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White Peony's Breath - Esprit de la Nature

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Peony’s Breath Yincense

About to bloom,
And exhale a rainbow,
The peony!
– Buson

Ingredients:  Peony and rose petals from the garden, white cedar shavings from the forest, organic and exotic peppers from China, vanilla beans from Tahiti, aged orris root from France, copal, benzoin, ambergris.

Many years ago, I purchased a Paeonia lactiflora, commonly known as common Garden Peony or Chinese Peony, at a local plant nursery.  At the time, I was collecting medicine plants for my herbalist garden and had been reading about hardy plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Paeonia lactiflora is known as Bai Shao (White Peony).  Like most Peonies, China is Bai Shao’s ancestral home.  Peony flowers enjoy a type of esteem in Asian culture that is similar to that of roses in the West.  Classic Chinese literature speaks to the original abundance of wild peony on the sacred “Central Peak” Mt. Song, which was associated with the Heart in the ancient Chinese system of correlative cosmology. In traditional Chinese and Japanese art, peonies broadly represent both female beauty, as well as wealth, this last because displays of exotic peonies were once a status symbol in ancient China. There is an Asian Goddess associated with the White Peony named Bai Mundan whose attributes are love, devotion, romance, femininity, and promises. Her symbols are any items associated with love and romance; and the peony. This Goddess is beautiful and sensual but also filled with only the most honorable intentions. It is Her sacred task to tempt the ascetics in the keeping of their vows.  In some stories, she cultivates herself and becomes one of the sage immortals.

This association with the heart, blood, and the feminine is at the core of who Bao Shao is as a plant.  Bai Shao has a particular affinity for the female reproductive system, specifically relaxing the smooth tissue muscles of the uterus as well as normalizing the menstrual cycle.   When processed in certain ways Peonies stabilize blood sugar, making her roots a suitable aid in traditional fasting and cleansing rituals popular among Taoists.   Tonic and elegant, Bai Shao gradually became the most valued Peony for this purpose In Traditional Chinese Medicine.  She is powerful medicine.  Yet, I never used Bai Shao’s as medicine, because I just did not have the heart to dig up her root. Every Spring, she started to gift me with gigantic, silky, and fragrant white flowers smelling of hints of lily of the valley, carnation, and a subtle rose note.

    I planted her right outside my cabin door.  Her heart-warming personality leads to an easy association with those around her, especially ants.  She brings the ants up off the ground. I enjoy watching them wander back and forth on the maze of her stems and flowers.  The relationship between peonies and ants is a type of mutualism in which two organisms of different species benefit from the activity of one another. Peony flowers provide food for ants and in turn, the ants protect the blossoms from other floral-feeding insects.

I had never thought to try to capture Bai Shao’s fragrance because while it is strong it is also sheer.  In perfumery, sheer means transparent, like a veil that is detectable but also plays and melts. It is a very clean scent, hard to capture and fix. It always seems to slide away and then reappear similar to the finest Elemis and copals.  An appropriate metaphor for Bai Shao gossamer, fragrant breath is found in the “Language of Flowers” where peonies are used symbolize bashfulness and are protected by fairies hiding in the flowers.  This is the type of fragrance that is difficult to replicate in perfumery, not to say incense.

Nevertheless, this year, I was inspired to try to capture this sophisticated, fairy fragrance using some of the techniques I have been developing for yincense (subtle incense created using only raw botanicals, no extractions).  I chose combining the ingredients together at the beginning of the process, creating the incense in a jar, rather than waiting to combine the peony petals later.  This method, like in fine perfumery, can lead to a deeply integrated blend that changes as it ages.  So, into the jar with the peony petals, went sparking Sichuan and pink peppers for lift, flowery vanilla beans, classic, aged orris root, a touch of white cedar shavings, the finest white copal, the sweetest benzoin, salt, sugar, and finally, a little of her sister flower, rose.  Six months later, I open the jar, and there Bai Shao was in all her sheer, fairy light glory.  I breathed her fresh, spring breath and decided to add a touch more perfume magic by sprinkling her liberally with drops of pure, white ambergris extract.  Sheer joy only to be used by warming the blend gently, on an incense heater.


This price is for 1 oz in gold tin

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