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Smelling the Forest for the Trees

Christian Thwaites and Nathan Janz
  • The number of essential oils available for use in fragrance is modest.
  • The widespread use of many essential oils has its downside, particularly when the goal is to create innovative new fragrances.
  • Too often, new natural ingredients come from areas of the world where sustainability standards are either poor or nonexistent.

Like architects, painters and other artists, perfumers seem to have a special appreciation for nature. This is perhaps an uncontroversial point. After all, it’s nature from which essential oils are derived, providing unmatched complexity and uniqueness. These facets mean that natural ingredients, particularly essential oils, continue to be an important tool in the perfumer’s tool kit.

The number of essential oils available to perfumers, however, is modest. Compared with the thousands of synthetic fragrance ingredients on the market, the number of essential oils totals just a few hundred. And many of these oils have supply problems, are very expensive or face regulatory pressures. As a result, few oils end up being used over and over again. One of these exceptions, cedar oil, has reportedly been found in more than 60% of commercial fragrances.1 Like many natural ingredients, it’s familiar to virtually every perfumer, from the most senior to the most junior.

The widespread use of many essential oils has its downside, particularly when the goal is to create innovative new fragrances. A perfumer can, of course, create a new fragrance using well-worn ingredients, but familiarity makes the job more difficult. A new ingredient can often provide a perfumer with just the spark needed to create a new fragrance and a point of difference for the brand owner.

It is, of course, easy to say that innovation is necessary. And it’s easy to say that new ingredients are necessary to facilitate this innovation. The hard part is finding out exactly where such new ingredients are to be found.

The Northwest Rain Forest

The Northwest temperate rain forest is not particularly well-publicized. It might be an exaggeration to suggest that most people don’t know that it exists, but not entirely. In any case, it’s certainly not as well-known as its tropical counterpart in South America. For those working in fragrance, it should be.

The Northwest rain forest is a diverse ecological region that spans from southern Alaska to northern California; the majority of the forest is found in British Columbia, Canada and the state of Washington. The region is home to hundreds of plant species, many of which contribute to the unique olfactory experience of the Pacific Northwest. Some of these plant species are small, familiar botanicals—spearmint, peppermint, artemisia, tarragon and citrada. Others are massive tree species indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, and these indigenous tree species have been used for more than 100 years by the local forest industry as a source for timber and lumber. Lumber processing produces millions of tons of sawdust in the region each year, and this sawdust is currently being burned as an inexpensive source of energy, but it could just as easily be used as a raw material for the production of essential oils for the fragrance industry. This opportunity has not been lost on suppliers.

A number of companies have begun to produce ingredients in the region—including Northwest Aromatics, Trivan Essential Oils, Sunwest Ingredients and Forbes Medi-Tech. Northwest Aromatics is focused exclusively on the essential oils of tree species in the Pacific Northwest— including conifers such as Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), coastal Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Nootka cypress (Callitropsis nootkatensis) and giant arborvitae (Thuja plicata). These trees are indigenous to the region and contain unique chemical constituents that contribute to their distinctive aromas. This article will focus on two of the most interesting sources, Nootka cypress and giant arborvitae.

Nootka Cypress and Giant Arborvitae

It is fitting that Nootka cypress and giant arborvitae oil are the first essential oils to be commercialized from the Northwest rain forest. Both oils come from species that have a deep cultural significance for the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Totem poles, canoes and other ceremonial carvings employed giant arborvitae; the latter word translates as “tree of life.” Nootka cypress—also known as Alaska cypress, and named for the Nootka tribe (now known as the Nuu-cha-nulth) from the area known as Nootka Sound—has played an important role in native culture of the Pacific Northwest.

Both oils have unique aroma profiles. In the Nootka cypress oil, cedar notes are accompanied by spicy and citrus notes. Giant arborvitae oil also has strong cedar notes, but here they are accompanied by mossy notes and a fruity note reminiscent of cherry. Both oils are currently undergoing regulatory registration.


New ingredients with unique and pleasant aromas are great, but too often such ingredients come from areas of the world where sustainability standards are either poor or nonexistent. This is not the case with ingredients derived from the Northwest rain forest. A 2003 independent study conducted by Yale’s Benjamin Cashore and Constance McDermott compared British Columbia’s environmental forest practice regulations with those practiced in other parts of the world.2 Cashore and McDermott’s study concluded that British Columbia “takes a stringent approach to forest policy, regulation development, and on key measures we compared, is among the top of the 38 jurisdictions we studied from around the world.” Specifically, British Columbia’s forests are 95% government-owned, and its annual allowable cuts are based on sustained-yield principles. The region, which has more certified forest lands than either Sweden or Germany, is a leader in designating protected areas and in third-party sustainable forest management. Suppliers in the area are committed to making the production of regionally derived essential oils more than a cottage industry.

In Summary

The availability of natural and sustainable ingredients from the Northwest temperate rain forest comes at an important time for the fragrance industry. With the global economy continuing to struggle, the need for innovation and differentiation is strong. New ingredients can play an important role in facilitating this innovation.

Courtesy of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine. The unabridged March 2010 article, which includes technical data, is available for purchase at

Christian Thwaites and Nathan Janz are with Northwest Aromatics, which specializes in supplying North America’s fragrance industry with new essential oils derived from Canada’s rain forest. Address correspondence to: Nathan Janz, 3800 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, BC V6S 2L9, Canada;


  1. WM Ciesla, Non-Wood forest products from conifers: Essential Oils. United Nations Forestry & Agricultural Organization FAO (1998)
  2. B Cashore and C McDermott, Global Environmental Forest Policies: Canada as a Constant Case Comparison of Select Forest Practice Regulations. International Forest Resources (2004)

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