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Smelling the Forest for the Trees

By: Christian Thwaites and Nathan Janz
Posted: May 4, 2010, from the May 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

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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.

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