I can always tell it's September because that's when the big box retailers start putting out their fake Christmas trees (some start in June, but I'm not going to touch that).
September is a bittersweet month for me. For one, it's my birth month, and my birthday always serves up a mixed bag of feelings. Plus, it's hard to know how to deal with September. Is it fall already? Or is it still summer?
This year brought an endless stream of troubling world events. It also had significant personal challenges for me with my elderly parents. So this particular September has me feeling extra-uneasy. I'm not alone: I hear the same from customers and friends.
Here in Tucson, the nights and mornings are cooling off, but the days are still warm enough for swimming and sun. I love summer, so it's hard to let go. I also love, but I'll be honest, sort of dread the holidays. I'm not quite ready to jump into all that yet.
When I'm feeling uneasy, I usually reach for vetiver. The scent is soothing and soulful. It's equal parts summer and fall. The sweet, woody notes have a hint of spice and smoke that feels very wintery. There are also clean, fresh, grapefruity nuances that fizz with sunny brightness.
Vetiver speaks to my whole self and all my mixed feelings: the sun and the clouds. More than that, there's something about the actual odor of vetiver that keeps me grounded—not surprising since vetiver is extracted from the roots of a plant. This isn't just my thing; vetiver has been used to soothe anxiety and lighten depression for thousands of years.
What's more, vetiver, unlike oud, sandalwood, and now frankincense is far from endangered. The plant has significant climate, sustainability, and fair trade benefits.
Vetiver not only makes you smell good, but you can feel good about buying and wearing it. The farmers who grow it benefit on multiple levels from this crop, and the earth does too. Isn't it incredible that you're not driving global demand for an already scarce resource?
I initially created my perfume, Vetiverissimo (literally: "the most vetiver of them all"), just for myself and my personal use. There are a lot of iconic vetiver perfumes out there, here are just a few:
- Guerlain's Vetiver
- Malle's Vetiver Extraordinaire
- Lancôme Hypnose
- Different Company's Sel de Vetiver
- Chanel's Sycamore
All are excellent. But I wanted something simpler, so I pared my formula down to the uplifting essence of this plant the way nigiri sushi is pared down to show off the best quality seafood: a perfect slice of fish, over a bed of ideal sushi rice, with a shimmer of shiso leaf for contrast.
Vetiverissimo is my most uncomplicated fragrance: excellent vetiver oil on a bed of gentle cedar with a hint of spice.
What is Vetiver?
First things first: vetiver is a grass with substantial roots. Not big thick roots, but a giant network of tiny rootlets. Its Latin name is Chrysopogon zizanioides, which in English translates roughly to "tufted grass, weed-killer."
When I say grass, I don't mean piddly, lawn-type grass. I mean massive tufts of grass that grow as high as three meters (nearly 10 feet) with roots that extend as much as two to four meters (7-13 feet) underground.
The root system of vetiver is finely structured and very strong. The rootlets are legendary for penetrating and loosening hard and dense soils. Road engineers in the tropics sometimes call it the "living nail" because it pushes through soil that can only be loosened with a jack-hammer.
Vetiver roots can grow 3–4 m (10–13 ft) deep within the first year. The plant thrives in the tropics, but because of its extraordinary roots, it's highly drought tolerant. On the flip side, it's also highly rain tolerant. Its deployment for combating erosion and water runoff outstrips its cultivation for fragrance, but more on that later.
What Vetiver Smells Like.
The smell of vetiver essential oil varies greatly depending on how it's distilled. I believe this is the main reason why some people hate vetiver. Poor quality oil can smell swampy, like potato peels or even raw peanuts. But even among high-quality oils, there's a lot of variety. Molecular distillation can produce different oils that foreground the woodiness, sweetness, or dryness of the whole profile.
Even Steffen Actander, the great guru of fragrance materials had a hard time defining it. In his legendary book on botanicals he writes, "a general description of vetiver oil is not easy to give." He describes the odor as: "sweet and very heavy, woody-earthy, reminiscent of roots and wet soil with a rich undertone of precious wood notes."
13 Words to Describe the Smell of Vetiver
A quick glance in my perfumery books leads to a list of contradictory words to describe what vetiver smells like:
My own experience is that all of the above are true. I also smell violet nuances in vetiver oil, tropical fruit notes, and something I can only describe as "sparkle."
The Molecules That Make Vetiver Smell So Very… vetiver
Vetiver is a highly complex fragrance material. Among the few essential oils described as "a perfume in itself." Scientific analysis shows that the crucial molecules (ie. chemicals) in the vetiver root that impart the characteristic vetiver odor are:
Nootkatone is a famous (and famously expensive) molecule used to impart the characteristic smell of grapefruit in perfumes. It's why vetiver is described as fresh, bright, and citrusy. Khusimone is the molecule that lends vetiver its woody-earthy aroma. Vetivone lends bitter earthiness —and tenacity—to the odor of the oil.
Vetiver for Depression and Anxiety
None of those descriptions tells you why vetiver essential oil is often described as the "oil of tranquility." Why Ayurveda, aromatherapy, and modern medicine say that vetiver is a balm for depression and insomnia, soothes burn-out and grounds flighty and anxious thought.
Herbalist and aromatherapist Susan Curtis writes in her outstanding book that "the main action of vetiver oil on the nervous system is both sedating and strengthening in effect. It is excellent in the treatment of depression, nervous tension,…insomnia, and many stress-related diseases."
It's that "strengthening" aspect makes vetiver more than just herbal Ativan; vetiver is soothing and grounding—it calms you down but also builds you up and refuels you. Of course, none of these claims have been validated by the FDA ;-)
Vetiver: Sustainability Superhero
In a year fraught with worry about diminishing resources, pollution, and climate change, vetiver only offers more reasons to love it. Most perfume fans are only aware of vetiver as a fragrance. But it also has an ancient history of beneficial use in the environment with new benefits appearing in recent history.
Vetiver also has a long history of use as in traditional medicine used both externally for skin conditions and internally for fever and diseases related to the gall bladder, and healing stomach discomfort.
Eleven Environmental Uses for Vetiver
- Soil and water conservation (living plant).
- Erosion control (living plant).
- Planted to act as a natural, "living dam" for water for runoff mitigation and water conservation (living plant).
- Crop protection and pest repellent (dried roots).
- Termite repellent (extract of roots).
- Animal feed (leaves).
- Food and flavorings (roots).
- Perfumery and aromatherapy (roots).
- Roof Thatching for homes and buildings (leaves).
- Leaves used by farmers to supplement income in the production of baskets and crafts.
- Cleans soil of pollutants (living plant/roots).
Vetiver makes "an excellent stabilizing hedge for stream banks, terraces, and rice paddies, and protects soil from sheet erosion. The roots bind to the soil; therefore, it can not dislodge. Vetiver has been used to stabilize railway embankments in geologically challenging situations…to prevent mudslides and rockfalls. The plant also penetrates and loosens compacted soils." (Pacific Rim Vetiver Network Technical Bulletin No. 2001/1)
The Last Word On Vetiver…
I'm a nerd, I admit it. Have I said everything I have to say about vetiver? Doubtful—haha. There's just so much about this stuff that I love. But I'm going to leave it here.
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