In the last blog, we explored the scents of the forests and how they can contribute to wellbeing. However, there are other ‘plants’ present in the woods that yield unique fragrances – oakmoss and tree moss. These are not true plants, and are thus unusual sources of aromatic materials, and the whole story of oakmoss as a fragrance spans centuries.
Oakmoss and tree moss are lichens that grow on the bark of trees, particularly oaks and conifers. Lichen is a symbiotic organism, an association of an alga and a fungus growing together as one – dependent on one another for survival – although the fungal partner is dominant. Lichen produces a flattened structure called a thallus – this can be seen draping and trailing over the lower branches and twigs, and covering the bark of deciduous trees, particularly oaks. It has a moss-like appearance, hence the misnomer. In perfumery, Evernia prunastri is the most common species that yields oakmoss. Tree moss, however is obtained from lichens that grow on conifers – spruce, fir and pine. Their piney, coniferous, resinous odours can be detected in the lichen and its aromatic extract too. Tree moss species include Evernia furfuraceae and Usnea barbata, the latter giving its name to usnic acid, a component with antibiotic properties.
These antibiotic properties were exploited by the ancient Egyptians in the mummification process. Oakmoss, myrrh and pine resin were used to pack the cavities of the eviscerated body. The oakmoss of ancient Egypt was Pseudevernia furfuraceae which was imported from Greece. Along with the pine resin and myrrh, its antimicrobial properties would help prevent putrefaction of the flesh.
In 16th century Europe, oakmoss, this time Evernia prunastri, was a popular scent. In Elizabethan England it was used, along with orris root (the rhizome of the iris) and rose petals, to prepare a powder for perfuming the wigs that were fashionable at the time. The scent of oakmoss is persistent and long-lasting, so along with its antiseptic properties it would certainly have helped mask any unpleasant odours. Scenting clothing and accessories is not an unusual practice – it can be witnessed in many cultures from perfuming kimonos with incense smoke to the modern western use of fabric conditioners that promise lasting fragrance and freshness. However, in Elizabethan times, attitudes to personal hygiene were somewhat different, and a pleasant smelling wig would undoubtedly have been attractive.…
Nowadays, oakmoss is extracted using solvent extraction to produce the fragrant absolute. It has a smooth, enveloping, rich, earthy, woody, resinous, warmly sweet, honey-like scent, with hay-like notes. The sample I have here, as I write, has a quality that reminds me of walnuts. Oakmoss is known as an excellent fixative; that is, in perfumery, an ingredient that can prolong the lasting power of the main theme of a fragrance. Oakmoss is important in the chypre type of fragrance. Chypre is the French name for Cyprus; it is said that in the 12th century, a perfume named Eau de Chypre was brought to Europe by a crusader returning from Cyprus. In the early 1900’s, the perfumer Françoise Coty became interested in this long forgotten fragrance, and using his knowledge of the plant aromatics of Cyprus at the time of the Crusades, he created Le Chypre, which was launched with great success in 1917. Since then the chypre style has endured and developed.
Three ingredients – oakmoss, labdanum and bergamot – form the structure of a chypre fragrance. The biophysicist and perfume critic, Luca Turin, suggests that this accord gives two fundamental qualities – balance and abstraction; and it is a resinous quality that links the trio. A classic chypre perfume has a base of oakmoss, labdanum, sandalwood and musk, although patchouli and clary sage are often included. The heart is floral, often with rose and jasmine; and the top notes are provided by bergamot and other citrus oils. Jacque Guerlain’s version of chypre, Mitsouko, was launched in 1919; he included peach and iris notes. Despite more recent reformulation to satisfy European regulations that restricted the use of oakmoss, it remains one of the best examples of the chypre style. The genre evolved, and we have chypre/fruity examples like Mitsouko, chypre/floral, chypre/floral-animalic, chypre/ fresh and chypre/green variants. The latter two are less overtly feminine, or gender-specific, and masculine chypre types can be leathery, woody, fresh and citrus.
Oakmoss absolute, despite its long tradition of use in perfumery, its unique and irreplaceable odour and fixative nature, now has severely restricted use in perfumery. This is because it has the potential to cause sensitisation and cross-reactivity when applied to the skin. These restrictions meant that many of the classic fragrances, especially of the chypre type that were so reliant on oakmoss, had to be reformulated; most critics agree that this was to their detriment. The chypre genre, especially the green and fresh versions, was and is my personal favourite; I do miss the Diorella (Dior 1972) and Alliage (Lauder 1972) of my youth! I could reminisce further – and don’t you think it is interesting how perfumes can feed into our identity and sense of self?
Morris, E.T. (1984) Fragrance: the Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Turin, L. & Sanchez, T. (2009) Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. London: Profile Books Ltd.