Embracing Softness with Sweetbay Magnolia

Embracing Softness with Sweetbay Magnolia

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve spent the past few weeks visiting a group of Sweetbay Magnolia almost daily. One thing that stands out to me is their softness. The petals are soft, supple, thick & waxy. The buds have tiny little hairs that feel like fur. The gray-green leaves have soft undersides. Even the newer branches have bark that feels soft to the touch. They seem to invite gentle stroking. I make an offering to the trees then sit with them a while before asking permission to collect a few petals. It’s been a pure, comforting joy and reprieve to spend time with these trees in the midst of so much hardness in the world. It’s been a particularly tough week. I’m grateful for these moments of softness & sweetness and wishing for each of you moments of softness, as well.

Here’s a meditation on softness that Sweetbay inspired, as well as a short profile on Sweetbay Magnolia:

Plant names: Sweetbay Magnolia, Laurel Magnolia, Swamp Magnolia

Botanical name: Magnolia virginiana 

Family: Magnoliaceae

Characteristics: Evergreen in places with milder winters, semi-evergreen elsewhere; simple, alternate leaves; perennial

Where they’re native to & who they’re in community with: native to the lowlands and swamps of the Atlantic coastal plain of the eastern U.S. I’ve noticed dragonflies on the branches, tiny insects inside the flowers, bees, squirrels and birds also hanging out with Sweetbay.

Lore/traditional uses: Native Americans used a concoction of the bark to treat fevers and rheumatism. The fruit was used for coughs and chest ailments.

The petals are edible and people do things like pickle them. Always, be aware of where you’re harvesting from to feel confident that they haven’t been treated or exposed to excessive contaminants. 

Ecological considerations: It was introduced into cultivation in the 1680s. I pick only petals and leave the center part (multiple pistils that will develop into an “aggregate follicle” fruit with seeds) so that the tree can fulfill its reproductive cycle. I only take petals from a few flowers on lower branches and like to harvest them after they’ve had a day in the sun, even if I don’t get the strongest scent.

Scent profile: notes of vanilla, lemon, occasional whiffs of honeysuckle and rose; strongest scent on just opening blooms; the scent evolves quickly as the flower opens; creamy, sweet, fresh & light floral

In perfumery: I’m currently making an enfleurage of the petals to make what will eventually be an absolute. 

Spring Scents & “Olfactory Consciousness”

Spring Scents & “Olfactory Consciousness”

Spring in New Orleans is such a special time- festivals & crawfish, second lines & gorgeous weather. The scent of Star Jasmine wafts through the evening air,  heralding the season, as Magnolias, Irises & Gardenia open to join the symphony. In my perfume garden, Sambac Jasmine is preparing to start another round of blooms that will continue throughout the warm months. Check out this sweet little “plant walk” video of some of my favorite local fragrant plants of the season.

Developing our “olfactory consciousness”

It is said that we can develop our “olfactory consciousness.” I first learned of this idea from the book, “Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume”, by Mandy Aftel- a book that was seminal in starting me on the “perfume path.”

This month, as Earth wakes from the winter slumber and the buzz of growth and movement fill the air, I invite you to notice what smells signal Spring to you. Is it a particular flower? The scent of your freshly cleansed home? Certain foods? What emotions does it stir? What sensations do you notice in your body? How do you experience this seasonal shift and what meaning does it hold for you?

If you feel inspired to share, send me a note via email or Instagram! I love hearing from people about the profound impacts of scent in their lives!

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