Let’s talk about Galbanum.
We were recently asked on Instagram to discuss galbanum – a note frequently used in perfumery to create an intense, spicy, bitter green effect. Although commonly found in fragrance pyramids, what most people are often surprised to find out is, that galbanum itself is not that widely used in mainstream perfumery. The reasons are two-fold; geopolitical and its hefty price tag.
Galbanum is the dried resin of Ferula Gummosa and Ferula Rubricaulis which are grown and harvested mostly in Iran and to some extent also in Afghanistan and Turkey. Iranian galbanum is often said to be very special due to the unique soil and climate of the region. However, because of the trade embargo on Iran, the supply of galbanum has been somewhat limited in recent years. It is of course still possible to get it but usually not directly from Iran.
The production of galbanum is pretty labour intensive work. Ferula usually grows on the slopes of mountain ranges. It is an umbelliferous plant which means that it looks a bit similar to carrot and celery. The plant can reach up to 4 meters in height and has large hollow/succulent stems with large flowerheads bearing small yellow flowers. Cuts are made in the stems and the orange-yellow viscous liquid that is secreted eventually hardens into gum.
The gum is then distilled using a solvent to form a resinoid.
The plants can also be steam distilled which results in clear – yellow oil. Despite having quite different scents, both the resinoid and the oil are used for the same purposes in perfumery – as a fixative. (A fixative is an ingredient used to stabilize other materials in a formula helping the perfume to last longer on the skin.)
What does galbanum smell like?
The essential oil possesses a distinctive pine-like freshness, reminiscent of luscious greenery. The scent is distinctively refreshing and crisp.
The galbanum resinoid, however, does not have the same crispy freshness. Instead, it possesses intense green and yet earthy balsamic facets.
As we mentioned in the beginning, galbanum itself is not used in large quantities in mainstream perfumery. Most of the galbanum notes are created with the use of synthetic molecules such as galbanum decatriene.
A few other ones that are commonly used are Spirogalbanone and Dynascone. Curiously, both of these molecules smell not only green but also a bit like fruit (specifically, pineapple) on their own in full concentration.
Other uses of galbanum
In modern times, galbanum resin is mostly used in fragrance and occasionally in jewellery. In jewellery making, you can find galbanum in special colourless glue that is used for fixing precious stones.
Historically perhaps the most well-known use for galbanum is in rituals and religious ceremonies. The Old Testament, as well as Renaissance-era alchemical texts, describe a very particular ritual incense blend called Ketoret that was made with soft galbanum resin.
The harder tears of galbanum would be ground up and used for medicinal purposes to treat everything from anxiety and toothache to asthma and epilepsy. Whether those treatments had any effect, we will probably never know since not many records survive to this day.