Oakmoss

I just moved into a new apartment that’s a short walk from what was once one of the biggest urban reforestation projects in the country. The 1,500 acres of nature are a fortunate coincident for someone like me, who thrives and heals and finds inspiration in the woods. In case of emergency, though, it’s good to have some items that can call to mind the sort of spiritual inhale that nature can provide. One such tool for me is a whiff of oakmoss absolute.

There are some essential oils and absolutes that really force themselves onto the sniffer’s nose as a 100%, no-doubt-about-it, straight-from-earth product. Oakmoss absolute is definitely one of them. It’s dark and syrupy, like something that would seep from the bark of a 200-year-old tree. The scent is a powerful base note—an essential part of the chypre branch of perfumes. Oakmoss smells just like the dirty, earnest woods, like tree bark or decomposing leaves and branches.

Oakmoss has been relevant in the perfume world for decades, serving as a key ingredient in scents like the original Chanel No. 5. The ingredient has undergone some restrictions over the years due to allergic reactions, calling for classic scents to be reformulated, but it still holds its prominent position in the world of smells. You’ll find it in perfumes like Miss Dior or in Lush bath bombs and, of course, in Possets perfumes.

And now I must direct your attention away from the tiny vial containing the thick, molasses-colored substance and bring you into the woods, where you will see oakmoss as it is before it’s turned into absolute using solvent extraction. Its minty-green color adorns many—you guessed it—oak trees all across the Northern Hemisphere (but it is found on other trees, too). It grows in shapes resembling deer antlers clustered together to make what looks like a little oakmoss bush.

You might not think that something so dainty and light would hold the depths of silvan scent that it does. But what is perhaps even more surprising is the fact that oakmoss isn’t even moss. It’s a lichen.

Now I know this blog is supposed to be about scent, but oakmoss is a staple part of so many perfumes that it deserves a little time in the spotlight being admired for what it is. And what it is is pretty strange and fascinating, if you ask me. Since this is not a science blog and I am no expert, I’ll keep the factual proclamations to a minimum. But to give you some idea of how cool lichens are, here’s an introduction in list-form:

  • Lichens are not plants. They miss our on this categorization because lichen don’t absorb water and nutrients through roots (though they do use photosynthesis). You’re probably aware that fungi aren’t plants, and they aren’t quite animals either. Lichen are like that, and not coincidentally, because…
  • Lichen are actually a unique composite organism created from combing separate organisms, one or more fungi, and/or a cyanobacteria, and/or an alga. The symbiotic relationship between these two organisms living together creates a lichen, which then has its own unique properties. Both fungi and algae have their own kingdom separate from plants and animals.
  • The surface on which a lichen grows is just a substrate—in other words, oak trees and other trees are not being harmed by the oakmoss that makes them its home.
  • Lichen is a tough little organism with a mind of its own. It can grow on just about any surface in just about any climate, from a gravestone in the desert to a rock in the arctic tundra. They’re actually known to grow inside the grains of solid rocks. There are over 20,000 species of lichen, and when a fungi, a cyanobacteria, and an alga can interact with another microorganism in their environment, there’s a possibility of a new and more complex lichen forming.

All this is to say that oakmoss is really something, isn’t it? As far as I know, it’s one of the few all natural absolutes that doesn’t come from a plant. Instead it takes a complex organism built from other non-plants to create the strongest, woodsiest smell. Next time you’re out for a walk in the woods, see if you can spot some lichen—maybe even some oakmoss—and give it a salute for its contribution to perfumes.

By Katrina Eresman

Two Possets fragrances which feature Oakmoss are Landscape in Suffolk and Heka. Both are beautiful and available in sample size!

Tut Tut, Smells Like Rain

HiilaweKauai is one of the wettest places on the planet, and you can smell it. The rain turns into towering waterfalls—which often tumble into paradisal swimming pools—before it seeps into the earth, releasing rich smells from the wet ground in the process. The wet conditions nurture the tropical plants which in turn add their scent to the mix. It’s a jungle of vegetation I’d never seen in my mid-west home—which, frankly I was glad to leave behind for two weeks. I was feeling overwhelmed by the heat and the concrete sprawl and the to-do lists in Cincinnati, so it was a perfect time to head far, far away.

I was up early one Saturday in June, and then four delayed flights, two layovers, and five bags of mini pretzels later I landed in Kauai with my partner and travel companion. The Lihue Airport is mostly open air, save for some of the gates which are enclosed and air conditioned. We landed at night and walked out into a warm baggage claim area which opened to the passenger pickup. With the dark night around us, my nose picked up the novelty of Hawaii’s oldest island before my eyes could take it in.

When I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning (effortlessly, thanks to the six hour time difference), I looked out the window and saw the mountains and the mist and the dark green vegetation everywhere and started laughing. I could see that the land was as distinguished as the tropical scent that matched it. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Hikes through forests or just hikes down steep, jungly, beach-access trails brought me closer to the island’s smell. When I’m in nature I like to touch and sniff, so I took my time stroking leaves and smelling bark. At one point I picked up a seed or fruit (which I have yet to identify) and carried it around with me for a few hours, sniffing every now and then. It smelled sweet, green, and unripe.

Certain hikes afforded me the opportunity to successfully pick out specific plants that were particularly odorous. One day we drove from our home base at the north shore of the island all the way around to Waimea Canyon. We took several trails for a long hiking day filled with slippery steep climbs, at which time a tree’s sturdy roots were your best friend. The challenge was rewarding and so were the views— especially a close up view at the amazing Waipoo Falls. Somewhere in there I ended up quite a few paces behind the rest of the group when I stopped in a valley of bushes dotted with tiny pink, yellow, and orange flowers in order to scratch and sniff the leaves of these plants—wild sage. Definitely a key element of the spicy, sharp scent of the trail’s atmosphere.

We spent a few days on Maui, too, and took a two-mile hike to what I imagine exactly resembles the Garden of Eden. We came out of a serene bamboo forest into a valley that showcased another massive waterfall. I stood in awe and smelled the heavenly smells, one of which was surely drifting from the white flower just yonder by the edge of the path, just next to the couple taking selfies in front of the falls. It was a white ginger lily, sweet and peppery.

I expect that there’s much more to be discovered in the aromatic corners of Kauai. I suppose I’ll just have to return soon to do more research, this time maybe with a field guide to help me identify the things that really stick out to my eyes and nose. Until then, you might find me ordering some lantana camara and white ginger lily essential oils…

 

By Katrina Eresman