Fragrance, an evocation

“Timeless and universal, scent has been a powerful force in ritual, medicine, myth, and conquest. Perfume has helped people pray, to heal, to make love and war, to prepare for death, to create. To inspire, after all, is literally “to breath in.”

Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume

In writing workshop, we learn to include sensory details that immediately create a distinct moment in time, setting the mood for the scene, one of which is scent. In early rough drafts we may conjure the scent of cinnamon rolls wafting from the oven, the soft perfume of a newborn’s body on her mother’s breast, a whisper of pine from a walk in the woods, frankincense carrying prayers to the heavens, the human and earthly smell of love unfolding on the skin. Scent provides both immediate context, mood, and often, symbolism. Fragrance, even a single note, is the most evocative poetry with which we are already deeply familiar.

And yet, when we’re faced with a rack of essential oils from Atlas cedarwood to ylang ylang, we become overwhelmed by choice. We haven’t even explored the oil’s offerings yet! Just the sheer number of bottles and brands is enough to cloud the mind. What does what? Which brand is purest? Which should I avoid? And onward. I’m not getting into brands or quality here, just the primary relationship and reaction to scent in blend creation.

Where to begin? Clichéd as it sounds, I often encourage people to “follow your nose” when exploring oils; your reaction is never wrong. There is an emotional and physiological reason we gravitate toward certain scents, often because, simply, we enjoy a particular memory a fragrance offers. Or we grow intrigued by how it blossoms within us. We may also need to explore some of the emotional/spiritual support our plant friends offer. The key is to slow down, grow curious, and notice. Notice why you’re being pulled to the citrus oils. What or how do they inspire? What do they offer you? The soft florals like lavender and rose – what memories do they invite? The exotic florals like ylang ylang and jasmine – what immediately floats to the surface in your emotional heart? In the body? How about the conifers? Pine, juniper, fir? Close your eyes and smell. What do they offer you in the moment? What do you want more of when you inhale this crisp freshness? Notice. Notice the subtlety of feeling, notice how you may push away a scent because it feels like too much, notice how you yearn for another. How another lifts. Notice.

Then there is the issue of learning which oils last the longest in a blend. Which oils harmonize best with others, which fight each other for attention. Which oils reveal themselves first in a blend, which blossom in the heart of the blend, and the ones that anchor the whole experience. Like writing, while there are some important mechanics (and safety precautions) to understand and follow, the rest of the process should be devoted to you developing your nose and expression based on where you are in the moment. Also as in writing, natural perfumer Mandy Aftel guides, “There are no real rules. If a beautiful new smell is created, the path to it is irrelevant.” What it leaves you with must be recognized and explored.

But we need a starting point, right? Before we can blend with some confidence, it’s best to get to know the oils one at a time. Keep it simple and follow your nose. Choose one oil you’re curious to know. Begin with one drop of oil on a scent strip (or a small strip of card stock or construction paper). From the moment a drop rolls from the bottle, notice its speed. How fast did it come out? Take note. Notice how it blooms on the paper. Does it seem to evaporate within minutes or does it hang out a while? What stain does it leave? Note it. Then inhale, deeply. What do you notice at first inspiration, mid-inhale, and at the end. Did the oil develop and open? Was it multifaceted? Or was it a constant experience all the way through? Repeat and note. Then move to the next. For the sake of clarity and quality of experience, it may be best not to explore too many oils at one time. It’s recommended to explore some aromatherapy books to help you get to know the oils and some blending basics.

Next, provided you have checked each oil’s contraindications and are assured they’re safe for you to use, combine one drop of oil to another you have explored. You know what they smell like individually, now how do they smell together? Which oil do you notice first? Last? How do they perform together? Note it. Then add another if you like, noticing the new dynamics of the combined scents. And so on. Even if you think, “Yes, I’ve got it! This is so good!” Add a drop more just to see how one drop can change the dynamic of the blend. Keep track of how many drops you’re using so you can edit it exactly how you’d like (please do stick to dilution guidelines!). Always remember, fear and trepidation have no place at the blending table. You will create plenty of “shitty first drafts”, to quote Anne Lamott, and even when you hit a fabulous combination, the next one might just be so-so. That’s okay! We need to make these messes to find our voice and scent signature in the process.

We come to essential oils for what they offer us in body, mind, and soul. I encourage you to approach the art of blending aromatic oils in a similar way – for what the ancient practice itself evokes in you. Just as in writing, we begin to find our nose by following another’s recipe. We copy, then adjust it to our liking, then maybe we create something totally unique. With more practice comes more confidence and clarity. And, as in any art, we are most successful when we listen to the muse and create for a singular person – ourselves, a family member, a friend, a lover- connecting us once again to our collective myth, ceremony, and creation.


This post is intended for educational and inspirational purposes only and has not been approved by the FDA. These statements are not intended to diagnose, treat, or mitigate disease. Please follow essential oil safety best practices and see your physician for chronic health issues and questions. Never ingest essential oils.

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