Did you know that hibiscus, okras and cocoa bean are all related? They all belong to the Malvaceae plant family. I recently learnt this and can’t believe I didn’t notice it before because even to the casual observer you can see that all four of these plants have a striking family resemblance to each other! Perhaps further proof that all life is connected in ways we do not yet understand……
There is also another sibling in this same family – albemoschus moschatus – which also goes by the names musk seed, ambrette seed, musk mallow, musk okra, annual hibiscus, and it is indigenous to India but widely cultivated in tropical countries throughout the world. It’s a hibiscus flower, quite similar in appearance to the more popular hibiscus rosa-sinensis that is widely grown as an ornamental flower throughout the Caribbean (there are hundreds of species of hibiscus flowers native to tropical regions throughout the world).
Ambrette seed is of special interest to the perfume industry – and to natural perfumers in particular – because it can be used as a botanical, cruelty-free alternative to the long banned animal-derived musk in aromatic compositions, or to synthetic musks of which there are some safety concerns. Obtained by carbon dioxide CO2 extraction of the flower’s seeds, ambrette seed oil is used as a base note and described as being sweet, subtle, floral, with a tenacious and lasting musk undertone.
I obtained a small bottle of ambrette seed essential oil about six or seven years ago but felt too inexperienced as a perfumer at the time to understand it or use it properly so I sold it on to a more experienced perfumer. Pale yellow in colour, the oil is said to blend very well with rose, neroli, cypress, clary sage, patchouli and sandalwood.
Steffen Arctander, in his acclaimed ‘Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin’ , describes ambrette seed oil as having a rich, sweet, floral-musky, distinctly wine-like or brandy-like odor….developed with a bouquet and roundness rarely found in any other perfume material.”
Two chemical components found in ambrette seed oil are largely responsible for what it smells like: farnesol, a classic perfume ingredient with a delicate, fresh, green aroma that can also be obtained from many other plants and flowers, and ambrettolide. Ambrettolide is basically what gives musk its “muskiness” and is used to give perfumes “a radiant effect”, and can be obtained from fragrance suppliers as an isolated compound or “isolate”.
Some commerical ambrette perfumes: