Scents of Middle-Earth
By Glíriel Eruvronwe
Atmosphere is extremely important in any sort of party, gathering, or even book-reading, and it is well known that the sense of smell has a powerful impact on one’s mood and can evoke feelings, memories, and the like. I (and probably others) would like to know what sorts of scents might have been used in Middle-Earth (as opposed to scents that simply set the mood but may not be accurate to Tolkien’s mythos), so I here present the result of some of my research along with ideas on incorporating scent into your Middle-Earth ambiance.
Tolkien mentions or alludes to a fair number of scented plants throughout his writings, not just in LotR, as one might expect from an author so keen on vivid description. Many other plants can be inferred since he parallels Middle-Earth with old-world Europe; therefore, native European (especially insular) plants could be used. I will briefly mention that three new-world (or new-world-like) plants are mentioned, namely, potatoes, tomatoes, and a nicotiana species (I find it important to stress that it is not necessarily tobacco and in fact was not even smoked until the hobbits came upon it). There is a definite explanation for how sweet galenas appeared in Middle-Earth (it is not a native), and the other two plants may have arrived in a similar way or existed in the old-world during the ages in question, only to be extinct in our current age (Tolkien’s idea was that Middle-Earth predates our prehistoric age). Aside from these three exceptions, plants are all native European. I do not know of any sort of parallels to trade with Asia or any mention of eastern plants, so I will leave these out of the discussion for now. Also, there are quite a few fictional plants, and sadly, we cannot obtain them. Making a perfume blend according to any existing scent description could be feasible, but I believe that everyone’s interpretation would differ, so I will not mention these species either.
Following is a list of scented plants mentioned in Tolkien’s texts along with forms in which they are readily available for use in scented products. (Note: Modern absolutes and concretes are not mentioned here because they are produced by a modern process of solvent extraction. For the same reason, I do not mention CO2, ScO2 extractions, and other methods. Whenever I use the term essential oil, it refers to steam-distilled or hydro distilled oils. Hydrosols, i.e. floral or herbal waters, are mentioned as they are also a product of the distillation process. If a steam-distilled oil is available, a hydrosol usually is as well. Remember, part of my goal is historical accuracy, insofar as it can be reached according to the information that we have and the inferences that we can make based on it. If you are not as fanatical as I, feel free to use the more modern products when available. They are rather expensive, but they will still provide the scent and be from the proper plants. If you need a scent in liquid form that is only available in a modern form, make an infusion or use enfleurage if you are able.)
- Eglantine; rosa eglanteria or rubiginosa (native to Britain; also known as the sweet briar rose or simply sweet briar); Garden plants are available, but I know of no essential oil, infusion, etc. that is commercially available. Hips sometimes are, but they have little scent. I would suggest growing your own or finding someone who grows them. You could then make an infusion, dry the leaves (which have most of the scent) and/or flowers, extract an oil by enfleurage (see below), etc.
- Iris; iis sp.; The root (called orris root) is the important scented part. It has a strong violet-like scent and is a wonderful fixative and has been used in perfumes, sachets, and other herbal products for centuries. The root is available powdered, cut and sifted, sometimes whole, and distilled into an essential oil (called orris butter because of its consistency).
- Lilies; European species include the Martagon lily and lilium chalcedonicum, pyrenaicum, monadelphum, and pomponium verum; I only know of available plants and no other products. Even most available absolutes are fakes. So, grow them or buy fresh blooms to bring their scent inside.
- Water-lilies; Nuphar Advena or luteum (yellow pond-lily); The only place I know of to get these is in the wild. If you live in Europe or happen to have some naturalized plants in your area, you are lucky. I know of no other water-lily products on the market.
- Bay; laurus nobilis (This tree is most common the Southern Europe, especially near the Mediterranean. There are also laurel species in Britain, but I do not no of their scent and they are poisonous to ingest.); You can buy garden plants, whole, cut and sifted, or powdered dried leaves, or essential oil.
- Birch; betula alba; Essential oil is available (do not buy sweet birch; it is a different species and also may be toxic; check the botanical name). You can also buy birch syrup. If you like maple syrup, you will most likely enjoy birch syrup as well, and it has a history in folk medicine.
- Cedar; Cedrus species are from Asia and Africa and could be used; the only European tree commonly called cedar is juniperus oxycedrus. Other juniper species, such as j. communis, could be used; The oil from j. oxycedrus is toxic. I would use juniper of one of the true cedars, e.g. cedrus atlantica, which are available as essential oils and as dried herbs. Juniper berries are widely available. (n.B. Pay attention to the botanical names; there are many American juniper species called cedars as well.)
- Fir; abies alba (silver fir); This is widely available as an essential oil. Do not confuse it with many American species (which are also in a different genus), such as the Douglas fir, which are often what you see at Christmas tree lots.
- Linden; tilia europia; This tree has wonderfully scented blossoms. You can buy dried flowers and flower and leaf mixtures, usually whole or cut and sifted. Linden is a popular relaxing herbal tea.
- Oak moss; evernia prunastri; Tolkien does not specifically mention this herb, but he does mention oak trees and moss; therefore, I decided to include it in this section. It is available in dried form. To my knowledge, no essential oils are available, only absolutes.
- Pine; pinus sylvestrus (also called Scotch pine); An essential oil is available. I do not know what species store-bought Christmas pinecones are. Trees are rather abundant.
- Heather; caluna vulgaris; Dried flowers are available. Not only do they smell good, but they also are a good dye for wool. Heather honey is one of the best varieties around and is worth the price when you can find it.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive; I am human and most likely missed something. If you see a plant mentioned in j.R.R. Tolkien’s work, by all means, feel free to make use of it.
The following is a list of some scented plants used by the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and/or other European groups. They are natives, and I have noted from what country the hail if they are not native to the British Isles.
- Roman and German Chamomile; anthemis nobilis and matricaria recutita or chamomilla; You can buy essential oils or dried flowers and even tea bags full. Yes, your relaxing cup of chamomile tea could have existed in Middle-Earth. The oils are very good for sunburn, inflammation, and many skin conditions. Chamomile was among the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons.
- Elecampane; innula helenium; The dried herb and essential oil (use with caution) are available. This is more of a medicinal herb (it is good for colds and the like), but it has a strong scent and was in common use by the Anglo-Saxons.
- Elder; sambucus nigra; Dried flowers and berries are available, along with a hydrosol but no essential oil. The syrup from the berries and tea from the flowers are used as cold and flu remedies, and the hydrosol or herbal infusion is good for the skin. The hydrosol was a very popular face mist in England in the past.
- Fennel; fenniculum vulgar; The dried seeds, essential oil, and fresh greens and bulb are available. This herb is common in cookery and was one of the nine sacred herbs to the Anglo-Saxons.
- Hawthorn; cradigus sp.; Dried leaf and flower mixtures and berries are available. I have found one source that sells a supposed essential oil, but I have neither tested it nor do I know of its authenticity.
- Lavender; lavendula angustafolia; Dried forms (in bundles or as flowers only) and essential oils are available. Tolkien mentions this herb in one of his poems, but whether the context of the poem is Middle-Earth is not clear. This herb was brought to Britain by the Romans.
- Marjoram; origanum marjorana; This herb is available dried or as an essential oil. As with lavender, it was brought to Britain by the Romans and was mentioned in the same poem by Tolkien.
- Meadowsweet; philapendula ulmaria; You can buy dried flowers or a mixture of leaves and flowers. This herb smells heavenly and also makes a wonderful tea. It is said that the druids made frequent use of it, along with vervain (verbena officinalis) and water-mint (mentha aquatica).
- Mugwort; Artemisia vulgaris; This herb is available in dried form and as an essential oil (use with caution). This herb has traditionally been used to aid sleep and to bring on vivid dreams. It was also one of the nine sacred Anglo-Saxon herbs.
- Yarrow; achillea millefolium This herb was used by the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and other peoples. It is mostly used as a medicinal and is available dried and as an essential oil.
Again, this list is by no means exhausted. It is meant to get you started and to give you an idea of what sorts of plants to use.
Here are some suggestions and instructions for using your scented plants and for making certain scented products.
How to extract an absolute by enfleurage:
Place a layer of solid fat (like vegetable shortening) on two plates or pie tins. Place layers of blossoms atop the fat, and sandwich them between the two plates. Replace the flowers with fresh ones everyday until you have saturated the fat with scent. You can use the fat as is or dissolve it in alcohol (something like vodka, not rubbing alcohol) and skim off the absolute (you may have to freeze it first).
Scented Oils: These can be made by either infusing the herbs in oil (fill a jar with the herb(s), steep it in a sunny window, adding fresh herbs every few days until desired strength is reached, or heat gently for several hours, e.g. in a low oven, until the preferred strength is reached) or by adding essential oils to a base oil. You could use olive, hazelnut, or almond oil. Beechnut would also be quite appropriate (Tolkien mentions beeches), but I have not been able to obtain any. Hazelnut is good because it is native to Britain, was important to the ancient Celts, and is a light oil with little scent of its own and it is good even for oily skin. You can use the scented oils as bath oils (they will not disperse, however), body oils, perfumes, bases for ointments (just melt and add honey and beeswax; the ratio of oil to beeswax is usually around 4/1, but use as much beeswax as you wish for preferred thickness), solid perfumes (just melt and add beeswax using same ratios), lotions (like a solid perfume, but add distilled water or a hydrosol until no more liquid will emulsify), soaps, and many other products. You can also make lotions, perfumes, etc. by simply using the base oil by itself and adding in essential oils at the end.
Bath Salts: Add the essential oils to pure sea salts. Celtic sea salt from the coast of Breton would be particularly appropriate. Dead Sea salt is another option. You may add a small amount of dried herb for effect if you don’t mind plant bits floating in your bath. The nice thing about pure sea salt is that it dissolves directly into your bath water. Many commercial bath salts just sit on the bottom of your tub.
Teas: Steep a teaspoon or so of an herb in a cup of boiling water, and add honey to sweeten it if you wish. Other good herbs for teas that are appropriate but that are not necessarily well-known in perfumery are raspberry and strawberry leaves (both plants are mentioned by Tolkien). Raspberry has traditionally been used as a remedy for various female troubles.
Strewing Herbs: In Medieval Europe, floor were strewn with scented herbs such as meadowsweet and sweet woodruff. Feel free to strew any non-carpet, e.g. stone, wood, or tile, flooring with dried herbs.
Herbal Pillows: Sew a small pillow out of a natural fiber (linen is mentioned many times by Tolkien), and fill it with dried herbs. Lavender and chamomile are good for aiding sleep.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. Be creative, and I would also suggest that you buy a good book of two on herbalism perfumery, or aromatherapy. Those by Martin Watt (http://www.aromamedical.com) are wonderful. They can be purchased from the above site or from http://www.av-at.com. There is also a free download with basic information from the first site listed.
There are many suppliers of herbs and essential oils to choose from, and one must make sure that he/she is getting quality, authentic products. Martin Watt has a list of suppliers on his site. Along with those, http://www.mointainroseherbs.comm is one of my absolute favorites. Other good sources are http://www.libertynatural.com and http://www.naturesgift.com. Also, look in the bulk herbs section and other aisles of your local natural food stores, at farmer’s markets, etc. A nursery that has a wonderful selection is http://www.richters.com.
Acknowledgements and References: This is a work of research, but most of the information has been gathered over the years from people, reputable written sources, experiences and the like, and I am at the point where it is all in my head. I will list some of the places where I remember having found good information. http://www.botanical.com, the Mountain Rose Herbs website listed above, and Martin Watt’s writings have all been very helpful to me in the past. Tolkien’s writings, not just LotR, are of course the foundation of this project. I cannot take credit for any of the information but only for having assimilated it and compiling it into this article. I am indebted to both ancient and modern writers, herbalists, and botanists–the first-century Dioscorides, the Anglo-Saxon leeches, the thirteenth-century English doctor Gilbertus Anglicus, the herbalist Gerard of Shakespeare’s time, Mrs. Greeves, who wrote in the early twentieth century, Martin Watt, and others–who have shared knowledge with me through their work and writings.
Medical Disclaimer: All of the medical information in this article is meant for educational purposes and is not meant to replace the advice of any medical personnel. If you decide to use any herbal remedies, you do so at your own risk. Make sure that your information is reputable, and consult a physician.