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

Ammoniacum, Ferula Tingitana,

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,
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.

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.




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Northern Allure-How to make a high quality tincture of Castoreum

Castoreum, tincture of Castor, dried granules on the right, ground and preserved in alcohol on the left.
English: A European Beaver.
English: A European Beaver. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Since I field questions about the products I sell in the shop, including Beaver Castor with increasing frequency, here are a few thoughts on the subject, and how to best make your own high-quality perfume tincture with it.

Beavers are a familiar animal especially here in Canada. They not only symbolize productivity and industriousness, as in being “Busy as a Beaver”, they are a national symbol of Canada. They appear on our 5 cent coin, originally made from, and called a “Nickel”, forever associating the Beaver with our mining industry and our Nickel mines.

This pairing makes sense when one considers that Beaver dams are perhaps nature’s main line of defence in filtering, de-toxifying, de-acidifying and rehabilitating our waterways, wetlands and watershed. Cleaning up after us.

Beaver dam, northern California, USA
Beaver dam, northern California, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, Beavers are not trapped for their scent glands, but for their waterproof pelts,  and not every trapper will remove them.

Beavers are an important part of native North American legend and European folklore, where “Castor fiber”  the cousin of our North American Castor Canadense, finds its home.

Castor has been used medicinally in native and European traditions of the past. Most notably by the famous Alchemist/doctor Paracelsus as an antipyretic, to reduce fevers,

In Ontario, the trapping of beavers is regulated in an effort to conserve and protect both wildlife and the ecology of our wetlands.  Cruel leg-hold traps that can leave an animal suffering till the trapper does his rounds are illegal.

Beaver pelts have been part of our northern economy for centuries, and were a trading item for indigenous people since time immemorial and well before written history. They still provide a livelihood for professional and aboriginal trappers.

Though it is difficult to portray this busy bucktooth rodent as sexy in any way, Castoreum is one of the most exotic, sensual and sexy fragrance components there is. In the genre of Ambergris, Deer Musk and Civet , Castoreum brings an alluring animalic sensuousness to perfumery that is not reflective of anything obvious in the Beaver.

In traditional perfumery, Beaver Castor is highly valued as a fine and distinguished fragrance ingredient lending warmth, sensuality and endurance to perfume blends for many centuries. The list of popular, familiar and prestigious perfumes that contain Beaver Castoreum is extensive. A simple Google search will reveal many well-known names.

Aged Canadian Beaver Castors with cross section
Aged Canadian Beaver Castors with cross section

The Castor sacs produce a substance that both male and female Beavers use to mark territory and is thought to contain pheromones that act as sexual attractants. Along with 2 adjacent oil-producing glands that provide a waterproofing material for their fur, the Castors are tucked well away, flanking their pelvic area.

Beaver castor has a deep, rich, persistent, leathery, woody, spicy scent. It can often have smokey undertones and hints of the forest trees and mosses. It is used as fixative, a base to middle note in “Masculine” perfumes, and in leather accords which it can produce almost single-handedly.

In North America it is permitted for use in food, where Castor derivatives have been used as flavouring. It’s presence is most noticeable in chewing tobaccos and snuff.

Castoreum has an aromatic affinity with the essential oils of many Northern trees and plants which make up its environment. Birch, Pine, Spruce, Cedar and Fir, Sasafras, Sarsparilla, mosses, ferns and even Wild Ginger  pair in an easy way with the fragrance of Beaver castor. Add to this list Patchouli, Tobacco, Vetiver, Coffee absolute, Jasmine Sambac and other heavier floral scents and we are likely just scratching the surface of promising  Castoreum compatibilities in perfumery.

While the Castor sacs are fresh, they contain a yellowish mobile fluid. This is the product that used to be termed “Castoreum”, though the term has been expanded to include all liquid products made from this substance. Because this liquid scent is fluid, any damage to the thin outer membrane of the fresh sac can lead to a loss of fragrant material. This most often happens during the delicate process of removing the well-hidden sacs and must be done with precision and an experienced hand. Any nicks, tears and cuts, lead to inferior quality sacs which contain less castoreum and fetch a lower price.

  The dried Castor sacs are divided into 3 grades of quality based on their size and condition.

 Grade #1 Beaver Castoreum-Castor sacs-Canada
Grade #1 Beaver Castoreum-Castor sacs-Canada.  After about 6 months and not thoroughly dried.
  • Grade 1 are the largest and plumpest sacs, with no nicks, cuts or loss of contents.
  • Grade 2 are smaller specimens and are flatter with some nicks, cuts and holes.
  • Grade 3 are the smallest sacs made up mostly of undulating layers of tissue that produce the castor and little actual scent material. Most often they have serious cuts through the sac where the liquid scent escaped over time.
    While fresh, the contents or Castoreum is a yellowish goo of a pungent, acrid odor. The process of drying changes the colour and transforms the scent.
Castor sacs Grade1 aged 1year+
Castor sacs Grade1 aged about a year and a half.

In general, Beaver Castors need to dry for one year before they are ready to be used for perfumery. After a year they will continue to age and their scent will soften further with time, both when dry and as a tincture.
If after a year of drying, the plump #1 Castors are not completely dried, they may, at that point, be sliced and exposed to the air to dry further.  Only when completely dry and free of moisture should they be processed for a tincture or absolute.

Instructions for making a tincture of Castoreum.

    • Take-1 part dried and minced Beaver Castors. It can be processed in a blender with a measured amount of alcohol which will be deducted from the total amount of alcohol in the tincture, or simply finely diced with a knife.
    • 10 parts 95% alcohol.    (Some prefer a more dilute tincture and opt for a 1:20 ratio of mark to menstruum, and this is an option. 1:20 will yield a less concentrated and lighter coloured product. If for your own perfume use, this is fine as long as you know the ratio and exactly how much of the original material is in the perfume. Keeping clear notes allows us to duplicate a formula precisely.)
    • Combine the 2 in a wide mouthed airtight jar. Leave headroom in the jar, at least 1/3 of the space above the liquid should stay empty for circulation. (Evaporation and condensation). 1/2 is closer to ideal.
    • Store in a relatively warm place.
    • Shake at least once daily.
    • After 4 to 6 moon cycles, When the menstruum is no longer darkening and the material no longer lightens in colour-
    • Filter your tincture through a fine filtering medium. This could be as simple as pouring it through an unbleached paper coffee filter and the funnel-shaped holder these filters are invariably built for.
    • When all the material, including solids have departed the maceration vessel and the last drips have exited the fiter-
    • Fold over the sides of the paper filter to cover the wet material and press down upon them with the back of a clean spoon or utensil till no more liquid drips down. Take care to press gently but firmly and avoid tearing the wet paper which could allow solids into your already filtered tincture.
    • Leave your jar to sit undisturbed for a few days so fine particles can settle to the bottom.
    •  You can either-Syphon or Pour off the clear liquid and store it in an airtight bottle.
    • Keep in a cool dark place. This will keep for many years and even age and develop in subtleties of scent as time goes by. As it does..
    •   On your vessel of finished tincture, or in your workbook/formulary, (or both), mark down the date your tincture was made and any other particulars pertinent to the tincture, Moon phase,  planetary associations and considerations, how long it sat macerating, ratio of alcohol to castor, where the castors were from, etc.. Don’t leave anything to memory. Take clear notes!!
Castoreum. Tincture of Castor sacs
Castoreum. Tincture of Castor sacs

I personally often skip the filtering process and when the tincture is ready simply let the solids sink to the bottom. When I need some tincture, I gently draw it off the top of the menstruum without disturbing the sediment. This method gives me a clear tincture and allows the material to continue maturing with the menstruum. This may make no difference at all to the finished product, but I enjoy the thought of it continuing to age, develop, and impart itself to the liquid over the years. If I have no pressing need to separate the mark from the menstruum, I usually won’t. Perhaps I suffer from a bit of laziness, or maybe it reflects a subliminal hope that I too will continue to age, mature and develop gracefully with time…

Castor sacs Grade1 aged 1year+, coarsley diced for tincture
Castor sacs Grade #1 aged 1 year+, coarsley diced for further drying and a tincture

Dried Beaver Castor lends itself well to oil based perfumes, and will infuse Jojoba oil with its scent for use in a non-alcoholic perfume. Instructions are identical to those above, just replace the alcohol with an enduring oil such as Jojoba which has a very long shelf life and little odor of its own.

There is a growing number of suppliers online that cater to a growing community of natural perfumers, aromatherapists, apothecaries and small independent perfume houses. Most households have a few favourite essential oils in their medicine cabinets.The market for essential oils and natural fragrance materials is booming. With this growth in the industry, one unfortunately also finds an increase in adulterants and sub-standard products.  Fixed oils are the usual adulterants to essential oils and can be exposed by their reluctance to evaporate from blotting paper, leaving behind an oily residue.  Over time, I have also sniffed some appalling absolutes of both Castor and Civet that obviously contain little if any of these precious materials.

That being said, there is also material of excellent quality to be found, and some very conscientious, usually small scale producers of perfume ingredients. One needs to learn, and develop a sense of discernment which will only come with time and experience.  As a general rule, if the price seems too good to be true, it usually is.

More often than not, paying more for a good quality product is immeasurably better than getting the cheapest essential oil we can find and ending up tainting the quality of our own product with an inferior or adulterated essential oil, absolute or tincture. Bearing this in mind, it is equally true that some larger companies that loudly tout their essential oils as “special”, or “Therapeutic Quality”‘, while charging exorbitant above-market prices for them are often equally guilty of robbery and fraud.

Working with artisan distillers and smaller companies allows us to build a sense of trust and a relationship with the supplier/distiller that can only add to our experience, enhance our ability to discern between excellent and poor quality while making the world a slightly better place. We all need to support the little guys if we want to see a change in our world and break away from impersonal and faceless corporations whom we rightly blame for many of the ills and injustices in our world. We must also keep in mind they are there by our own choice, fulfilling our needs and unless we make different choices, seek to fulfill different needs, little in the world will change.

So, when you find a supplier, merchant, artisan or craftsperson you trust, make sure to show your appreciation, and support them any way you can. The world will not change for the better without them.

And remember,

Always take clear notes!!!

Your future self will thank you.