Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Scent of the Vanishing Flora (2010) by Roman Kaiser: Perfume Book Review

“Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. It's contrast.”

                        ―Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman in "The Hours" (2002)

by guest writer AlbertCAN

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the fragrance industry, in the current sea of familiarity, is its ever forward-venturing heart. Just short of fully channelling the great prophetess Cassandra of Troy, fragrance taste-makers are constantly asked not just Quoi de neuf? No, any top brass should be asked to envision what’s next five or even ten years from now, where people’s taste are migrating, how people see themselves in the foreseeable future. Strategizing vision, navigating instability. After all, as any good MBA school dictates, a business leader articulates not just the now but the tomorrow. Or so on paper.

Of course, I’m writing about a climate where almost anything could be copyrighted but the actual fragrance formula, at a time when the next fragrance launch is really a thinly veiled doppelgänger of non-descript best sellers. Promise everything but sell them run of the mill. And in the era of good enough it really takes a book such as “Scent of the Vanishing Flora” by Swiss fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser to remind myself that interesting works are being conducted beneath the seemingly boring façade.

Since 1968 Kaiser has been working for Givaudan, where he analyzes and reconstitutes natural scents for use in perfumery using the headspace technology, and after Douglas Stermer’s 1995 publication “Vanishing Flora: Endangered Plants Around the World” Givaudan began its aromatic exploration of endangered plants via eco-friendly, non-intrusive means. As of the end of 2010 Kaiser has analyzed 520 scented endangered plant species around the world; 267 are featured in this book.

The quality of Kaiser’s research is truly bar none, detailing each featured plant not just its ecology and history but also linking its scents to the major aromatic components. The book presents the flora with utmost respect, featuring large, high-resolution photos of nearly all the plants and gives very clear, concise descriptions of their conservation status at the time of writing. The scent profiles of each plant are equally thoughtful and concise, listing aspects of each scent not just by their characteristics, but also the aromatic components the scents are attributed to—not just their names in IUPAC but also the structural diagrams where applicable. To illustrate Kaiser’s superb ability to fuse the artistic with the scientific I have his account of the gorgeous night-blooming cereus:

"Equally spectacular in its flower and in contrast to S. wittii, more often seen in collections is Selenicereus grandiflorus, the famous ‘Queen of the Night’. The vine-like climber is native to Mexico, Jamaica, and Cuba, and develops large, amazingly beautiful flowers of the purest white surrounded by rayed golden petals. The flowers are also strictly nocturnal, moth pollinated, opening after sunset, reaching their maximum around mid-night, and already withering at dawn. They produce a very warm and rich aromatic-flower perfume backed up by white-floral facet which is quantitatively dominated by benzyl isovalerate [Kaiser’s diagram below], accompanied by a series of other isovalerates and esters of isomayl alcohol. These compounds, in part arising from the leucine catabolism, are, together with vanillin, olfactorily responsible for the vanilla and cocoa aspects, while linalool, (E,E)-farnesol, and high amount of (E,E)-farnesal including isomers contribute the white-floral and lily of the valley-related aspect. To protect this unique species at its natural habitat form overcollection for commercial puposes, it has been placed in CITES Appendis II. Among the 27 nocturnal species within Selenicereus, most have an equally stunning appearance but many have scents which correspond more to the so-called ‘white-floral’ concept often found among night-scented flowering plants".[Kaiser, 174]


benzyl isovalerate


If great natural scent variations are present within a plant, such is the case of a few orchids Kaiser would mention them as well. (Octavian has sampled a number of the scents featured in this book here so I shall not digress on that front.)

The most alarming aspect of the book, at least to me, isn’t about the far-flung, exotic plants featured in this book (which there are plenty) but the everyday, familiar gardening plants that are in fact on the brink of extinction due to over-harvesting. The ginkgo tree, as Kaiser informs, was thought to be extinct in the wild for centuries until “two small populations have been discovered in Eastern China” (pg. 37). Then the wide array of orchids due to a varying combination of deforestation and excessive harvesting: cattleyas, laelias, cymbidiums, dendrobiums—plants we see or even buy in garden centers and florists but in fact fast disappearing from the face of the earth. Or the gamut of trees due to their historical and cultural significance: rosewood, sandalwood, agarwood...I am beginning to see why the great Taoist writer and philosopher Zhuangzi often championed the non-descript, for brilliant things are often used and abused.

Still, the genius of this book is not based on just its multi-disciplinary approach or seamlessly fusing botany, ecology, organic chemistry, anthropology and even sociology. At the end of the day Kaiser presents a thoroughly researched, pain-stakingly detailed anthology of endangered plants. Readers from all walks of life can take away something from this book: for the average readers, the stunning photographs and stories; for the botanists and ecologists, the thorough research on the conservation of plants; and most importantly for fragrance chemists, the all too important scent readings that allow the future preservation of these plants, even only in their scents.

Some minor caveats, however. Firstly, for those who only wish to pick up a copy as a coffee table book, as chic as it might sound, they might be put off by the wide array of chemistry featured in this book. In fact having some post-secondary background in science, be it botany or organic chemistry, is highly recommended in order to fully comprehend the book. Still, to be honest the book is enticing enough even if you skip a few chemical names. On the other hand for those who are very chemically proficient: Kaiser did not include every single scent reading—the results on agarwood, for instance, aren’t shown (I’ve checked—several times) even though a sizable section is devoted to Kaiser’s findings. Minor grumblings compared to the overall quality of the work, however.

Scent of the Vanishing Flora” by Roman Kaiser was published by Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta, Zürich, and Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. I purchased my copy from

Photos: Book cover photo from Leffingwell; Selenicereus grandiflorus from; compound diagrams from

Reference: R. Kaiser, Scent of the Vanishing Flora, Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta, Zürich, and Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, November 2010, ISBN 13: 978-3-906390-64-2, 400 pages.


  1. Wow, thanks for this review! The book sounds fascinating, and that to a person who would probably ignore most of the chemistry information.

  2. Great review, makes me want to buy the book (but $130 ...).

    Of course, it is somewhat ironic that the author talks about the wonders of natural smells that his employer is busy prohibiting from actual perfumes.


  3. UC,

    you're welcome. It's always great to find serious material to try one's teeth on :-)

  4. M,

    good point! Ha!
    It's certainly money well spent (on the book, I mean) at any rate.

  5. I've been battling temptation about this book for nearly a year. This review? Is edging me closer and closer to crossing that line--oooh.

    Any chance you're planning to review his other book, Meaningful Scents Around the World?

  6. OV,

    glad it has instigated further interest!

    I hope to be able to review/host reviews of other serious perfumery books as well. ;-)


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