Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part One: Neroli

By Jennifer Peace Rhind, author of Essential Oils.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author Photo: Robert Taylor

Over the next five days, I would like to introduce five very different plant derived scents, and, as well as throwing some light on the traditional uses of these scents, show how current research supports their use in aromatherapy, and how they can be used to enhance wellbeing. Along the way, we will explore a variety of interesting olfactory experiences.


Neroli essential oil is obtained from the blossoms of the bitter orange tree. The botanical name of the tree, and source of neroli oil, is Citrus aurantium subspecies amara flos. (amara meaning bitter, and flos. indicating that the oil is derived from the flowers). This tree is the source of three very distinctive essential oils and one absolute (an absolute is obtained by solvent extraction rather than steam distillation, which yields essential oils). Apart from neroli essential oil and the orange blossom absolute from the wonderfully scented blossom, there is bitter orange oil from the peel of the small fruits, and petitgrain oil from its leaves and green twigs.

Neroli first become popular as a fragrance in the 16th century. The scent was named after a town called Neroli, near Rome, whose princess used the scent and thus made it popular. Other writers suggest that it was named after the Italian Duchess of Nerola, who scented her kid gloves with the fragrance. Whatever neroli’s original claim to fame, over the years, its use became widespread in Europe, from princesses to prostitutes. It is one of the most expensive natural materials in perfumery. The natural perfumer Mandy Aftel describes its fragrance as ‘cool, elegant and intense…. with suave strength and understated sexuality’. Interestingly, her words might indeed echo the characteristics that appealed to its earliest users! Many of the floral oils and absolutes, especially those derived from white flowers, such as jasmine and neroli, contain tiny amounts of indole, a compound that is also present in animal and human faeces. This might just have an erotic attraction for the animals involved in pollination, and is perhaps why many of the scents categorised as aphrodisiacs do contain traces of indole. However, it should be stressed that indole is not the main chemical that contributes to the characteristic, disgust-provoking odour of faeces – it is compounds that contain sulphur that are the culprits.

The essential oil is often referred to as neroli bigarade. The scent is a light, ethereal, although persistent floral, and some might detect a lily of the valley type of note. In the top and middle notes (that is, the first impression and a short while later, when the scent is developing on the smelling strip) you might detect a fresh green note, like crushed green leaves, and a faint impression of citrus, and even a slight bitter note, overlying the more typical, heady orange blossom fragrance that persists until the ‘dry out’ – the last notes that remain after the main phase of evaporation. A few noses might just get the very faint faecal impression, but this is unusual, and should certainly not deter you from experiencing this beautiful and complex scent.

Aromatherapists use neroli in many situations – it is regarded as ‘safe’ in most circumstances. It is often found in prescriptions for muscular aches and pains, especially the stress-related variety, and for skin problems such as sensitivity and acne. However, it is best known for its uplifting, anxiety-relieving and calming actions that are of value in both aiding sleep and counteracting fatigue. Both animal and human studies support these aromatherapeutic uses. Neroli is also said to induce a trance-like state if it is inhaled when warm. Several aromatherapists have reported experiencing this when conducting massage treatments. This emphasises the difference between sniffing to detect and appreciate an odour, and inhaling a larger quantity of the vapour. A therapist will actually inhale as much as, if not more than their client will inhale, as the therapist is much more active and taking more breaths!

In perfumery, neroli is an important ingredient in classic Eau de Cologne, and as a top note in many fragrances. Its solvent extracted counterpart, orange blossom absolute, plays more of a role in the middle notes of perfumes. Floral oils such as neroli, with their intense, sensual odours have become associated with aspects of creativity – and this includes having fun, feeling relaxed and in touch with the senses, and stimulating the imagination. Perhaps the main potential benefit of engaging with the scent of neroli is the dissipation of anxiety, and so the pleasure of being in the moment.

In tomorrow’s post, Jennifer will explore the properties of Benzoin

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.

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