The Herbs and Perfumery – Of course, one of the outstanding characteristics of herbs is what might be termed their nasal quality. The perfumes and aromas exuded by their leaves and flowers on a warm sunny day give and garden the a fourth dimension, and one of the charms of the Greek and Italian hillsides is the pungently aromatic fragrance given off by the herbs and shrubs.
Some herbs have scented flowers that can be smelt before the plant is seen; the apothecary’s rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, is an example. Others such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) have leaves with a strong, sneeze-inducing odour; yet others have flowers or leaves which need to be rubbed in the fingers before the aroma can be enjoyed such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), or ginger mint (Mentha x gentilis variegate).
Moreover, perfumery is probably an even more ancient art than dyeing; it is a more obvious constituent of a plant so would have been experimented with earlier to disguise bad smells if nothing else, such as those of rotting meat and decaying vegetation. Fresh flowers are fine for scenting the air but their life is finite, and to preserve their perfume.
It was found that a mixture of flower petals, collected when they were at exactly the right stage in their development, then carefully dried or part-dried and mixed with an ingredient that fixed the perfume, such as orris root (Iris germanica florentina) would continue to give off fragrance for months and even years. Such a mixture we now know as potpourri, from the French potpourri to rot, is not a very accurate name, since the ingredients are preserved rather than allowed to decay.
Eventually, there can be the discovery that scented oil could be extracted from those flowers or leaves which were perfumed. Enfleurage is one method of doing this, by making a kind of sandwich with purified fat forming the “bread” and the flower petals the contents of the sandwich. Distillation is another in which flowers are boiled in water, and the essential oil given off in the steam is collected and condensed by cooling.
Extraction with alcohol is a third method, when the solvent trickles over the plant material is collected and then distilled to leave the oil as a solid material. Fragrant herbs playa great part in what has come to be called aromatherapy, in which essential fragrant oils from herbs are rubbed onto the skin. The different fragrances are thought to have an improving effect on a variety of physical and emotional problems.
Now that herbs have invaded several parts of our lives, and not least our gardens how much of this is just a fashionable phrase, and how much will remain as a permanent and essential ingredient of everyday living? Since Herbs and Perfumery do so much for the flavor of food and its digestion, have such profound use in medicine. Both for humans and animals, and have so much utilitarian value domestically in the home. And in the garden, it seems most unlikely that they will ever fall into such disuse again.
The countries of the Third World in particular need them desperately for medical purposes, as the synthesized drugs are so expensive. Another pointer to their continued and increasing use is the recent interest in holistic medicine. The philosophy of which can have such far-reaching effects that the entire way of life of modern civilization may be completely altered by the time the twenty-first century is going on.