Jasminum officinale

The sun was setting as I strolled around the garden one final time this evening. Beneath a west-facing wall, the Nicotiana alata ‘Grandiflora’ which I grew from seed at the start of the year and planted out in a swathe in May, was releasing its scent in waves on the cooling air. I smiled to myself – it is satisfying when a planting succeeds. The wall is covered in jasmine and the dark green foliage is the perfect foil for the large white stars of the tobacco. It is the perfect foil too for the jasmine’s smaller, more delicate white stars and my smile was in recognition that yet again, a jasmine has out-foxed me. This one has grown to the height of the wall and beyond, and it bears its flowers amidst the twining mass of stems which tumble over onto the eastern face; an aspect jasmines allegedly do not favour. Its full beauty is enjoyed outside the garden. I wandered out through the gate and found a flowering tendril within reach. I drew it down to my nose and breathed it in. Jasmine, like the tobacco, like many other white-flowered plants, releases its scent in the evening and through the night. White gardens should be planted by people who sit out late on summer’s evenings, talking into the darkness. At dusk and afterwards, the white blossoms shine, and fill the air with their musky fragrance.

Jasmine officinale has been in cultivation for so long and has become so widely naturalised that its place of origin is lost. Its name derives from Farsi though, and the old territories of Persia are a fitting place for it. It might also help to explain its early presence both in China and Byzantium. Today it can be found growing wild in the Iberian peninsula whilst also being the national flower of Pakistan. Jasmine, true jasmine, the poet’s jasmine, has a long association with love and is a reputed aphrodisiac. With no sense of contradiction, it is also recommended as a calmative remedy which quietens and soothes. As I write tonight, I am sipping from a glass of green jasmine tea and dreaming of a good night’s sleep.

Although it has found medical uses, notably as a liver tonic, its primary use beyond the garden wall has been in perfumery. Its oil, known as Jasmine Absolute, cannot be produced by steam distillation, so must instead be captured by a solvent from which it is then extracted. In the dark recesses of my memory, I have images of flowers pressed into grease between panes of glass. The volatile oils were transferred to the grease and then the grease was processed to liberate the oils. But that was a long time ago. Jasmine Absolute currently retails for around £10/ml which is expensive, but it is not the most expensive botanical. That crown is still held by saffron, a crocus with a remarkably similar geographical distribution to jasmine and with an even older recorded history of cultivation. The best saffron can cost £70/g, which is roughly three times the current price of gold.

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