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In August, during the heat of the summer, many of the most highly fragrant plants are in full bloom. Here in Tuscany, the warm air is suffused with the richly perfumed scents of damask roses, sprays of classic lavender and mountain herbs such as wild thyme, marjoram and sage. I find it impossible to walk past the ancient rosemary bush growing beside my door, weighed down with its sprigs of sea blue flowers, without rubbing the tips between my palms and then inhaling their lively and invigorating aroma.

Capturing the ‘true to nature’ scent of these lovely blooms was the enduring passion of the early perfumers. All early perfumes were made wholly from natural ingredients using fragrant petals, seeds, roots and bark together with scented gums and resins as well as a small number of products derived from animals such as musk. The raw materials of perfumery were among the first items to be traded between the East and the West and clay perfume pots still containing traces of their precious elixirs have been discovered from periods as early as 3500 BC in Mesopotamia.

Ancient records suggest that the Middle East and Far East especially India, China and Japan were home to the earliest perfumes. The Egyptians were also renowned for their perfumery expertise as were the Greeks and Romans in the West: indeed, the word ‘perfume’ literally means ‘through the smoke’ from the Latin per fumen since incense played an intrinsic role in the daily rituals of all these ancient civilisations. Burning specific fragrant plants, woods or resins was commonly performed in religious rights and for the maintenance of health and hygiene as well as for aesthetic purposes and sensual pleasure.

The first body perfumes were called unguents and were a type of ointment made by simply immersing the aromatic material in an oily or fatty base … a process called enfleurage. Later on, essential oils were extracted from the raw material in a variety of ways, such as by simple pressure and via a primitive form of distillation, but it was not until the 11th century A.D. under the Arab physician Avicenna, that the art of distillation of essential oils was perfected. Then, as the formulation and production of perfumes became more sophisticated it took on a whole range of different forms including scented powders, flower waters and aromatic infusions and as well as concentrated essences or essential oils.

By the early 16th century in Europe, it became common for women to prepare their own perfumes in a special room called a ‘still room’ literally ‘a distillation room’ employed for making aromatic household substances for hygienic and cosmetic use … also for making flavoured vinegars and home remedies. Roses were used extensively, such as for making cosmetic rose water, linens were scented with lavender and dried rosemary was scattered on the floor or carried as a hygienic measure.

Modern perfumery was not born until the mid 19 th century with advances in biochemistry alongside the use of alcohol and the production of synthetic fragrances. Today, virtually all commercial perfumes are made 100% from synthetic materials. However, many people these days are experiencing allergic reactions to these synthetic scents, which can cause headaches, skin rashes and other symptoms. A ‘return to nature’ is now seen as imperative, not only for maintaining our own personal health, but also for the health of the planet. Here is a recipe for making a natural perfume based on an ancient unguent style perfume technique, which is easy and pleasurable to do at home.

How to Make a Natural Perfume

1) Pack a small jar with fresh flower material, such as jasmine flowers or rose petals. Always choose petals or flowers that are dry and in good condition.

2) Top up the jar with jojoba oil, seal well and allowed to stand for 24 hours.

3) Lift the flowers and put the plant material in a muslin bag and squeeze … allowing the scented oil to run back into the jar.

4) Repeat the process using fresh plant material every day for at least one week.

5) Eventually this will produce a very concentrated natural perfume of pure Jasmine or Rose, which can then be decanted into a decorative glass perfume bottle with a stopper.

In my book, ‘The Essential Aromatherapy Garden’ you can find out more about the history of aromatics; how to design an aromatherapy garden; methods for using scented herbs and flowers at home; how to make a wide range of natural aromatic recipes; plus access individual portraits of all the most useful aromatic plants to grow and how to use them. This beautifully illustrated book is now available on our website.