The Remarkable Bitter Orange Tree
No other raw material in modern perfumery offers a range of aromas and essential oils as the bitter orange tree (citrus bigaradia). It’s a truly versatile tree that hides wonderous scents. Sometimes referred to as “bigarade” or Seville orange, the bitter orange not only offers neroli and orange blossom, but also petitgrain used in literally hundreds of fragrances around the world. This all comes from one single tree. Here’s the fascinating story of the bitter orange tree.
Orange blossom vs neroli: the differences
Both orange blossom and neroli essential oils are extracted from the delicate white blossoms of the bitter orange tree. The difference is the process by which the aroma is extracted.
The aroma from the orange blossom is extracted using solvent extraction: alcohol washing and filtering creating what is called an orange blossom absolute. This is a wonderful fragrance that is deep, intense and jasmine-like with a sweet composition. It’s often incorporated into grand floral fragrances with rose, peony and jasmine sambac.
Neroli is extracted using steam distillation from the same freshly hand-picked blossoms as in orange flower. This results in a beautiful fresh green fragrance with sharper and more delicate tones. Perfumers sometimes describe neroli as bitter, fresh, sweet and herbal in character – even a little spicy. It takes one ton of bitter orange blossoms to make one quart of neroli oil – which is why it can cost upwards of $100 per ounce. Perfumers particularly like it as neroli blends very well with other essential oils.
It’s the leaves and twigs of the bitter orange tree that gives us petitgrain (pronounced ‘petty-gran’), an incredibly popular ingredient in colognes and fresh scents. The petitgrain distilled from Mediterranean orchards is much more lemony in aroma than other locations. The soil here is very fertile thanks to the volcanic ash that fell hundreds of years ago and this nourishes and supports the trees. Add in countless days of sunshine and warm breezes and you have the ideal climate for growing these special trees. Most farms have been in the same family for generations and each one can produce essential oils that are slightly different. The leaves and twigs are harvested and distilled down into a rich aromatic oil. It’s interesting to note that farmers used to harvest small, green unripe oranges to produce petitgrain in past years.
Bergamot & Bitter Orange Trees
Farmers in Southern Italy often grow bergamot and bitter orange trees on the same plot of land overlooking the ocean. Bergamot trees are quite fragile and susceptible to damage from wind and storms. So farmers will plant rows of bitter orange facing the coastline to act as a buffer from the elements. These trees are incredibly strong and hardy so they flourish in this location. And they keep the bergamot safe and protected.
If you look carefully through your fragrance collection, you will likely find more than a few fragrances that contain one or all of these notes. Here are some of our favourites:
Atkinsons Scilly Neroli – a blend of petitgrain, neroli essence and orange blossom that is fresh and modern
Van Cleef & Arpels California Reverie – a deep, layered orange flower note
Boucheron Femme Eau de Toilette – a vibrant and rich orange blossom note
19-69 Capri – a beautiful crisp bitter orange note
Atkinsons fragrances are available in Canada exclusively at holtrenfrew.com and Holt Renfrew stores.
Boucheron fragrances are available at thebay.com and select Hudson’s Bay stores.
Van Cleef & Arpels fragrances are available at thebay.com and select Hudson’s Bay stores