There’s no doubt that the supermodel of Australia’s native botanicals used in the global fragrance industry is the quiet, unassuming, brown boronia. This mousy flower with its “stooped chin” is always looking downwards, always facing the ground.
It hates wet feet. And its downwards stare is constantly on the lookout for dangerous pathogens and disease lurking in stagnant pools of water that don’t drain away quickly enough after heavy rains. Death loiters around that corner if the sun doesn’t make a rescuing appearance.
The rest of its energy is spent quietly gazing - downwards - looking for precious pollinators. The result is an intriguing scent wafting very low, just above the sandy soil, where many pollinators will risk life and death by flying below radar level, in enemy territory, well within predators’ reach in the hope of finding the holy grail: brown buds opened sufficiently to reveal their dazzling internal golden yellow cups. It’s in that moment that this shy native flower reveals its quintessentially Australian character, with its true beauty on the inside.
It takes 12.5 million flowers to make just 1kg of boronia absolute. And that 1kg typically sells for around A$15,000, making it one of the most expensive ingredients in perfumery. After a year where traditional seasons were turned on their head, with record high temperatures and a lack of rain, followed by excessive rain and record lows, one of our most prized assets in perfumery hasn’t escaped the wrath of the climate gods.
Each year the boronia harvest is usually undertaken in two weeks at the start of September. Fourteen days of round the clock work going between a handful of farms in southern and northeastern Tasmania. Fortunately, none of the outlying islands, such as Bruny, Flinders or King island have to be accessed for this precious crop ~ unlike southern Rosalina.
The timing of the harvest always centres around when these brown buds open at about 70 to 80%. This is a key indicator of optimal fragrant oil production in the stamen of the flowers. By late August the team at Essential Oils of Tasmania (who account for almost all of Australia’s, and the world’s, boronia production) is usually counting down the hours, with harvesters and distillation equipment polished and ready.
Unusually high levels of rain fell this winter. This created the first challenge: wet feet. This meant boronia spent a lot of energy doing battle with potential fungal disease and nutrients were diverted from flower development - this is where the all important fragrant oil is produced in the stamen. When August rolled around, unusually warm ambient air (7th hottest on record), mainly under cloud cover, meant not enough direct sunlight on the boronia to commence the traditional “bud opening” clock. A week ago, the third week of September, it snowed. Excessive wet, followed by not enough sun, followed by excessive cold has got the alarm bells ringing.
This year’s harvest finally got underway last week and is in mid flight. But many early batch flowers were closed, and unusually cold.
One of the most critical phases in the boronia processing is the 48 hours that the flowers lie on the factory floor. They are piled up on top of each other, about 20 to 30cm high, and the flower contact and warmth they generate results in a critical natural process, controlled by the flowers themselves, which scientists haven’t been able to fully explain to-date.
In this “composting phase”, as the flowers take their last breath, they go into overdrive and the fragrant enzymes in the stamens produce more than double the amount of beta ionone molecules. These are the most significant fragrant markers (along with the jasmonates) that give boronia its prized odour profile for perfumery ~ with its rich, green, earthy, floral, hay-like, fruity, woody complexity.
Perhaps it’s because the flowers know the end is nigh that they make one last ditch effort to attract pollinators and so they rush to produce more - nearly double - of their most attractive scent molecule? Although there’s no clear scientific explanation, those 48 hours are critical for perfumery and it relies on three things: buds that are open at 70 - 80%, significant flower contact, and the right amount of warmth (about 20 degrees).
When I visited the fields this week and spent time with the team at EOT, it was clear that the unseasonal weather hasn’t been helpful. The harvested flowers were arriving colder, and as we turned the “composting” buds with shovels on the factory floor they weren’t reaching 20 degrees.
The first batch of distillation is taking place this week, and we’re waiting for word from the EOT scientists on how things have gone. With temperatures that have been colder and wetter during the lead up to this year’s harvest, as well as during a very critical 14 day harvesting period, it’s likely that the boronia absolute yield from this year’s harvest will be down. And as the buds lie on the cold factory floor performing their final act of perfumed magic, it’s likely that the beta ionone composition will be down. The hope is that it’s by not too much.
As we work with this precious flower we’re reminded how important the Tasmanian farmers are who care for these unique native Australian gems, of how important the EOT team is as they nurture the flowers and distill them to provide most of the world’s supply of this fragrant extract, and how important our customers are in appreciating the effort that goes into getting our boronia based products to market.
Thank you for sharing in our reverence for nature and taking whatever steps you can to mitigate the effects of our changing climate.