower by distillation or by extraction with volatile solvents within 24 hours after its harvest.
The scent of orange blossom is a real olfactory Proust madeleine. It awakens childhood memories in us when we taste it or as soon as we breathe it in. Solar, green, powdery but also floral and waxy, perfumers appreciate it for its sweet and vegetal notes. Darker and more heady than neroli, absolute is less fresh, with more floral and animal notes that make it more complex and deep. It is an ingredient that goes well with almost all olfactory families. Our ippi patchouli and alfred kafé fragrances have a discreet orange blossom note in their olfactory construction.
Did you know about all the fragrant materials delivered by the bitter orange tree? Are you addicted to this fresh and sweet scent?