Category Archives: Cosmetics

From the bird’s mouth: geranium

Have you ever wondered about the origin of rose geranium essential oil’s name?  Pelargonium graveolens, the botanical name of the source of this oil, is not a geranium but a species in the Pelargonium genus, which is indigenous to various parts of southern Africa. So how did the essential oil get the name geranium if it is not from the geranium plant?  An interesting explanation for this was found in the book Cape Floral Kingdom by Conrad Lighton.

The garden and pot plants we commonly call geraniums are classified botanically as pelargoniums and they represent one of the Cape Floral Kingdom’s big contributions to the gardens (and window-boxes) of the world. There are actually very few true geraniums in South Africa and geranium is by far the older of the two names. The generic names for both species come from the mouths of two birds: geranium (geranos the Greek word for crane) was bestowed some 1800 years ago on a plant whose long-beaked seed vessel resembled a crane’s bill. More recently the name pelargonium (pelargos the Greek word for stork) was given to the plant whose seed vessel looked more like a stork’s bill. An example of the “crane’s bill”:

The seed vessel of Geranium sanguineum / Image: Wikipedia

If you’re still confused (as I was after this explanation) there is another way to tell the one from the other: the pelargonium has five petals which are unequally divided and the geranium has five equal petals symmetrically arranged.  This is an example of the geranium’s equal petals:

Geranium incanum / Carpet geranium / Horlosie / Vrouetee / Bergtee / Image: newplant.co.za

Pelargonium graveolens cultivars have a wide variety of smells, including rose (rose geranium), citrus, mint, coconut, nutmeg as well as various fruits.  Here is an example of the unequally divided petals of a pelargonium also used for the distillation of rose geranium essential oil:

Pelargonium capitatum / Image: http://www.newplant.co.za

Whether the seeds resembles a stork of a crane’s beak or the petals are equally divided or not, geraniums and pelargonium are both from Geraniaceae family, therefore the name of the essential oil. These modest plants bring colour to our gardens and window-boxes. And fragrance to our homes via the essential oil being used in food, soap (the Spanish Maja soap), and perfume (Geranium pour Monsieur by Frederic Malle and Geranium Perfume for Women by Yardley London). Indeed a word traveller from southern Africa!

Buchu for the animus

Agathosma ciliaris / Bergboegoe (Afr) Photo: http://www.newplant.co.za

The fragrance of buchu is strong, wild and I would like to call it an “inner male” or animus aroma. Carl Jung described the animus (or a woman’s inner male) as positive energy that represents empowerment, the capacity to engage in and fight for what she wants, and the assertion of the live force.

My initiation into buchu was facilitated by the late Eps Joubert, an eccentric and passionate mathematics teacher and nature lover from Bredasdorp.  He is also known as the “father” of the Foot Of Africa Marathon and his lasting gift to athletes from over the world is the fynbos route in the Bredasdorp mountain.

If I had to select one plant for introducing a visitor to South African fynbos fragrance, it would be the green, minty and fruity aroma of the Agathosma species.  Agathosma betulina or round-leave buchu played an important role in the Khoisan culture, and have been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes since early days. Brandy tinctures (“boegoebrandewyn”) for stomach problems and vinegar infusions for washing and treating wounds are early Cape remedies.

The Khoisan’s close relationship with buchu includes this fragrant plant being an agent of both physical and mental transformation.  During initiation rites for girls reaching puberty, buchu was sprinkled on standing water to pacify the “watersnake” or “rainbull”.  Its invigorating and stimulating properties were also utilized in rituals to “wake up the body”. For an interesting article about buchu as presenting the “life force” in the Khoisan tradition, please visit africanaromatics.com.

Buchu essential oil with its intense and overpowering fragrance should be used with care, but in times when you want a strong, blackcurrant or Bourgenons de Chassis flavour in you home or life, it is perfect.  As a men’s cologne or facial wash for teenagers it may create a balance between “pacifying” and “lifting up”!

After experimenting with buchu essential oil in soap making and solid perfume, I came to the conclusion that this fragrance I would keep close to my body (as in a Khoisan tortoiseshell powder compact) but not directly on my skin.  And used daily in an exfoliation soap, it might keep the “inner man” alive and happy!

The honeybees’ perfume blog

Honeybee / Apis mellifera / Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes nature shows us a more elegant, but not necessarily simpler, way of going about our everyday lives.  Last week while experimenting with home-made lip balm, I received unexpected guests in the form of four honeybees. It could be the fragrance of the melted beeswax or the added essential oils (Rose geranium, Lavender and Cape snowbush) that attracted them to my kitchen.  Although an experienced beekeeper remarked that the beeswax lured them, I prefer to think that the bees loved the blended fragrance!

This experience made me think about how much the amazing honeybee (Apis mellifera) can teach us about sense of smell and fragrance preferences. Bees have an acute sense of smell and are choosy about which plants they pollinate. While reflecting on this, the following questions came to mind: How do they choose flowers from a bewildering number of options?  Do they also feel overwhelmed by all the fragrances at their “perfume counter”? And how do they inform their friends about their discoveries?

The Beekeeper explained: A scout bee goes out foraging for nectar and pollen. She is attracted to the brightly coloured flowers and their fragrances. Eventually she will find flowers with usable nectar and will return to the hive to communicate her discovery by doing a waggle dance. Research indicates that the waggle dance of the scout bee transfers the direction, distance and quality of the food source.

If I could be a scout honeybee for a day, I would spend most of my time visiting the following fynbos flowers and their wonderful fragrances:

Aandblom / Gladiolus tristis / http://www.newplant.co.za

Maartlelie / Belladonna lily / Amaryllis belladonna / http://www.newplant.co.za

Bobbejaantjie / Babiana odorata / http://www.newplant.co.za

Wild freesia / Freesia alba / http://www.newplant.co.za

If an inspired perfumer could create a fynbos perfume with these floral notes, I will do my best waggle dance for him or her! If you want to read about natural perfume and floral notes visit the perfume blog Olfactoria’s Travels. Her beautiful descriptions are so uplifting that you can indirectly experience the positive effect of the lovely fragrances and visualize yourself being a honeybee for a day!
Information about honeybees provided by:  http://www.pollination.co.za

Cotton with Cape snowbush

Eriocephalus africanus / Cape snowbush / Wild rosemary / Kapokbos (Afr) Photo from anniesannuals.com

In Cape Town the closest you will get to snow in December will be the fluffy cotton-like seeds of Cape snowbush or wild rosemary (Kapokbos in Afrikaans). At this time of year we need to be gentle with ourselves but it is almost impossible with everything that must be done before Christmas. Holidays can be extremely stressful for some people, and especially for those who struggle with being out of their comfort zone. This is an excellent time to wrap yourself in the sedative, restorative and mood enhancing fragrance of the essential oil distilled from this aromatic plant.

Cape snowbush is a pale yellow oil with a unique combination of bitter, spicy and aromatic notes.  If you need to allow yourself time to heal, or if recovering from depression of addiction this warm fragrance may help by “warming your emotions”. It can also help with letting go and clearing the mind of negative thoughts.

Kapokbos have been used in South African households as a hair tonic as well as a muscle relaxant. I’ve created a bath oil that may help you to “cotton” yourself against the pressures of the “silly season”!

Snowbush bath oil 

Add to 50 ml of carrier oil like sweet almond oil: 8 drops of cape snowbush essential oil, 8 drops of cape chamomile essential oil and 8 drops of lavender essential oil in a dark container. Gently shake and try to spend more time in your bathroom than in shopping malls!

Goodwill with Kooigoed

Helicrysum Petiolare

This aromatic herb with its grey woolly leaves and persistent flower heads is one of the many everlasting species.  It is said that the oil that keeps the flowers “lasting forever” will also stop your skin’s aging process, which makes it a must have for your vanity case.

A dried bundle of this strongly aromatic herb is called Imphepho (Zulu) and is burned to invoke the goodwill of the ancestors. The smoke is reported to be sedative and inhaled by traditional healers to induce a trance.

The Khoisan stuffed mattresses with this herb, therefore the Afrikaans name Kooigoed or Hottentotskooigoed.  This everlasting is also used as cosmetic and perfume and is effective in keeping insects and parasites away.

Helichrysum petiolare

For survival in veld this should be your number one emergency plant: it can provide fragrant bedding without parasites, you can burn it to relieve insomnia and the oil from the crushed leaves may protect your skin against the harsh conditions. You might just return with a Botox from nature…