A perfume for the Rainforest...
Nature has always been my inspiration: quality time with my family was often out in nature under the sun and stars learning the different plants and animals and their importance to this planet. Since early childhood, nature inspired me through many of my activities, and botanicals found their way into my life via creating herbal teas and homemade skincare. I have always found endless wonder in nature’s complexity, how the macro mirrors the micro, how it is so subtly intelligent and functions like clockwork with such ease, in its order and its chaos. I was also drawn early on to the world of fragrance and how it can influence us without our even realizing it: making us hungry, sleepy, attracted, or nostalgic. How we have an entire cerebral center dedicated to deciphering it like a language and how we have the ability to decode up to 10,000 different smells. But how does one interpret nature through fragrance and make a perfume for the rainforest? When this journey began, I had no idea.
It all started with an email one morning. On my way to work, I sat down to catch up on correspondence and there it was: a letter from Eastern National asking if I’d be interested in developing a perfume for El Yunque National Forest. My skincare line, Isla Mudra, was a newly formed brand, and I was shocked this had just fallen in my lap. El Yunque was largely the reason I had moved to Puerto Rico; I felt so cocooned in this stunning environment upon my very first visit nearly a decade ago. Replying to the email, I honestly could not think of a project more interesting and exciting to develop than a perfume to match this mystical setting. I happily accepted and began researching immediately.
While I had studied aromatherapy extensively, and also worked briefly for a small perfume company in California, my scent blends were largely focused on their aromatherapeutic effects. For this scent, I wanted to create something that would be truly unique: the most accurate interpretation of the real scent of the forest, transporting you to the meandering paths between towering tropical trees and secret waterfalls. It was important to me to create something of completely natural origin as the modern perfume industry is largely dominated by synthetic molecules and ingredients. And I was determined that my sourcing be ethical and sustainable.
Seeking out suppliers of natural perfume ingredients across the world, there were things I never knew existed. It was like discovering a whole new world of diverse plant species and the passionate artisans who produced often only one plant ingredient per operation for generations back into antiquity to create perfectly refined aromatic notes. Mango Leaf Absolute… that was a must. The rare and exotic White Butterfly Ginger. Those grew all over the park.. so, absolutely. Copaiba Balsam… a relative to the Tabonuco trees that also grew and were treasured there, this sustainably harvested wood sap can create a calming effect on the endocannabinoid system? Yes, please!
And then I found something truly special I knew needed to be included in my final blend. Classified as “the smell of the rainforest…” Moena Alcanforada: a sustainable alternative to Rosewood which also grows in El Yunque but has been largely deforested due to oil contained in the tree’s roots. As opposed to Rosewood, Moena Alcanforada had eluded me in my many years as a botanical enthusiast. As it turned out, this was a new essential oil that had only recently been developed as of 2013. A non-profit called Camino Verde had recently started its production to provide income to the community in the Madre de Dios region of Peru and to help reforest the Amazon, using only the leaves and twigs for sustainable production and having planted over 200,000 trees. It was so exciting to stumble across this rare find, and I felt so passionate about incorporating an ingredient that not only came directly from the rainforest but also helped with its reforestation efforts!
Having already ordered most of my scent pallet when scheduling a trip to the El Yunque for inspiration, I wanted to be sure not to leave anything out. Living on the other side of the island, the drive over was about 3 hours, so I grabbed a friend and we made a road trip of it. As soon as we entered the forest, I rolled the window down and started letting the different fragrances waft into the car. The immediate first impression was that of water and fresh air… Ozone and Petricor: the smell of freshly fallen rain. Then, at the different parking lots and landmarks, White Ginger Lilies, a personal favorite tropical floral resembling the scent of Gardenia but more delicate, lined all the entrances. Huge old growth Mango trees popped up on the roadside every few meters, framed with tiny springs and waterfalls, and dense green jungle.
Driving up about half way, we parked and began walking the trails. It was going to rain soon for sure; I wore only flip flops and laughed at how I had really only prepped my mind and nose and didn’t dress at all for hiking. But I felt like I was in my raw element and went with it.
As we went deeper, scents of fresh green foliage, damp wood, moss, rhizomes and roots, and every once in awhile a subtle heady floral began to emerge; the rarity of these floral notes made them an even more welcome surprise. This was going to be a very unique scent indeed if it was going to be an accurate reflection of the rainforest. Continuing up on several paths, we got caught in an absolute downpour, and went back down because it was obvious that this path was going to turn into to much to handle if we kept goingup… especially with me in flip-flops.
Going back to my car, we drove higher up into the mountains, found a new trail and followed it up, passing magical mushroom trails and sparkling dew drops, until we reached a peak with a castle-like tower and a breathtaking view. A guaragao, or red-tailed hawk, glided above the vast expanse of lush green jungle that ended in sapphire ocean waters. This place felt more sacred and grande than any cathedral I had ever visited. I felt such a deep reverence and awe for the natural beauty here.
On the way back down, I stopped and read the informational signs, and became a bit emotional realizing this was going to be the first big reopening post-hurricane Maria, because it had taken this long for the park to recover in growth and restructuring. If I wasn’t honored before, I was even more deeply honored now to be a part of the recovery effort and launch of the new visitor center. Having survived the storm myself on the other side of the island, very close to the eye of the storm, it somehow felt like a meaningful part of the closure and healing that has taken place in the aftermath. Seeing peace and balance return to the forest that had brought me here.
As we were leaving, still trying to locate a Tabonuco tree (a sacred tree to the Taino people of Puerto Rico, an incense traditionally being made from its sap), I made my travel partner pull over on the side of the road, and tried to smell a tree I thought might be one. It turned out not to be and we got stuck in the mud. It was close to the park’s closing time, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get out, but luckily a jeep stopped and two sweet guys pushed us out of the mud. I have never been stuck on the side of the road for more than 30 minutes in Puerto Rico; someone has always stopped to help. A special thanks to you two guys if you’re reading this! It was a laughable ending to a beautiful experience… but I never did find that tree I was looking for. Luckily, a little more research found that the incense is Copal, an incense traditional made from the sap of several tree species, though not commonly from sustainable sources. The Copaiba Balsam I mentioned before is one of the most sustainable to harvest, when done so correctly. So my nose didn’t miss out on too much, I already had what I needed.
Returning home, I now had a distinct idea of all the notes to include in the blend and the desired effect to create. Green, woody, subtle but not overwhelmingly floral with tropical Ylang Ylang & Ginger Lily, with notes from rhizomes and moss… but how to capture that fresh rain smell that was the dominant rainforest scent? The next element fell into my lap by complete accident, shortly after my visit. Another natural perfumer I had been following posted an article about the smell of petricor, or fresh rain, and Mitti Attar… a hydro-distilled baked clay produced in India in honor of the monsoon season. That was it! This was the last element: smelling of earth and rain. A thanks goes out to her for the post as well. The timing could not have been more perfect!
I began the process of layering and aging the perfume. It took making seven different interpretations until I was sure one of them distinctly reminded me of being in the El Yunque. With natural perfume, finalizing a formula is a long and somewhat tedious process, but I like to think of it as painting with scent. And only your intuition knows when the piece is complete.
The experience brought me deeper into connection with the unique and diverse world of natural perfume and its rarest notes, with natural diversity, and the Island of Puerto Rico as a whole. I am honored to have this unique scent featured in a location so near and dear to my heart: the new visitor’s center at the entrance of the forest. Natural perfume is all about individuality. The scent on the skin will be different for every wearer. The way it smells will also be perceived differently by every nose. It takes time and patience to experience, because it will change drastically as its different accords unfold once applied: the head chord bright and fleeting, the heart chord warm and welcoming, and the base chord deep, earthy, and lasting. Natural Perfume is like a strange kind of music. For some it may be too subtle compared to synthetic molecules. As with every perfume, I know this blend will not be for every individual. It is my unique depiction of a painting of a rainforest in a bottle. And for a select few, I hope it will transport and connect you to one of the most special places I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and sharing: El Bosque Nacional El Yunque.
For more information on our partners in this project, visit:
A happy Earth Day to you, from Isla Mudra.