Gentle, Expansive Neroli


 can we speak in flowers. it will be easier for me to understand.

 ~Nayyirah Waheed


When I have the chance to meet my customers in person, our first connection is through aromatherapy. I hold up bamboo spoonfuls of our clay and yogurt cleansers for them to inhale, mist a hydrosol into the air between us  and invite them to walk into clean, soft drift. Finally I offer the bottles of our moisturizing oils for them to breathe in. I like to guess to myself which I think they might like best and offer that first. I can't say that I guess correctly, but I have noticed there are specific responses that follow certain oils. The Moisturizing oil with Neroli and Frankincense often elicits an expression of relief and resonance. Some can't help but affirm-- to themselves more than to me: "oh I love neroli", in a way that is unique for the love of neroli. And why wouldn't they?  Spectacularly fruiting and flowering at the same time, the bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium, var. amara is at once the promise of joy and its fulfillment.

Bitter or bigarade orange blossoms bloom In April and/or May and are hand harvested several times a week--some again in October.  In Tunisia and Morocco bitter orange is grown commercially for an eager flavor, fragrance, and aromatherapy industry. 100 lbs. of beautiful, white bitter orange blossoms yield 1 lb. of neroli oil through steam distillation, so it is a very expensive oil, and moreso for an organic cultivation. That is not all this tree gives: there is petitgrain oil that is distilled from the woody, twiggy parts of the plant, and there is orange oil, taken from the actual skin.  The fruit itself is bitter--better suited for a delicious marmalade than a freshly peeled, off the tree dessert. 

Native to Vietnam, South China, and India, orange blossom and neroli oil were used in ancient Egypt, and Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for centuries. Citrus in general seems to have migrated West at different times, although it is commonly held that the bitter orange arrived centuries earlier than the sweet orange. I believe two things are certain: 1) the migration was relatively easy as the trees can be cultivated by seed and in cooler climates withstand a bit of frost, but certainly make it overwintering in a lovely glass greenhouse.  No wonder neroli is beautiful for stress management. 2) There is something about bitter orange blossom and its resulting neroli oil that is friendly, inviting, expansive, and made to travel.

While it would require time and dedication to find accounts of the traders, gardeners, and harvesters all along the trade routes who actually cared for, cultivated, and physically carried the seeds and/or plants, it is nothing to find stories related to well-known personalities linked to bitter orange blossom in the West.  But because there have always been luxuries to choose from and appropriate as a marks of excellence, the real question is: what makes the  orange blossom a special choice?  Orange blossoms and neroli soothe anxiety, lift depression, encourage and embolden. A preference for neroli might then indicate a soft and even vulnerable side of a  Hera, Louis XIV, the Medici, Princess of Nerola, etc. Perhaps a better way to think about it is this: through a significant connection with orange blossoms or neroli, something in the bodies and minds of these people understood that the the way forward was related to release and a state of calm. 

Reassuring the Gods 

Through trade routes with Asia, citrus made its way to Greece and into Greek mythology.  Alexander the Great is believed to have brought citrus from India in the third century BCE, and Greek colonists might have introduced them into Palestine about one hundred years later. Citrus spread to Italy where  citriculture continued in Sardegna, Sicily, and Corsica.  The Greek introduction was earlier and distinct from the more robust Arab importation in the 11th century via the Iberian peninsula that rooted citrus as a feature of North African and Iberian agriculture and culture in general. 

As indicated in the Greek mythology, citrus was special and uncommon (and it seems that the golden apple might have actually been some kind of citrus). As Chinese and Arab brides traditionally used pure white orange blossoms in their wedding accoutrements to dispel the anxiety of the newly married couple, so did Gaea offer orange trees as wedding gift to Hera at the time of her marriage to Zeus.  The wedding gifts were said to be guarded and cultivated in the garden of the Hesperides at a far corner of the Earth. 


The Garden of Hesperides by Ricciardo Meacci  

It is a luxury to smell, use, have, contemplate and benefit from orange blossom in the dead of winter--thus the obsession with coveted orange trees in tubs that overwinter in greenhouses. These were one of Louis XIV's preoccupations. In The Sun King (1967), Nancy Mitford tells of how in dressing down the opulence of his finance minister Nicholas Fouquet before sending him to jail, Louis XIV helped himself to what he liked at Fouquet's Vaux-le-Vicomte, including a lot of orange trees:

"The King took a certain amount of loot from Vaux-le-Vicomte and thought himself justified by the fact that its contents had been paid for out of public money, in other words, his own.  Archives, tapestry, brocade hangings, silver and silver gilt ornaments, statues and over a thousand orange trees found their way to the royal palaces.  The orange trees alone represented a considerable sum; a sizable one even nowadays costs a hundred pounds.  The King was passionately fond of them and had them in all his rooms, in silver tubs. (Perhaps if one were exiled from France the single object most reminiscent of that celestial land would be an orange tree in a tub). Eight of Louis XIV's own trees still exist in the Orangery at Versailles to this day" (11).

Louis the XIV also poached Fouquet's gardener Le Notre, who would create the Orangerie from 1684-1686 to care for, display, and organize the court's experience of the orange trees. Louis XIV was not a bather and perfume was a very important part of court life; the scent of orange blossom was said to be his favorite. In Citrus A History, Pierre Laszlo writes that Louis XIV "displayed [his orange trees] as a testimony to his godlike dominion over nature...In sum, the Orangerie at Versailles was a central piece in the representation of royal power" (48-49). While the Sun King was famously unflappable, my guess is his need orange trees in every room indicates he wasn't above a little of aromatherapeutic assistance.

Marie Anne de la Tremoille des Ursins (1642-1722) became an important political figure in the Spanish government during the War of the Spanish Succession.  Her work was not easy--one of her accomplishments was bringing order to the government finances. She loved neroli and perfumed her gloves with it, making it fashionable well before the popularity of Eau de Cologne.

Also known as the Princess of Nerola, it is believed that the oil was named for her. I can't help but think that given "La Nerola's" strength and determination, her choice of neroli was also about harnessing the support of this extraordinary oil to enhance self awareness and well being. Here is where we all might take La Nerola's cue as we work, seek creative solutions, help our families and friends thrive, square the accounts, and try to bring into focus the very best of ourselves. A little encouragement from neroli goes a long way, so go ahead and breathe in and flow.


 Why I like Neroli for skincare 

To start with, neroli is  safe and non-sensitizing.  It is suitable for delicate and sensitive skin and is not phototoxic, which means it won't sensitize the skin to damaging sun rays. Neroli is a beautiful treatment for acne prone skin, helps prevent scarring, and speeds healing. It is a sedative and therefore allows the skin to continue healing itself despite stressful conditions. Neroli stimulates cell generation, and is good for maintaining cellular health. It tones the skin, promotes good circulation and is the recommended oil for broken capillaries. It is an excellent treatment for wrinkles.

Neroli at Balbec

Neroli is one of the few essential oils that we use at Balbec. It is in two of our forthcoming.

Moisturizing oil with Neroli & Frankincense  combines two extraordinary essential oils known to stimulate the generation of skin cells and help skin remain healthy despite stressful conditions. The base is a blend of meadow foam seed, camellia seed, grapeseed and baobab seed oil.  A wildcrafted and organic oil that nourishes delicate, sensitive skin and has a warm, sunny, & green scent profile.  Wonderful alone or under makeup. 


Nomad is our new prebiotic clay cleansing powder (available in the coming weeks). It is a traveler, and so little surprise that neroli blends with hinoki (Hinoki cypress), vetiver, and frankincense as the leading aromatherapeutic and fragrant note. Nomad activates with water for a fresh dose of vitamin C to the skin. It is a very beautiful (and very red, thanks to the hibiscus) cleanser, to refresh  and relax the skin at home or away.

For a wintertime pick-me-up, for help persevering with projects, moving, traveling, or trying to provide a sense comfort to an otherwise exciting or uncertain situation, try and see if a little neroli can make the experience softer, and the path more inviting. 



Works Consulted:

Bensouilah, Janetta and Buck, Phillippa. Aromadermatology: Aromatherapy in the Treatment and Care of Common Skin Conditions. Radcliffe Publishing Ltd., 2006.

Laszlo, Pierre. Citrus A History. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2007.

Mitford, Nancy. The Sun King. New York Review Books, New York, 1967.

Tisserand, Robert.  The Art of Aromatherapy: The Healing and Beautifying Properties of Essential Oils of Flowers and Herbs. Inner Traditions International, 1978.

Worwood, Valerie Ann. The Fragrant Mind: Aromatherapy for Personality, Mind, Mood and Emotion. New World Library, 1996.

 “Orange Blossom Week???Part 1: True Renditions” on the Perfume Shrine blog.




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