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Ambergris-How to prepare an oil, Attar and tincture

ambergris, perfume, incense, medicine, apothecarysgarden.com

Also known as “Floating Gold” and Whale vomit, Ambergris is one of the rarest & most precious gifts of Nature. Coveted since ancient times for it’s value in perfumery, incense making and traditional medicine. Considered an aphrodisiac since time immemorial, it fetches Astronomical prices for those lucky enough to find it washed up on beaches around the world.

Ambergris is a waxy material similar in chemical structure to cholesterol that collects in the stomach of the Sperm Whale, (Physeter macrocephalus). Produced in its bile duct, it coats irritants and indigestible objects and prepares them for safe evacuation. Theories vary as to which end of the whale they find egress.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Gold Ambergris found in the South Pacific

Till recently these indigestables were limited to Squid beaks and other natural inclusions of an oceanic diet. Now, however, one finds a variety of foreign objects collected in whale digestive tracts and wrapped up in Ambergris.

Ocean Gold in the age of plastic

A recent purchase of 2 lumps disclosed layers of plastic bags tightly wrapped in Ambergris pointing a finger at the deteriorating state of our oceans. A reminder for us to forgo the use of plastic whenever possible.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Ambergris laden with partially decomposed pieces of plastic bags. Indonesia

A unique perfume ingredient

In perfume, Ambergris is used as a fragrance material and a fixative, lending marine, animalic and Musk notes to perfumes while slowing down the evaporation of more fleeting fragrances. Like other animal sourced perfume ingredients, it adds a dimension that is difficult for synthetic and botanical aromatics to deliver on their own.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Oddly, the magic and transformative power of Ambergris in perfume lies not in the strength of its aroma or olfactory contribution. Liminal, as if anchored in the intangible interstices of scent and senses, it rounds out and pulls together a bouquet from underneath while adding depth, tenacity and a unique dimension to compositions by means of a mechanism that is not well understood.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Brown or black Ambergris with a deep, “dark”, animalic scent.

As an incense material

Ambergris is traditionally burned as incense though the odor is not to everyone’s taste. Conversely, it can be blended into a compound incense directly or in the form of a tincture which will disperse through the material prior to the alcohol evaporating.

Ambergris, Burning-Ambergris-John-Parker-Sargent
Burning-Ambergris-John-Parker-Sargent

In Gourmand food

Historically, Ambergris has been used to flavour egg dishes, wild game, ice cream, tea, coffee and liquers. In Morocco, a small piece of is adhered to the inside of the tea pot lid where it imbues the infusion for a lengthy period with it’s unique fragrance. In Turkey, it is boiled in the traditional Turkish coffee as an aphrodisiac, to bolster the libido and male constitution.

As medicine

Used for centuries in Unani and Ayurveda systems of medicine, Ambergris has a traditional role as an Aphrodisiac and is used in formulas that treat sexual debility, premature ejaculation and in tonic formulas for the heart, liver, brain and kidneys.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Gold Ambergris carefully separated from the layers of plastic bags.

Different types of Ambergris

Though Ambergris is found in many shades, sizes and shapes, it can be generally divided into 3 types, grey, gold and brown/black.

The lighter coloured material often has a dry marine odour, with hints of Tobacco and ocean breeze. It has a light, clean and crisp fragrance.
The gold can have a soft, dry, Amber scent with Oak and Tobacco couched in Petrichor, (the scent of earth when it rains). It has a brisk marine note and a pleasant, soft animalic musk. It often has a gold colour with black striations.
The Brown material borders on black, and is a bit softer/stickier than the other types. It has a strong, dark, earthy scent and a musk-like animalic note layered over wet-cured tobacco and the scent of the ocean.

Aromatically, the 3 types range in intensity of scent with Grey being the lightest and Brown/Black having the most intense, or strongest fragrance, The Gold material sits between them in intensity of aroma.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Brown/Black and Grey Ambergris in the shop

Tinctures for perfume

They are all suited to tincturing in alcohol and extracting in oil, though I find the Gold and the Brown material really shine as oils.

An alcoholic tincture brings out different notes than an oil infusion and highlights the Tobacco and marine notes present in the material.
An oil infusion creates a product with more of the animalic and musk notes. Smelling it makes my heart skip every time.

In perfume, Ambergris is used at very low proportions, often dissolved at 1% in high proof alcohol. Only a small amount of this tincture is needed to lend a perfume blend a unique edge.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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To prepare a tincture of Ambergris

Usually made in concentration of 1% to 5%, a 1% tincture of Ambergris is prepared in the ratio of 1 gram of Ambergris crushed or powdered in 99 parts 94%-96% ethanol. It can be initially warmed in the water-bath to speed up dissolution of the material in the alcohol. When powdered, heating to 40 degrees Centigrade for 15 minutes is usually enough. Kept in a sealed glass jar in a warm place, the scent of this liquid will evolve for 6 or more months. A 3% tincture is made with 3 grams Ambergris and 97 parts alcohol, a 10% tincture with 10 parts ambergris and 90 parts alcohol etc. 6 months is the standard maceration time for Ambergris tincture. Once the liquid is ready, it can be filtered through paper, bottled and kept in a cool dark place until needed. The tincture can be gently evaporated in a shallow cloth-covered dish at room temperature to create an absolute/resinoid. This product is a clean and concentrated form of the material and blends easily with essential oils and alcohol. When used, there is no need to filter the product.

To prepare an oil of Ambergris

An oil of Ambergris is prepared in much the same way as an alcohol tincture. Fractionated Coconut or Jojoba oil are used since they are stable and have an indefinite shelf life. Gently warming in a water-bath facilitates breakdown of the material in the oil and a 6 month maceration yields good results.

When the infusion is ready to be decanted it is allowed to sediment then vacuum filtered through paper and bottled for use.  Though it can be gravity filtered through a paper coffee filter, it is time consuming.

Preparing an Ambergris “Attar”

What is sometimes called an “Attar” is produced by macerating Ambergris in an essential oil such as Sandalwood, Rose, Oud, Frankincense or another stable aromatic liquid. Amyris, Copaiba, Gurjun, and other essential oils that age well can be experimented with. These can be used as standalone concentrated perfumes or as ingredients and fixatives in perfume blends. The process is identical to preparing an oil infusion and up to 10% Ambergris is a good general guideline depending on the essential oil and type of Ambergris used. The term Attar is used loosely here, and traditionally refers to the product created by distilling one aromatic plant material into the essential oil of another. Here we take aromatic license to include infusions of animalic aromatics in essential oil since the animalics cannot be distilled. Theoretically it is possible to distil an essential oil such as Sandalwood into an oil infusion/extract of Ambergris but it too would be stretching the term.

Ambergris, whale vomit, musk, Aphrodisiac,
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Finding so much plastic in Ambergris has prompted me to rethink my shop packaging choices. We are now transitioning from plastic Bubble bags to recycled corrugated cardboard packaging and hope to shift to recycled paper mailers later this year.

If you decide to prepare any of these products yourself, remember-Always keep clear notes! Your future self will thank you. Dan

References- https://juniperpublishers.com/jcmah/pdf/JCMAH.MS.ID.555705.pdf https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8540767

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Bushman’s Balm- Extracts and Formulas

Bushman’s  Balm. Made with Sarcocaulon Mossemedes wax, with no added colours, fragrances or preservatives.
Simple is often best and with only 3 ingredients, this Bushman’s Candle-Lip Balm really shines. The Amber scent of the wax blends beautifully with the sweet notes of the unrefined Ontario Beeswax creating a smooth texture and a sensuous natural accord.

 

Sarcocaulon Mossemedense is a flowering shrub of the Geranium family that thrives in the hot, harsh and bone-dry Namib desert of Western Africa. The succulent interior of the plant is preserved and protected by a thick waxy, resinous bark which endures on the parched desert floor for many years after the plant’s demise and can be utilized in a wide range of skin-care products

Sarcocaulon-mossamedense-3-Cape-Cross.-Credit-Matija-Strlic.

The fallen bark is collected by members of the Himba tribe and often processed into a resin extract for the perfume industry. Collecting the bark provides an extra income to members of the tribe.
However, besides the aromatic resinous material, there is a natural wax present in the bark which is discarded as waste after removing the resin portion for perfume use.

https://i.etsystatic.com/8430022/r/il/1cc473/1934701503/il_fullxfull.1934701503_fzfw.jpg
Bushman’s Candle-Sarcocaulon Mossemedense-Namibia. provides both a resin extract for Perfumery and Wax for cosmetics, candles and therapeutic formulas.

Utilizing this fragrant wax is a simple process and if a market can be created for it, this value-added product could generate extra income for the tribe.

This amber-scented wax is perfect for cosmetics, candles, moustache waxes, and therapeutic skin-healing formulas.
Both the wax and the resin extract can be prepared from the same material, doubling its usefulness and value as a sustainably collected harvest.
Bushman’s candle resin extract and wax share a beautiful Amber scent that is rich, sweet, warm, woody and tenacious.

It is easy to extract 2 separate products from the raw bark, the alcohol extract for perfume and incense and a wax which can be used in candles and cosmetic/therapeutic preparations.

www.apothecarysgarden.shop Bushman's Candle-Sarcocaulon Mossemedense
Bushman’s Candle wax separated from the spent material using hot Fractionated Coconut oil. the wax can be collected by either pressing it out of the solids or hot filtering.

 

HOW TO PREPARE A 25% EXTRACT OF BUSHMAN’S CANDLE

  • Coarsely grind 100 grams of Bushman’s Candle bark.
  • In a sealed glass vessel, cover with 300 grams 94% to 96% Ethanol.
  • Let sit in a warmish, (30 degrees Centigrade), place for 6 weeks, stirring or shaking periodically.
  • Filter through a paper coffee filter and bottle in glass.
  • A 50% extract can be made in the same manner but with 100 grams alcohol instead of 300 grams.
  • A resin extract or absolute can be prepared by evaporating the alcohol from the extract at room temperature.

HOW TO EXTRACT THE WAX FROM BUSHMAN’S CANDLE

 

  • Collect the spent material left over after the resin extract of Bushman’s Candle.
  • Dry thoroughly.
  • When the material is bone dry place in a glass vessel and cover with an equal weight of Fractionated Coconut oil or a carrier oil of your choice.
  • Place in a water-bath and bring the bath to a boil.
  • Maintain the temperature of the bath for 2-4 hours.
  • Press the liquid wax, (carefully), from the solid material, or-
  • Filter the material hot, through a metal mesh coffee filter or –
  • paper in a vacuum filter.

If you would like to make your own resinoid and wax extractions of Sarcocaulon mossemedense, you can find the unprocessed bark in the shop here-https://www.etsy.com/listing/671100242/bushmans-candle-a-unique-aromatic-from

You can find Bushman’s Balm in the shop here-https://www.etsy.com/listing/692128510/bushmans-candle-lip-balm-from-the-harsh

 
Dan

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Ammoniacum. Incense of the Oracle-medicine of the people.

Ammoniacum, Ferula Tingitana, Apothecarysgarden.com

During a trip to the Mediterranean and Africa, I purchased two kilos of the aromatic resin known as Ammoniacum. They were beautiful, fragrant, fresh specimens and of rare quality.

Ammoniacum, Ferula Tingitana, Incense of the Oracle
Fresh Gum Ammoniacum from North Africa. Ferula tingitana

They were still as the harvesters had gathered them, many resinous tears pressed into as big a ball as each could manage comfortably. Though steeply priced, they were recently collected and bright with personality, fragrance and colour. There is no doubt I would have spent my last few shekels on them if I had to.

Also known as Giant Tangiers Fennel, Ferula Tingitana is a perennial plant of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. Similar in structure to wild carrot, Angelica, Anise and Lovage, (but not Fennel!)

In late spring/early summer beetles puncture the outer membrane of its hollow stalks, triggering the plant’s defence system to exude a sticky, fragrant oleo gum resin that both repels insect attackers and acts as a bandage to the wound. Commercially, the plant is wounded by harvesters who then collect the droplets when they solidify.

Ammoniacum through the ages

Ammoniacum or Gum Ammoniacum is named for its long association with the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon in Siwa. Originally located in Libya, the temple was an important religious center for the Egyptians and the ancient Greeks,

Famous throughout antiquity, the Temple of Ammon was established by the ancient desert tribes of Libya. The remains of the temple are located 500 Kilometers north of the Kebira Crater, (The source of the mysterious Libyan Desert Glass), and 500 Kilometers West of the Temple of Amun in Karnak.

Temple of Amun, Siwa, Egypt.

Once the site was absorbed by the Egyptians, it was renamed the temple of Amun Ra. Also named Amun, Amun-Re, Amon and Amen, this deity was considered King of the Gods and the God of the wind. In many ancient and modern traditions, the wind is associated with communication, ruled by the element of air, and represented on this plane by burnt offerings, the censer, and the smoke of incense.

When the ancient Greeks settled the coast of Libya around 600 BC, they named their domain Cyrene and operated the Temple and the Oracle under the auspices of their own gods, Jupiter-Ammon and Zeus-Ammon.

In Greek mythology, the Oracle of the temple of Jupiter Ammon is reputed to have instructed that Andromeda should be tied to a rock and devoured by a sea-serpent. Perseus dropped by to visit the Oracle prior to beheading Medusa, (Saving Andromeda on the way back), and Hercules visited the oracle of the temple before he fought.

Also known as Oshek or Veshek, Ammoniacum is burned till this day in the Moroccan Jewish tradition before the holy scrolls are removed from the Synagogue ark.

Horns of the Gods

Since ancient times Ammon, or Baal Hammon, was associated with ram’s horns. An association seen in Egyptian renditions of Amun Ra and through Greek and Roman times where stylized Ram’s horns are found on coins depicting the governors of Cyrene, and on the reverse a plant suspiciously reminiscent of Ammoniacum.

The temple kept its singular purpose and prominence as a divine oracle till the decline of the Roman empire. Even Alexander the Great took a detour and trekked 500 Kilometres through the deadly desert sea to consult the oracle at the Temple of Ammon. (After which he declared himself a God and had coins minted depicting himself with the Horns of Ammon).)

Ammoniacum-Dorema Ammoniacum, Apothecarysgarden.com
Dorema ammoniacum-Iran

Ferula or Dorema?

There is another aromatic resin named Ammoniacum, but it is Dorema ammoniacum and found in Iran and further north. Due to its distance both culturally and physically from the temple of Ammon, my feeling is that Ferula Tingitana was originally associated with the oracle of Ammon and not its eastern cousin Dorema.

Adding to the confusion between these 2 plants is the common name of Oshek or Veshek in Southern Mediterranean and North African communities and its modern-day reference to the resin of both species which are sometimes found in Mediterranean markets and speciality shops.

By Yan Wong from Oxford - Inflorescence,
Ferula tingitana-Ammoniacum, Gum Ammoniacum, Oshek, Veshek. Photo by Yan Wong from Oxford – Inflorescence

Medicine, Perfume and Incense

Ammoniacum has a lovely “green” fragrance, similar to, but sweeter than that of its cousin Galbanum, F. galbaniflua, which is used in perfumery. Where Galbanum has a green and very dry scent, Ammoniacum has a fragrance that could be described as golden green, fresh, penetrating, moist and nourishing.

To my nose, Ammoniacum is closest in scent to Helba, crushed Fenugreek seed. In flavour, it tastes bitter and pungent though this might be due to its high essential oil content.

Ammoniacum has been used since antiquity to treat respiratory issues, excess phlegm, Asthma, chronic coughs and bronchitis and is said to soften hard tumours when applied as a poultice. It is considered a carminative, stimulating appetite and peristalsis which could be useful for the elderly. It may have a stimulating effect on the uterus and likely should not be taken during pregnancy. I found chewing on a small piece of the resin was pleasant and had the effect of stimulating the expectoration of phlegm, easing my breathing and soothing a stubborn cough.

The infused oil of Ammoniacum may be of help in a chest rub for respiratory issues and lends a beautiful crisp golden green fragrance to oil-based perfumes. An alcohol tincture brings out more of its bright notes and burned as incense, the fragrant smoke is true to the aroma of the fresh resin with no charring or unpleasant burnt scent.

Ammoniacum can be used in similar ways to its cousin, the fetid smelling Ferula Asafoetida known as “Devil’s dung”, Stinking gum and Hing.  Cats find the fragrance of both resins repulsive and avoid them at any cost. Ammoniacum, unlike its cousin Ferula assafoetida, does not seem to reduce flatulence.

Silphium and Cyrene

There is a theory that this species of Ammoniacum may be the ancient, mysterious and sought-after Silphium which was highly esteemed for centuries, and found itself minted on many a coin. Silphium was said to grow only in the area of Cyrene, in Libya,  a hop, skip and short camel ride away from the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon.

Silphium was used as a culinary spice, a popular medicine and as an incense material. (An offering to the oracles?) Silphium was so sought after in ancient Mediterranean cultures, it may have become extinct from over-harvesting. A cautionary tale.

Sylhiumcoin1
Roman coin with a depiction of Silphium. Note the stylised ram’s horns on the left. A Ram-horned God has been consistently associated with the temple of Ammon since the time of the nomadic Libyan tribes.

Ammoniacum, according to the Silphium entry in Wikipedia-”This species has been considered to have abortive and menstruation-inducing properties.[7] The species has been suggested as a possible identity for the controversial silphium, a plant used as a spice and for various medical purposes in classical antiquity in the Mediterranean region.[8] Among the many uses of silphium was promoting menstruation, and possibly contraceptive or abortifacient properties, which has been suggested to link it to Ferula.Wikipedia.

For those who have an interest in the spiritual/esoteric aspects of this plant, I will mention that in my experience this resin can serve the same oracular functions today that it offered our ancestors. A piece the size of a lentil is all that is needed. From an Astrological point of view, I would associate it with Mercury.

You won’t find Ammoniacum in the shop. I couldn’t put a monetary value on it so I gave it away to those I thought would appreciate it the most.

 

Dan

 

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Labdanum resin for perfume and beard dressings

Over time I get many of the same questions from customers about the products I sell in the shop.  I love helping people and end up spending quite a bit of time answering them individually which isn’t the most efficient use of my time. So, I’m going to get better organized and post some of the answers to the most asked questions here. A link that can be shared and answers that are easily Googled. So here we go.   Dan…How do I process this lump of Labdanum resin into a perfume ingredient or a grooming product?

wpid-babylonian-sun-god-shamash.jpg.jpeg

Well. Labdanum resin has been used for perfume, incense, medicine and beard grooming for literally thousands of years. The recipe for the Temple incense, “Ketoret”, of the ancient Jews is thought to incorporate Labdanum under the name “Balm of Gilead”. The tightly coiffed and curled beards depicted on Gods and noblemen in ancient Mesopotamian stone art are believed to be based on the use of Labdanum resin.

BabylonianBeard Wax
Babylonian Gods

It is thought that in the distant past sheep and goats were driven through the sticky bushes to accumulate fragrant Labdanum resin which could be collected from their coats.

The depictions of these beards are so stylized, it led us to theorise our ancestors stuck pieces of this aromatic animal hair on their faces.  In my opinion, they were much more sophisticated than we assume and easily processed the pure Labdanum resin out of the leaves or the animal’s fur with warmth, hot water or warm oils to create products that were not only sensuously aromatic but allowed them to create intricate and artistic designs with their facial hair.

Labdanum,  like many other resins, acts as a perming agent and when applied to hair will set it and keep it in the desired style long after the resin is gone.

In royal tombs of  ancient Babylon, Sumer, Assyria and Akkad were found combs, bits of ribbon and wire that are believed to have been both decorative elements and tools for shaping the beards.  Sleeping with a beard braided with a bit of Labdanum at night will give one beautiful tight ripples for days after the braid is opened. Even after washing and combing. The danger is, of course, one will accidentally sleep with the beard tucked up behind one’s ear and spend those next days trying to straighten it out.

There are two main types of Labdanum available on the market.

Cistus flower-Labdanum
Cistus flower-Labdanum

Cistus Ladanifer from Spain which comes as a resinoid, a thick liquid resin, and is made by solvent extraction with Benzyl benzoate and Cistus creticus from the island of Crete who’s leaves sweat beads of fragrant oleoresin in the heat of summer that is collected and formed into tarry black slabs that look pretty much like Hashish. (Which is why it is shipped in boxes covered with descriptions of the contents in 4 different languages so there are no misunderstandings with customs or the DEA.)

Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested with traditional tools in the hills of Crete
Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested with traditional tools in the hills of Crete

There are other “Labdanum” products such as Labdanum and Cistus essential oils but these contain no resin and are easy to use as fragrance ingredients I won’t address them here.

The Labdanum resin and resinoid have slightly different fragrance profiles, the resin being a little muskier, bolder, and spicier than the liquid resinoid which is a little  sweeter. Both contain resin and essential oils and both work well for beard grooming and shaping. I have heard Perfumer friends give detailed descriptions of the scent of Labdanum resin, finding in its fragrance the scent of Mediterranean Sea breezes, the aroma of the summer-hot Cretan soil, hints of nearby wildflower essential oils, pollen and stray butterfly wings that are all drawn to the sticky leaves on the hottest of days.

How to process Labdanum

If you have the liquid resinoid of Labdanum, it is simple to dissolve it in alcohol for perfume use and in oil for other applications. Warm oil tends to work best.

If you purchased a lump of Labdanum resin from Crete, it is also simple to process but requires more warmth.

An oil infusion of Labdanum resin

For this I suggest a water bath. A simple Bain Marie could consist of a pot of water and a mason jar clamped to the inside and suspended halfway in the water. Hardware stores offer a variety of suitable spring clamps. It is important to use a water bath and not direct heat or a microwave oven. These offer little control over the temperature. Besides the issue of flammability and flash fires, the smallest amount of burnt material will spoil the whole batch. The water bath is an ancient piece of technology and a reliable thermoregulator that works just as well now as it did a thousand years ago. Again, the ancients were much more sophisticated than we like to think.

 

Weigh your lump of Labdanum, place it in the jar and add an oil of your choice at 3-10 times its weight. A 1-10 ratio will give you a fragrant but less potent oil and a 1-3 a stronger smelling product. You can always start with 1-3 and add oil till you have the strength of fragrance that suits you.

Bring the water to a boil, stir the Labdanum and oil till the Labdanum is completely dissolved. Remove when you are satisfied the Labdanum will break down no further.

Some people let this mix sit 4-6 weeks to extract all the fragrance compounds from the resin, others simply let it sediment well and pour off the liquid. Your choice. You can pass the liquid or the sediment through a pillowcase with a tight weave to rescue any oil left in the spent resin.

This beautifully aromatic oil can be used in oil-based perfumes and skin care products though it can be applied to the hair and skin directly and is one of the most attractive fragrances I know of for facial hair. Literally. It seems to draw people in. Like a people magnet hidden in your beard. If you chose an oil with hair or skin nourishing qualities that is great. If not, your Labdanum oil can be blended with other hair or skin nourishing oils or with a bit of Lanolin or beeswax, (In the water bath), to create a beard balm. Depending on the oil you used this product will keep anywhere from 2 years, (Olive oil) to indefinitely, (Jojoba, Fractionated Coconut Oil).

Water-soluble gum after the hot oil extraction
Metal mesh coffee filter works well for filtering hot resin/oil blends.

 

An alcohol tincture of Labdanum for perfume

To use Labdanum in an alcohol-based perfume use 95%-96% alcohol at the same ratio as above. To make a more concentrated tincture I suggest a twofold tincture rather than trying to tincture the Labdanum with a higher ratio of  Labdanum.

A little warmth speeds up the dissolution of the resin in the oil. A gentle warmth is all that is needed. Again, some perfumers prefer to let this tincture of Labdanum sit for a few weeks before filtering. For an alcohol tincture, I use a paper coffee filter which removes most of the non-aromatic material. You can carefully pour the filtered tincture off the sediment once it has settled. Some perfumers will freeze the tincture before filtering to reduce stickiness in the final perfume product. I haven’t tried it with Labdanum myself

A Labdanum Moustache Wax

If you want to make a moustache wax with Labdanum resin, dissolve the resin in hot wax in the water bath and adjust the product’s hardness and texture by slowly adding small amounts of oil, cocoa butter, lanolin or other oil-soluble materials of your choice till it meets your satisfaction.  Have a plate or other clean room-temperature surface handy to do numerous drop tests to fine-tune the consistency and hardness of your moustache wax. When it is ready, you can pour the liquid wax/resin mix through a metal mesh coffee filter into a measuring cup and either reheat the filtered product in the water bath again for fine-tuning or pour it from the measuring cup into tins or jars for use.

And as always, remember to keep clear notes.

Your future self will thank you.

Dan

 

 

 

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Commiphora confusa. The Myrrh that is a Frankincense.

I know I said I didn’t often post shop listings here on the blog. Though still true, I may have to take that back soon…After over 2 months in Africa and the Mediterranean, I am still trying to catch up on correspondence and workshops, making new products, and getting some gorgeous African aromatics listed in the shop. I just haven’t found the time to sit down and write a blog post. This may seem a bit like cheating, but sometimes you just have to use what you have at hand and I hope it provides enough new and interesting information to be worthy of reading.

 

Visually and aromatically similar to Boswellia or Frankincense neglecta and often mixed in with it, Commiphora confusa stands out as a unique aromatic material deserving a market of its own. (IMHO).

 

 

Commiphora confusa-AKA Kenyan Frankincense is one of the most baffling resins I have encountered to date. Naming it confusa/confusing is putting it mildly.
Dubbed thus due to the radically different forms its flowers exhibit, the list of confusing and perplexing facets of this fragrant oleoresin goes far beyond variations in its sex organs.

COMMIPHORA CONFUSA

Also known as Kenyan Frankincense, even though it’s a member of the Myrrh family, it is in no way a Boswellia or Frankincense. It looks similar to the Boswellia Neglecta resin, also endemic to Northern Kenya and is usually mixed in with Neglecta by collectors and middlemen.

The fragrance profile of this frankincense look-alike is (confusingly) similar in some ways to that of Frankincense Neglecta and though often distilled together as a Neglecta, C. Confusa has distinct aromatic qualities not found in B. Neglecta.

While Boswellia Neglecta is confusing enough in that it presents 2 distinct types of resin, a granular black callus resin and a clear Thurimel or honey type resin, C. Confusa yields 3 different types of exudates, 2 are similar to B. Neglecta and one a translucent reddish hue that is odorless and made up of water soluble gum. On the bright side, C. Confusa does exhibit some traits that are exclusively those of a Commiphora.

Like many other Myrrh species it grows in the dry valleys, plains and open bush land while Frankincense trees mostly grow on and around rocky outcroppings at higher elevations. Though its fragrance bears similarities to B. Neglecta and indeed it shares some of the same aromatic molecules that give B. Neglecta its distinct aroma, Commiphora Confusa also contains many chemical compounds that are exclusively found in the Commiphora or Myrrh family.

When compared side by side, it is obvious that this Kenyan ‘Frankincense’ possesses a unique fragrance of its own whether fresh, as an essential oil or burned on the coals. To my nose, C. Confusa has a distinct sweet herbaceous scent that is absent in B. Neglecta and, while Neglecta has signature notes reminiscent of our Northern Fir trees, they are not as pronounced in C. Confusa.

C. Confusa shares a similar dark grainy exterior to B. Neglecta and on closer inspection this Commiphora reveals the familiar auburn hue shared by many of the Myrrh species and consistently reveals a reddish center unlike the tar-black interior found in B. Neglecta. Another distinction between these two similar resins is that lumps of B. Neglecta resins will adhere to one another forming large balls where C. confuse lacks this external stickiness and is found for the most part in small loose pieces reminiscent of cheese curds.

Like Boswellia Neglecta, C. Confusa trees cannot be tapped to produce resin. This is an assurance that the resin is sustainably harvested.  It will appear only from natural injuries to trunk and limb from romping elephants, goats or Baboons that enjoy nibbling on its bark. Pastoralist tribes like the Samburu collect this resin as they roam with their herds through the bush land. They do not practice any of the usual Frankincense tapping and harvesting methods on these trees.

As with the B. neglecta resin they collect, the Samburu women distinguish between both a light and a dark C. confusa. Yes…I had to see this for myself and it is true!! Initial injury generates a clear “thurimel” a honey type oleoresin devoid of water-soluble gum which hardens translucent and light golden. Subsequent to injury, the tree creates “Traumatic Resin Ducts” as does our Northern Spruce. These ducts then generate a special therapeutic resinous cocktail called “Callus Resin” that acts as a bandage and promotes the growth of protective tissue that heals the wounds, creates scar tissue and isolates healthy flesh from diseased. In Scandinavia, the Spruce callus resin is used in traditional salves for slow healing wounds, diabetic ulcers and post-surgical wounds.

Though similar in many ways to a Frankincense, C. confusa, like all the Myrrh family, is ruled Astrologically by the Moon. (In case you wondered).

This oleoresin does indeed have an Amber aroma reminiscent of the Frankincense family, but brings with it complex, soft, and sweetly herbaceous, (Myrrh), notes that make it an exceptional incense material on its own or compounded with other aromatics. I look forward to distilling it and getting a clearer sense of its unique aromatic profile.

Though not as well researched as other Commiphora oleoresins, C. confusa does contain some of the same therapeutic compounds found in other Myrrh types which make it a candidate for medicated oils, tinctures, cremes, and salves.

If you would like to experience this lovely resin first-hand you can find it here in my Etsy shop.https://www.etsy.com/ca/listing/536857735/commiphora-confusa-kenyan-frankincense

I’ll close with a warm thank you to Hillary Sommerlatte in Kenya who introduced me to C. confusa and generously shared her home, time and botanical expertise with me.

Dan

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Boswellia neglecta Thurimel. Somalia Co-op harvested

Boswellia neglecta Thurimel. co-op harvested in Somalia

I usually don’t post shop listings on the blog and make an effort to keep the sales pitch to a bare minimum here. However,  there is a lot of important information in this particular shop listing and I don’t want to write it all again for the blog. Not so much lazy as I seem to have less and less time for some reason.

Many blog readers still ask me if I have a shop where they can buy the Frankincense products I write about, so I will take this as an opportunity to be more overt about it.

Here is a link to my Etsy shop-https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/ApothecarysGarden. It is full of beautiful, sustainably sourced, high quality fragrant and healing stuff. Buy something :-)!

 

Boswellia neglecta thurimel- Somalia, Co-op harvested.

(The shop listing)

Thurimella- Boswellia neglecta, "light"
Boswellia neglecta, “light”. A thurimel

This shipment of “Light” Boswellia neglecta from the Barako co-op in Somalia was a surprise.
It was sent as part of a joint effort to take some of the pressure off the heavily tapped  Boswellia carterii and frereana trees and develop a market for the lesser-known species that share the mountains with them.

Diversifying the trade in resins gives harvesters and their communities a broader income base and a safety net in case the mainstream Frankincense and myrrh trees cannot be saved from their current decline. They are dying off, around the world, at an alarming rate from both environmental stresses and human folly. Something I will post about in depth shortly.

After hundreds, if not thousands of years of tending and harvesting Frankincense and Myrrh trees, these harvester communities have developed unique relationships, cultures, and traditions that are tightly woven with the trees. In many cases, up to 95% of their yearly income is generated from the collection and sale of these aromatic resins. If indeed their decline cannot be stopped, these communities will become displaced and seek new lives in towns and cities, losing their rich heritage and their ties with the land.

Diversifying their income could be a key factor in weathering the loss of Frankincense trees till reforestation and replanting programs are instigated and bear fruit which could take between 30 to 50 years. We need to start thinking about these things.

Olibanum & Thurimel

Boswellia Neglecta-fresh sap
Boswellia Neglecta- Fresh clear exudate.  A pure oleoresin.  A Thurimel.

 

Boswellia carterii. fresh white exudate. Courtesy of Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo
Boswellia carterii. Fresh white exudate. Luban, Levonah, Olibanum. An oleo gum resin and an emulsion of oil and water. Photo courtesy of Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo. http://conservecalmadow.org/

 Frankincense neglecta “light”, a thurimel

Our familiar Frankincense types are oleo-gum-resins and contain varying proportions of water soluble gum. This combination of gum and oleoresin exudes from the tree as a white emulsion which gives Frankincense its traditional names- Luban in Arabic and Levonah in Hebrew, both based on the Semitic root word “White”. The latin name for Frankincense, Olibanum and Oleum Liban in ancient Greek are both derivatives of this word. After thousands of years, we have come to associate all Frankincense species with this white exudate.

Surprisingly, Boswellia neglecta is an oleoresin with no water-soluble gum. It appears as clear golden droplets and thus, is not an Olibanum or Luban.

Not only does this “Light” B. neglecta differ from other Frankincense resins in colour and composition, but the honey coloured “Light” resin contrasts radically with the granular aromatic black resin produced alongside it on the very same tree which is commonly sold as Boswellia neglecta resin. Confused yet?

For these reasons, I felt we needed a proper name for the amber resin of Boswellia neglecta. It sounded grammatically grating and irritatingly unimaginative to call it “Neglecta Light” in the shop.

So, for the sake of clarity, linguistic aesthetics, and to more easily differentiate the “light from the dark, I have dubbed the resin formerly known as Boswellia neglecta “Light”- Boswellia neglecta Thurimellis, a Thurimel which means Frankincense Honey in Latin. I was considering the other Latin version, Tus melle, but that was too smelly.  I am taking artistic license with this.  I don’t know if I got the Latin declensions right, but I look forward to being corrected if this is the case…..

The scent of this Frankincense neglecta Thurimel from Somalia is more intense than the Kenyan variety. Though both share the same Amber Frankincense heart couched in sweet honey and soft musk, this variety is more vivid, fruity and citrusy than the Samburu Frankincense neglecta Thurimel. Other than the scent, it seems identical to the Kenyan variety in all ways. It is a pure oleoresin with no water soluble gum which means it melts cleanly into the charcoal as incense, and just as readily, dissolves into warm oils and waxes for the production of moustache waxes, oils, salves and cremes. It makes a unique perfume tincture and the infused oil of this Frankincense feels softening, nourishing and penetrating on the skin. I can only Imagine the fragrance of its distilled essential oil. It is on the top of my to-distill list.

Boswellia neglecta Thurimel
Boswellia neglecta Thurimel

An introduction to Boswellia neglecta

The Boswellia or Frankincense neglecta resin of commerce is generally accepted as a dark, granular, blackish mass with a rich familiar Frankincense fragrance and a note of sweet Fir trees. l was convinced no tree could produce 2 resins so different in appearance. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes in Northern Kenya I would still be sceptical.

Initial injury to the tree generates a clear oleoresin which hardens translucent and light golden in colour. Subsequently, the tree creates traumatic resin ducts as do our Northern Spruce and Pines. These ducts generate a therapeutic compound called “Callus Resin” that acts as a bandage and promotes the growth of protective tissue that heals the wounds, creates “scar tissue” and isolates healthy tissue from diseased. I assume, that the presence of different chemical compounds lends a different fragrance profile to each of these oleoresins.

Thurimel- Boswellia neglecta, "light"
Thurimel- Boswellia neglecta, “light”

In Scandinavia, Spruce callus resin is used in traditional salves for slow healing wounds and diabetic ulcers. This is the type of Boswellia neglecta resin we are familiar with in the West. It is granular, fragrant, and often tar-like in texture and colour.
I prepare my Frankincense “Heartsease oil” from the dark neglecta which is used in massage to help reduce anxiety, panic, and tightness of the chest.

In Northern Kenya the Samburu women pick it off the trees in small tears which melt together in the 30-40 degree heat that accompanies most days in the bush. It is usually purchased as an aggregate in hardened lumps shaped by the women’s hands as they keep the light resin separate from the dark.

As all its brothers, Frankincense Neglecta is ruled by the Sun from an astrological point of view. It is calming and strengthening to both mind and heart, aids in meditation and concentration, and is thought to act as an aphrodisiac. It is assumed this oleoresin is composed of Boswellic (resin) acids, but I have yet to come across an analysis of the resin. It can be easily crushed and added to other materials when making incense blends and has a sweet, crisp, uplifting Amber fragrance.

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Civet perfume & Coffee. A call for community involvement.

Civet paste is a rare, ancient and highly esteemed perfume ingredient as well as a traditional medicine in the East.  Collected bi-monthly from the perineal gland of the adult Ethiopian Civet, it is still used in mainstream perfumery but mostly via black market back doors hidden from public sight and in a manner that contributes nothing to the well-being of the animals, the farmers, industry standards or the local economy.

Civet coffee, or Kopi Luwak, is a colonial tradition that has grown steadily in popularity the past few decades. Neither industry meets our Western standards for animal welfare and thus hover more in the shadows than the limelight.

Due to unacceptable animal welfare standards, we in the West, have boycotted the use of Civet in perfumes for over 50 years, yet this has done nothing to improve the lives of Civets or Civet farmers in Ethiopia and has likely caused more damage than good. With a reduced market, little income or resources to invest in higher standards of animal care, our boycott created a half century long stalemate in the industry.

The past decade or so has seen a growing trend in Indonesia where local Palm Civets are kept in battery cages under equally poor conditions, fed an unnatural diet of green Coffee beans which are excreted, collected and used to produce Kopi Luwak  Coffee, known as the world’s most expensive Coffee.

Creating a model Civet farm and new industry standards

This March will see my 4th visit to Ethiopia in an ongoing effort to help both the Civets and the Civet farmers by establishing an ethical model Civet farm.

A modern farm that meets Western standards could not only revive the market, break the embargo on Civet products, but serve as a model to set industry and animal welfare standards in both Ethiopia and Indonesia.

We are all touched by this situation in some way, even if we are not perfumers or Coffee drinkers. I believe we can’t wait for someone else to make things happen and that as a community we can have a profound and transformative effect in the world if we work together.

Besides concern for the animals, it is also important the Civet paste is processed into ready to use perfume ingredients in Ethiopia so the full value and the brunt of the profits stay in the local economy instead of lining the pockets of corporations in Western countries who already do quite well. We have been taking advantage of developing countries for centuries, buying their raw materials at rock bottom prices, making hefty profits on processing and selling them while little to no profit from value-added processing stays in the local economy. This is a fundamental problem that contributes to keeping developing countries from actually developing.

Though I believe no animal should be caged against its will, I feel we have to start changing things somewhere, and usually, the best place is right beneath our feet. If this is successful, and a greater market demand is re-established for Civet products, I see the eventual development of Civet paste collection systems that are non-invasive and work with the animals in their natural habitat while benefitting the conservation of quickly disappearing forests, wildlife habitats and green zones in Ethiopia. But as long as it operates in the shadows, nothing much will change.

A call for community involvement

This project is now at a crossroads.  In March I will travel to Jima, the main Civet production region in Ethiopia with farmers and exporters of Civet paste, we will have an up-close look at existing farms, potential real estate, and take the next steps to bring Civet products back into mainstream commerce in an ethical and broadly beneficial way.

I have written and spoken about this for over three years. Now I need to bring more than just words and a vision to the table.

Since no one person has all the skills and resources needed to bring this project to fruition, the next steps will be pursued by either an organized group of individuals contributing assets, skills and know-how, or it will be taken under the wing of an existing business with an interest in ethics and aromatics.

If we can organize a group of like-minded people to carry this idea forward, it will need

  •  The guidance of people with experience designing and building humane animal enclosures,
  • People with  Veterinary and animal care experience.
  • People with business acumen and the support of businesses willing to invest in it and ultimately profit from it
  • It could greatly benefit from involvement with Universities that might have an interest in conducting ongoing studies on these animals, in and out of nature.

There will be a need for tangible assets not easily accessed in Ethiopia. A shortlist would include items such as

  • Veterinarian  supplies and equipment.
  • Materials for animal enclosures and their ongoing care.
  • Laboratory equipment, used or new, and laboratory supplies for making perfume tinctures and absolutes.

If you have an interest in being involved, have access to resources such as these, know someone who could add their expertise, know of a buisiness that would contribute or lead the project, or if you can just pass the word on through your networks to catch the eye of the right individuals or businesses it would help bring this concept that much closer to reality.

I have Civet farmers and exporters ready to move forward with this project. What we need now is participation from the West to take it to the next level.

Any help and involvement is welcome. Questions and responses can be directed to connect@apothecarysgarden.com.

Funding the past 3 years for this project has come exclusively from purchases in my Etsy shop at  https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/ApothecarysGarden and donations from kind supporters via PayPal at  paypal.me/apothecarysgarden. Any and all interest and support is welcome.

For more information on the Civet stalemate with the West see my post-Ethical Civet, A view from the foothills

Dan

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Vanilla sex-Hand pollination in Madagascar

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Madagascar and its Vanilla capital Sambava, was witnessing the hand pollination of (Vanilla planifoliaBourbon Vanilla flowers.

Originally from Mexico and central America, their natural pollinator, a species of Melipona bee,  is nowhere to be found in East Africa and these beautiful flowers will bear no Vanilla beans unless each one is carefully pollinated by hand.

Vanilla sex

The  hidden parts of the very vulvic and seriously sensuous Orchid flower are gently coaxed out, breaking the membrane separating anther and pollen from the stigma. A small flap is lifted and the anther pressed against the stigma while transferring seminal pollen with a sliver of bamboo. The act is completed in a matter of seconds and finished with a kiss of fingers as the flower is pressed firmly to insure full contact and fertilization. Flowers must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening adding a sense of urgency to the process.

Vanilla plants love the elevation, temperature and humidity of this area and flourish everywhere as long as they have partial shade and something to climb on.  Flowers open one at a time in a raceme or cluster that can bear up to 20 beans , ( one a day). The beans in each cluster are of varying maturity and will ripen in the same order as their flowers blossomed. Flowering takes place over a period of 3 weeks and thus, traditional harvesting of fully ripe pods is of the same duration.

A change of management

Recently the government of Madagascar teamed up with Chinese investors who demand the beans be harvested within a one week window to lower their costs. Since they control the market with full government support, there is not much the harvesters can do but comply.

This is only one of a few critical changes instigated by the brokers. Revenue from curing the Vanilla beans has been taken out of the farmer’s hands as well, and now all beans are purchased green and processed by the brokers with cheap local labor. (Vanilla beans have no scent or Vanillin until they are cured). Needless to say, the farmers are not happy with these new rules and many are struggling to make ends meet or turning to other crops to make up for the lost revenue.

Foreign investments in developing countries can often trickle down to communities and local economies, but in this case the farmers are not the beneficiaries. Selling directly to the West and bypassing the brokers may be the only way they can keep their traditions, standards and businesses afloat. Starting with 2 farmers, my hope is to directly market Vanilla beans and Vanilla products to my customers and gather a growing number of farmers over time. Sometimes , you have to start small. In fact, I believe many small acts can add up to big changes.

 

For more information on the plight of the Vanilla farmers in Madagascar, here is an excellent video.

 

Dan

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An East African Aromatic Adventure

With only a day left in Africa, I feel I need to offer a brief overview of my latest aromatic trip just to keep everyone abreast. Once back in Canada I will write in detail about this last trip to Madagascar and Kenya. So much has happened during these past three weeks and so many things have come together, it has been difficult finding time to write.

Madagascar Vanilla, a rare Elemi, and an improv distillation

Madagascar was beautiful. I am coming home Monday with Vanilla absolute, Vanilla beans, Rare Madagascar Elemi resin, (Canarium madagascariensis), and likely 1 of only two liters of Madagascar Elemi essential oil in  the world.

In Madagascar I travelled with someone just as dedicated to fair trade and sustainable aromatics as myself. Two weeks travelling, smelling, distilling and talking, was a perfect introduction between my new partner in crime, Marco Billi and myself. Some things just can’t be conveyed via email.

We pooled distillation equipment from Canada and italy and put our distillation and improvisation skills to the test. We already have a handful of new  international projects in the works. Lacking a common language was not as great a barrier to communication as I thought it would be. A shared passion for nature lent us common ground. Bourbon Vanilla beans,  Vanilla Absolute, Madagascar Elemi resin and essential oil are some of the Madagascar treasures I’m bringing back home.

Madagascar-Ylang Ylang, Vanilla and Elemi

Kenya. the Samburu, Frankincense, and the “Squirting Perfume Tree”

Though my visit to Kenya was shortened by a cancelled flight in Madagascar and a scramble to buy a new ticket to Kenya, my stay with Andre and Maria of Indigenous Collective has been extremely productive with new developments in our work with the Samburu tribe and the fair trade platform we are setting up for them.

We have now identified some unusual Boswellia and Commiphora trees and discovered valuable fragrance and medicinal compounds in the “Squirting Perfume Tree”, (Commiphora Rostrata). Andre has developed an easy, sustainable method of extracting the volatile oils from under its bark, and with time, we hope to market it and generate an income stream for the remote Samburu tribe.

 Indigenous Collective’s back yard

Somalia-Fair trade, sustainable co-op harvested resins arrive in Hamilton. Patience pays off

On the subject of fragrant resins, my long-awaited shipment of fresh co-op harvested Somali resins finally arrived.. After 7 months of setbacks and roadblocks they are in the shop. As with many new ventures and projects, the beginning is always the hardest and presents the most challenges.

Since our first conversations 2 years ago and birth of the first harvester co-op, we have amalgamated  with another young Somali co-op wIth similar ideals and goals of implementing fair trade and sustainable practices. The Barako co-op signs yearly contracts with 11 village elders, guaranteeing full transparency, a percent of profits going back to the harvester’s communities and infrastructure in exchange for exclusive rights and a commitment to sell their resins.

Barako has also started a nursery, propagating the heavily tapped Boswellias with branch cuttings which will be planted in the wild with their kin and stewarded by the harvesters. This not only ensures a thriving species which is struggling and suffering decline in other harvesting countries, but also ensures a stable income for the harvesters.

Selling directly to the West via the co-op is a challenge from a logistic point of view, but it bypasses the chain of middlemen who buy the resins at the lowest possible price, leaving the harvesters struggling to make ends meet and often leaving them indebted to the middlemen and brokers by pre-selling the next season’s harvest at rock bottom prices out of desperation.

I have to give special credit to my helper Joanne who is not only running the business single-handedly while I’m in Africa, but took upon herself to get the Somali resins quickly released by Canada Customs, avoiding ongoing storage fees, and in the shop, packaged and ready to ship. If I haven’t said it recently, I am indeed a fortunate man. Thank you Joanne!

Somali resins, before and after their long journey

As it stands in the shop now, and while they last, we finally have –

All traded fairly and with an eye to sustainability.

That’s it for now. I will write in more detail when I’m back in Canada.

 

Dan