The Art of Raw Foraged Perfume


How to wildcraft perfume using native plants and flowers.

Story and photos by Maria Grusauskas

June 2, 2014—Just a few miles past Davenport's main drag lies Swanton Berry Farm, which, on a foggy Saturday morning, is quite the happening place. Lured by the promise of ripe organic strawberries, weekenders fill the farm stand's lot, looking to stretch their legs in the coastal air. It's a multi-faceted roadside attraction where you can pick your own berries, pop into the iconic Slowcoast Airstream to peruse artisan crafts or get a quick $1 cup of coffee, tea or cider (which often turns into a homemade pie or flat of berries as well).

But I'm not here to pick berries, I'm here to make a love potion. (As I'll soon find out.) Along with several other plant-loving females, I've signed up to pick flowers and other wild botanicals growing along the rugged coast, then turn them into a perfume using the tincture, or alcohol steeping, method.

Our scent guru is Libby Patterson, whose line of natural perfumes, Libby Patterson Organics, embodies the familiar scents of the ocean, meadow and forest terrains of California's Central Coast. For Patterson, this means beach charcoal, wisps of cannabis around the campfire and horsehair (literally) plucked from a Costanoa-area ranch are just as important as the lavender, eucalyptus, cyprus and more flowery notes of the coastal spectrum.

"As we choose our flowers, you'll want to really smell them and choose the most fragrant ones," says Patterson. "If they're ready for the bees, they're ready for us."

This, of course, is where the love potion part comes in. Patterson calls all of her perfumes "Kundalini Oxygen"—aphrodisiacs designed to amplify one's own magnetism. And today's creation will be especially potent, as we're looking for blossoms at the height of their attraction stage.

Patterson became fascinated with making perfumes in 1975, following her astroprojection to Egypt, she tells us. (It's only 10am and already I can tell this is going to be an interesting morning.)

As it turns out, the allure of Cleopatra wasn't so much her beauty but her scent: expert in essential oils, she even saturated her sails with jasmine when she traveled down the Nile, according to one of my fellow foragers.

We wind down through the gentle slopes on the coastal side of Highway One, pausing to pick yarrow, yellow primrose, wild strawberry leaves and aloe vera blossoms, which Patterson says she's had her eyes on the past couple weeks. This is Patterson's stomping ground, the meadow and ocean she walks along every morning at the crack of dawn and the source of her sensory and spiritual inspiration. And spiritual she is.

"Within about three seconds of being on your skin, it's in your brain and it's reprogramming you," says Patterson of the final product. She reminds us that intention is important: the purple flowers of wild black mustard, for instance, might be used to revive a person from boredom, since they help replenish the soil with nitrogen between plantings in the surrounding fields. It may sound a little out there, but Patterson calls it quantum neuroscience, and her conviction is enticing.

With our bags brimming with blossoms, we meander past surfers wriggling in and out of wet suits and down onto Davenport Landing Beach. We're here for a few wisps of kelp, as well as small seashells to crush, adding the ocean element to our early summer concoction.

By the time we're back to a bright blue picnic table behind the Airstream, we've gathered around 20 different botanicals, most of them sticky, pollen-laden blossoms like the poisonous datura (trumpet flower) Patterson slices into with gloved hands, and the coral-colored blossom we carefully extract from a prickly pear cactus. We've also got non-flowering plants like mugwort, an exhilarating silver-green herb that is apparently great for flying dreams and attuning one's psychic abilities. Delicious-smelling fennel, wild blackberries and of course a couple very ripe strawberries also go in to the mix.

"When you work with plants and infuse them, it's a very soft, very full-spectrum essence," says Patterson. "It's very faint too—if you're a smoker, you might not be able to smell it." But our fragrant bounty suggests otherwise, at least so far.

How to Make A Raw Perfume

The process is simple. Grind the sweetest-smelling parts of the plants, herbs and fruits with a mortar and pestle, then add them to a glass jar filled with alcohol. Patterson recommends the 190 proof organic grape alcohol from Alchemical Solutions, a micro-distillery in Oregon.

"The alcohol helps to synthesize all of the chemical components," says Patterson. It also helps to preserve the plant material—but covering it completely is essential: if there isn't enough liquid the plants will begin to rot, and this does not make for a nice-smelling perfume.

Ideally, you should let your botanicals steep for a minimum of two months—and the longer the better. Since we only have a couple of hours, though, Patterson has added a base of "Spitfire Cowgirl" (the one with the horsehair and cannabis) to our mix as a sort of starter.

For the best results, strain the plant material through a coffee filter every few weeks and replace with new plant material. Swish it around every few days. Once you've steeped your scented material in a cool dry place for the desired time, strain it one last time and pour into smaller jars for distribution.

Note: This alcohol-infused type of perfume should never be smelled directly from the bottle, because the alcohol will overpower it. Agitate the bottle to activate the scents (a pebble or two from the beach comes in handy here) and apply from the bottle's stopper—then smell it on your skin. You'll notice the smell changes between the first few minutes, when the top notes come out, and about 30 minutes later, when the bases of charcoal and seaweed make their appearance.

And voila, we have created a tiny flask of bourbon-colored potion called "A Mid Summer Night's Dream" that smells, well, very much like Davenport. I am thrilled to know how easy it is to create perfumes, and will definitely be trying this at home.

"I find there's a lot of ego in the perfume industry," says Patterson. "At the same time, I feel like you cannot make a mistake. It's all about alignment. Every batch you make is special to that time, to what's going on in your life, so keep experimenting, keep making it, and eventually you will start attracting friends who want it too."

For more information on Libby Patterson, visit her Facebook page.