“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.
Only now and again sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange fragrance in the south wind.
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to me that is was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion. I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that this perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart,” by Rabindranath Tagore.
Seeing a lotus pond in full bloom makes me understand why lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is a symbolic flower in the Buddhist tradition. While its roots are in the silt, the flowers are pure and radiant above the waters, reminding its followers to rise above the mire of the earthly desires.
Blue, pink and white varieties have a delicate perfume, which is soft, sweet and fruity, with a hint of anise. However, making lotus absolute is a difficult task, because waxy petals produce little absolute. About 75,000-100,000 blossoms are needed to make one kilo of absolute. Each flower is handpicked from the ponds on the third day after the blossoms open. Wait for a couple of more days, and the fragrance will be weaker. After the flowers are picked, the flowers are separated from the stem and loaded into the extracting units. Several washings with hexane are required in order to remove the waves, pigment and essential oil from the flowers. The resulting product is called concrete, and it requires treatments to be separate from hexane. Before the absolute is obtained, a delicate painstaking process of chilling, filtering and vacuum distilling of the alcohol from the absolute must be undertaken.
The scent of the lotus absolute is unique, although at first, it can be disappointing, since it does not exactly match the fragrance of living lotus. In the process of distillation, some of the floral waxes and soluble elements become present, which is why absolutes need about 6 months of maturing time before the spectrum of their olfactory characteristics might be discerned as the extra matter settles down. I had a chance to try samples of three lotus absolutes, blue, pink and white.
Blue Lotus strikes me as having a very unique quality–translucence paired with tenacity. It starts out with a slightly pungent crisp note of autumnal leaves, but crispness quickly melts into transparency underscored by a subtle floral note and perhaps a touch of verdant foliage. The visions of clear streams and waterfalls immediately come to mind.
Like other lotus oils, the initial accords are earthy and pungent, yet Pink Lotus sheds them very quickly to reveal a unique floral heart. I imagine that dilution speeds up the process by which the floral aspects start to shine. Nevertheless, it is evident that Pink Lotus oil is the most floral of all the three. Its floral aspect is a quiet aquatic floral, majestic and regal, rather than lush sensual floral like ylang ylang or jasmine. There is no sweetness associated with the delicate heart of this oil, but rather profound clarity and freshness are ornamented by earthy herbal accords. Although these notes fade to make floral heart stand out, they are always in the background, giving strength to the delicate beauty of the flower, much like the strong stem holding a lotus blossom. Perfume melds into the skin leaving a beautiful lacy veil.
On the first try of diluted White Lotus absolute (10% dilution), I was not particularly enchanted. It seemed to be rather pungent, almost like decaying matter. However, I could not put it out of my mind and kept returning to my little vial for some more. The changes this oil undergoes are remarkable! The first impression is of diving far too deep in the pond and emerging with the smell of the silt on the skin. After about 10 minutes the pungent earthy notes wash away by a clear crisp accord. It is as if one witnesses lotus blossom unfolding slowly, little by little allowing one to smell the subtle floral heart. Interestingly enough, as the oil dries down, it seems to hide its floral aspect once again and veil them by soft silt-y notes.
I would not say that lotus absolutes will please everyone. If anything, they are rather odd, the combination of mire and radiant beauty, clarity and powderiness, spice and fruit. In perfumery, both lotus and water lily are often rendered synthetically, with varying success.
In Ancient Egypt, it was the blue water lily (Nymphaea coerulea) that was most praised, even though lotus was introduced later by the Persians. Blue water lily has a sweet perfume, and in Egyptian frescos, it is often associated with the sun god, Ra. The descent of the flower under the water at dusk and its reappearance at dawn symbolized the resurrection of Osiris. The flower was used not only for its fragrant purposes, but also for the production of a favorite Egyptian drink, wine steeped with water lily flowers. This must have served as some type of narcotic, since nurpharine, nupharidine and nuciferine (all hallucinogenic and narcotic substances) are contained in water lily.
Water lily’s mysticism was not lost on Eastern European folklore, where it is regarded as mischievous, dangerous and beautiful, just like rusalki, Slavic river sprites. An image of a river bend overgrown with water lilies is an indelible memory from my Ukrainian childhood. On those rare moments when I could actually get a flower, I would keep it with me till it wilted, and the last bits of its dark green fragrance gone. The flower itself smelled enchanting—a mixture of water, river mud and roses.
Perfumes with lotus notes: Serge Lutens La Myrrhe, Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, Bvlgari Omnia, Bvlgari Omnia Crystalline, Bvlgari pour Homme, Cacharel Eden. New Cinq Monde Eau Egyptienne created by Olivia Giacobetti also contains lotus, along with rose, mint, lentiscus, incense, myrrh, papyrus, jasmine, juniper, geranium and cumin.
Perfumes with water lily notes: Ormonde Jayne Sampaquita, Osmanthus, Frangipani, Andrée Putman Préparation Parfumée, Comptoir Sud Pacifique Turquoise and Paradise, Chanel Allure, Cacharel Eden, Lancôme Ô Oui!
Poem: Rabindranath Tagore(1861-1941) is a Nobel laureate for literature, one of the greatest Indian poets and writers.
Photos: Nelumbo nucifera, from wikipedia.com
References: White Lotus Aromatics, Morris, Edwin T. 1984. Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. E.T. Morris and Co., New York.