The language of scent

Harvesting and crafting botanicals to create beauty products

  • Aug. 21, 2019 7:30 a.m.

– Story and photography by Lia Crowe

Scent is connected — through the oldest and most primal part of our brain — to memory, pleasure and desire. The smell of damp earth, dry leaves underfoot, fresh conifer needles or lavender blooms crushed between fingers can transport and calm your mind, and connect you to nature.

Local companies are harvesting and wildcrafting botanicals to create natural scents and skin care products, and bringing back self-care rituals that are infused with ancient and traditional knowledge.

Walking down the steps to The Still Room Perfumery on Oak Bay Avenue, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The back area of the perfumery is like an alchemist’s workshop; there is a copper alembic still in the corner, and jars of dried flowers and plants, tinctures, resins and waxes line the shelves, begging to be opened and experienced.

The Still Room is a playground for the senses — a boutique and workshop where perfumers Karen Van Dyck (of K Van Dyck Parfum) and Stacey Moore (of Flore Botanical Alchemy) create and sell their scents and skincare products, and make custom, individualized scents.

“It’s about reconnecting to nature,” Karen says. “In this synthetic world we are floating on top of life; we’ve lost our connection with the earth.”

“Because of technology, many people are feeling disconnected, suffering from depression and anxiety,” Stacey adds. “Scent is a way back to our intuitive selves, to feeling connected to our place.”

Stacey does her own steam distillation and both perfumers incorporate sustainable and locally wildcrafted botanicals in their scents. They say this is important because the quality of the materials, who’s harvesting them, how they are harvesting them, and where they come from all matters.

Some of their favourite locally wildcrafted botanicals are wild rose and cottonwood. “Rose is the heart medicine,” Stacey says. “It wraps silk ribbons around your heart and just makes you feel good.”

“Rose scent is the highest vibration of any flower,” Karen adds. “When I first smelled cottonwood buds, the world opened up to me. It was like being attracted to a lover and I was inspired to get that scent into a bottle.”

Leigh Joseph/Styawat, from the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nations, is an ethnobotanist and the owner of Skwálwen Botanicals. Pronounced squall-win, it’s a Squamish word that roughly means “spiritual heart” or “essence of being.” Leigh chose this name to represent the cultural connection to plants and Indigenous knowledge, as well as what working with plants brings to her life.

“It’s about relationship to the land,” Leigh explains. “I think there is a desire to have those tangible smells to ground you to place.”

She harvests wild plants in a sustainable and respectful way, and each product has a Skwxwú7mesh name to honour the place from which this knowledge comes.

“I want to infuse this creative outlet [making self care products] with respectful cultural grounding. While you’re harvesting something, it’s important how you feel in your heart and your mind. Part of the cultural relationship is how you harvest, for example. When harvesting wild rose you take only three of the five petals so that pollinators can still land, and the flower can still turn into a rose hip. Birds and animals rely on rose hips for food and I’m mindful to spread out the harvest.”

One of her favourite botanicals is conifer resin or pitch, which is crystallized tree sap.

“It smells very green and earthy. Sap is the antibacterial system of the trees so it has the same ability for us in fighting infection. Tree scents are very grounding and they connect me to the land.”

Reyna Goshinmon, of Victoria-based Kodo Collection natural skincare products, uses locally grown and harvested rose petals in her rose clay mask.

“Rose is good for immune boosting; it has vitamin C and antioxidants, and fights off free radicals. It draws moisture to the skin and promotes circulation and cell regeneration. I believe we are all seeking a deeper connection and this is one way we can connect. Using the locally harvested petals gives a deeper appreciation for the ingredients.”

As my journey into the discovery of scents continues, I visit natural perfumer Laurie Arbuthnot of Wild Coast Perfumery in Cowichan Bay. Again, I’m entranced by a beautiful botanical laboratory. Laurie tells me she uses at least one local ingredient in each of her perfumes. Some include wild oak moss, lichen harvested off Garry oak trees, cedar bows and even bracket fungus, a local shelf mushroom.

“I was hiking with my son one day and I saw a fallen log with this beautiful piece of bracket fungus. It came off easily so I smelled it — because I smell everything — and it was fruity and gorgeous. I brought it home and started playing around with it. Its scent is very earthy so I used it in my perfume Carmanah. I also use lavender a lot — when it comes to scent, lavender is like mustard to a sandwich.”

As Laurie describes the scents used in each perfume, I’m curious as to how she comes up with the combinations.

“When I sit down to make a perfume, it’s like sitting down to write a story or paint a picture — I need a direction. So I use scent inspiration from locations to build the perfumes. Oak moss reminds me of being a kid at the end of summer going through the woods when everything is crunchy. The perfume called Tofino is inspired by the scent of moss, damp earth and a path leading to the beach lined with cedars and wild roses. Salt Spring is inspired by a coastal cottage garden.”

She adds: ”Scents should make you feel good, feel happy or feel sexy, remind you of everything that’s good about life. Fragrance has been a part of our life for centuries. It’s part of our culture and history. It’s a personal statement. It’s a way to centre us. If we’re feeling stressed it can anchor us and remind us that things aren’t so bad.”

Like artists, approaches to scent vary.

Back at The Still Room, Stacey takes a storytelling approach.

“I think about where I’m going. I may picture the sea and the sunset. So I imagine myself in that moment and then find smells that take me to that place. Then when you smell it, you can almost feel that sun on your skin.”

Karen says, “My scents are more abstract. Everything has a vibration, colour, sound, and scent.”

She shows me a beautiful colour chart full of swirling colour combinations that she created as a tool to discover what scents a person might be attracted to.

“Perfumes are structured like a pieces of music: top notes, heart notes, base notes and accessories. Like a chord in music each has a different vibrations. Our job is to make sure the movement through scent is smooth and you don’t lose the theme.”

“Art can change people quicker than language. Scent is an art form — you’re painting with scent, making music with scent, opening ideas and thoughts with scent, unlocking parts of the mind with scent and going back to your primal self. It can be very profound and connect us to why are we here, who we are.”

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