Friday, August 15, 2008

Vetiver Series: 2.the Fascinating Material

Vetiver is one of those materials of perfumery that has a particularly interesting background, not least because of its exotic lineage from the Indian peninsula and the fact that the aromatic substance is derived from its rhizomes, making fragrances focused on it a sort of soliradix (in accordance to the term soliflore for fragrances focusing on one flower). Its stems are tall and the leaves are long, thin and rather rigid, while the flowers are brownish purple, but the aroma comes from the roots much like another fascinating material: iris!
Perhaps the most charming, intelligent and arresting characteristic of vetiver though is its ability to thus absorb the very essence of the soil it's been growing into, giving a vetiver adventurer a tour of exotic locales at the sniff of its deep, inviting breath.

Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) is technically a perennial grass of the Poaceae family native to India. The name vetiver/vettiveru comes from Tamil, in which vetti means cut and veru means root. In western and Northern India, it is more commonly known as khus, which resulted in the English names cuscus, cuss cuss, kuss-kuss grass, etc. In perfumery we often see the older French spelling vetyver used.

Often vetiver grass is referred to as an engineer's or architect's wet dream because of its ability grow up to 1.5 meters high and form clumps as wide, but unlike most grasses (which form horizontally spreading mat-like root systems), vetiver's roots grow downward up to 2-4 meters in depth making it an excellent tool in controling erosion; useful in both agriculture (rice paddies) and terrestrial management (stream banks), especially in tropical climates suffering from monsoons.

Vetiver is closely related to other fragrant grasses such as Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus), citronella (Cymbopogon nardus, C. winterianus) and Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii), which is in some respect the reason why it is sometimes considered a leafy/green or woody note, despite it being an earthy/rooty substance.
The world's major producers include Haiti, India, Java, and Réunion. However each soil plays a subtle part in influencing the smell of the oil yielded, so it is an interesting exercise to get hold of different batches and comparing. Some varieties are earthy or smokey, such as the Indian or Javenese batches. These can have a slightly yeasty touch that might take some getting used to. Others are more traditionally woody, with none of the earthy smell we usually associate with vetiver (especially the Sri Lankan variety). And a couple are even considered "green", such as the Haitian Vetiver which has a cleaner, grassier (pine needles) to the edge of citrusy and lightly floral (rosy geranium); same with the oil from Réunion. Both of these are considered of superior quality to the Javanese. China, Brazil and Japan also produce vetiver aromatic products, but I haven't been able to sample those, nevertheless I am determined to do so in the future.
There is also a special variety produced in the north of India which is termed khus/ruh khus or khas and is distilled from wild-growing vetiver. It is untypically blueish green in shade due to its being distilled in copper cauldrons, the traditional way. The oxidation lends a metallic aroma besides the colour, making it unique. Considered superior to the oil obtained from the cultivated variety, it is unfortunately seldom found outside of India, because most of it is consumed within the country.

The essential oil of vetiver produced is darkish brown and rather thick, viscuous. Smelling vetiver oil you are faced with a deep, earthy, herbaceous and balsamic odour which has smokey and sweet nuances with a dark chocolatey edge to it.
Vetiver can be used to render a woody, earthy tone to flowers providing depth, tenacity and "opening" of their bouquet but it can also be used to admirable results in chypres for its herbaceous/earthy vibe (especially now that oakmoss use has been lowered), in orientals for its interesting balsamic-chocolatey nuances and in incenses or citrus colognes to provide a counterpoint of woodiness.
It's so intense on its own that vetiver compositions are usually solo arrangements, rather than full symphonies, which explains why so often Vetiver fragrances are called with one part of their name just that. Like Luca Turin pointed out, comparing it to the treatment of cacao in culinary explorations:

"The perfumer has two options: retreat and declare victory, i.e. add a touch of lavender and call the result Vetiver (black chocolate); Or earn his keep and compose full-score for bass clarinet and orchestra (Milka with nuts and raisins)".

Vetiver oil or khus oil is a complex natural amalgam that contains over 100 identified components. Typical make up includes:
benzoic acid
vetivenyl vetivenate

For ease of reference though, the main constituents are: Benzoic acid, vetiverol, furfurol, a-vetivone, B-vetivone, vetivene, vetivenyl vetivenate.
[Source: E. Guenther, The Essential Oils Vol. 4 (New York: Van Nostrand Company INC, 1990), 178-181, cited in Salvatore Battaglia, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy (Australia: The Perfect Potion, 1997), 205.]

The production of the vetiver oil goes like this:
The best quality oil is obtained from roots that are 18 to 24 months old. The rhizomes are dug up and cleaned, then dried. Before the distillation, the roots are chopped and soaked in water awaiting for the distillation, a procedure that takes 18 to 24 hours. Afterwards the distillate separates into the essential oil and hydrosol, the oil is skimmed off and allowed to age for a few months to allow some undesirable notes which form during the distillation to dissipate. The yield is high making vetiver an economic building block, which explains its popularity in fragrance making. Additionally, the fact that nothing smells like the real thing yet, assures us of its continued popularity versus aromachemical alternatives for the time being; no mean feat in our times. Like patchouli and sandalwood essential oils, vetiver greatly matures with aging, becoming less yeasty-musty and more pleasantly balsamic, becoming a fascinating note.

Vetiver's exciting history and representation in perfumery will be the subject of the third part in our Vetiver Series.

Julie Lawless, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils
Mandy Aftel Essence and Alchemy
Christopher McMahon from
White Lotus Aromatics, Ruh Khus (Wild Vetiver Oil)/Oil of Tranquility
Germplasm Resources

Pic of vetiver grass courtesy of vetiver.org


  1. Great posts! I love vetiver and find this so interesting! Looking forward to part 3 :D

  2. Love the info for using vetiver for landscaping against erosion (my father works in the landscaping industry must be why I find it fascinating). Although I wonder how serated the leaves are (because I imagine walking through them to be quite the pain).

  3. Hello, E -- I learn so much reading your posts. I had not realized that the khus oil I've been bringing home from India was special. It is definitely deep green, and has a metallic edge, so I'm assuming it's the traditionally-produced vetiver oil of which you speak. As it sits around in my house, it does turn black over time. It has a wonderfully earthy, slightly metallic, very cooling smell. The closest I've come in perfume form is Dominique Ropion's Vétiver Extraordinaire for FM.

  4. KV,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting and for your kind compliment!
    It is indeed interesting to research into certain materials, isn't it?

  5. Jen,

    the bundles of the grass are indeed quite thick, but it's the root system that holds the constructions. How exciting that your father works in that sector: there must be hundreds of interesting tidbits about plant life that go into consideration while ladnscaping: I find it exciting as well!

  6. J,

    thank you for your kind words, it's been a joy researching this wonderful material.
    Indeed the oil you're lucky to be able to get sounds like the one I mentioned. I have heard of people in India sometimes travelling with a portable system for gathering and soaking the roots, so they're able to do the work in situ, which allows for greater variability in their batches and fresher quality of product.
    And Vet.Ex by Ropion has the highest level of the pure material on the market. ;-)

  7. This is a fascinating post. I now wonder if my dislike of vetiver is because the EO's I tried have been the cheaper varieties. It would be interesting to try some from the West Indies and discern the difference.

    What an amazing grass with its downwards root growth to such depth. I certainly wouldn't want to be weeding it!

  8. Thanks Amanda. It's certainly very interesting to try lots of varieties. I have across batches that smelled very, very musty and some which were earthy yet "fresh" in some way (a world of a difference). The Haitian is probably the easiest to like.

    I wouldn't want to be weeding vetiver grass either; in fact I imagine it's close to impossible!

  9. Helg,
    I know the roots keep the erosion down, but I'm curious about the top part and those that work with it, because those leaves look quite sharp. Kind've like the heinous pain I imagine picking pineapple is.

  10. I am following this series with great interest!

  11. J,

    to my knowledge, picking/wading vetiver is less painful than pineapple! (which is quite difficult to cut too!)

  12. L,

    very pleased about that! :-)

  13. Brian Shea05:59

    Wow,do I love vetiver! I actually quite like the Indian and Indonesian oils, the ones with the strong, smokey notes, but the best I've smelled is an organic oil from Sri Lanka. I did not like the Haitian or Surinam vetiver samples I got. The 'green' note that everyone talks about to me smelled more vegetal(like vegetables)and like the smell of cut grass decaying on the lawn on a hot summer day.
    It's interesting to find out that vetiver grass is related to lemongrass, palmarosa, and citronella-I often get whiffs of the citrusy/rosey notes of those grasses sometimes when I smell vetiver oil.
    I recently got a bag of vetiver roots from Anya McCoy of Anya's Garden, grown in her garden. The smell is much softer than the oil, a bit powdery/woody with a hint of earth, like orris,cedarwood, and patchouly.
    Did you know that in India the roots are woven into screens to put in windows? They are called chicks and are sprayed with water on hot days, while not only fragrant, apparently it cools the air as well. I could use some here in Miami in the summertime....

    1. Brian,

      very interesting info, so for being late.

      Yes, I have included some cooling tips info on the first post of the Vetiver series, if you make an effort to find it through Search. It's a cooling feel even in fragrances.

      Anya is a great source for genuinely ":home grown" ingredients. Glad you got the roots from her.

      As to the varieties between the essences, I suppose everyone has their own favs, though mine is the snokey one. Not too musty, more smokey.

  14. How interesting! I usually pull off vetiver very poorely; it turns overwhelmingly sharp, plasticy, artificial on my skin after about half an hour, so I tend to avoid scents with vetiver as a sentral note. Your post makes me curious, though - what if there is a vetiver for me out there somewhere?

    1. Britt,

      really? I always thought since it's a relatively cheap material and quite abundant it mustn't be substituted with faulty "plasticky" synths. I wonder if it's trully the vetiver you're objecting to and not something else. There very well might be a lovely vetiver out there for you. Have you tried Chanel's Sycomore? Beautiful....(reviewed it here glowingly)

  15. I don't think that it is synthetic subtitutes that does it, since I've experienced the ''plasticy'', sharp scent across several well known perfumes expected to be of high quality. Sycomore, e.g., was a disaster. Think salmiak/cat pee.. Encre noir pour homme starts out simply wonderful, but turns. Le labo Rose 31 likewise (I own a decant, and live for the first 15 seconds). Lanvin's Arpege balances on a knife-edge, but lands on my side, fortunateliy. I'm not quite sure what makes or brakes it for me, but I suspect that some patchoulys, cedar, ambrette seeds and labdanum might play a role.
    I really hope to find a vetiver for Britt Åse some day!

    1. Uh huh, that is very unfortunate. Have you tried Vetiver Extraordinaire then, which is as close to the mustier and moist-ier end of the spectrum on vetiver or Vetiver Tonka which is a nutty, sweeter option?
      The Lalique is very close to Sycomore, so I suppose that shouldn't be an option at all, not surprised.
      Patchouli should be earthy but sweet. Cedar is almost always a synth in blends, and quite stable at that. Ambrette can't be plasticky, but can be pickle-ish or metallic-vegetal. Labdanum is very dark resinous, almost musty. Not sure if that's what bothers. Do you get this "plastic" thing with vanillas too? I am asking because Goutal's vanilla does this to me (=plasticky). In that case it might be the labdanum/labdanum-smelling synth.
      Just trying to think this out loud.


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