The bitter orange tree yields both neroli and petitgrain essential oils. In addition to these, a third essence known as bitter orange oil is expressed from the peel of the nearly ripe fruit. Bitter orange oil resembles bergamot and lime in aroma. It is most often used in perfumery and flavoring.
Neroli essential oil, which is very expensive, is distilled from the freshly picked flowers. The trees bloom heavily in May. Under optimum growing conditions a large tree can produce up to 60 pounds of fresh flowers. Timing is crucial; the flowers quickly lose their oil when plucked from the tree. Excessive handling and bruising greatly diminishes the quality and quantity of this precious botanical oil.
A by-product of neroli distillation is the condensed water from the still. After the essential oil is drawn off, this substance, known as orange flower water, is bottled and sold as a fragrant cosmetic substance. Orange flower water is usually available in the form of skin toning facial mists. Often it is an ingredient in creams and lotions, lending astringency as well as a fine aroma. Orange flower water contains many unstable constituents from the delicate flowers. It is prone to oxidation and rancidity unless immediately bottled and sealed in sterile containers. Much orange flower water sold today contains large amounts of alcohol or other chemical preservatives.
Petitgrain, which means small grains (or fruits), is distilled from the fresh leaves and young branches of the tree. Historically, petitgrain was distilled from the immature, hard green fruit of the tree, hence its name. This soon proved to be uneconomical as the production of this oil diminished the yield of bitter orange oil from the mature fruit later in the season. Gradually the oil from the leaves and twigs became known as petitgrain. Today an oil is occasionally distilled from unripe fruit that has fallen from the tree. This oil is not widely available and is not of reliably consistent quality.
Production of neroli and petitgrain oils can be undertaken at the same time. As the trees in full flower are sheared, the blossoms are separated from the twigs and leaves. Unfortunately petitgrain oil is one of the most commonly used natural adulterants for neroli oil. When both oils are produced simultaneously, it's tempting to extend the yield of precious neroli by adding the easily obtained petitgrain. But neroli oils adulterated in this way will have a slightly bitter-woody nuance, which is quite apparent to anyone familiar with the two oils. Another adulterant is the much more plentiful oil from the flowers of the sweet orange tree, sometimes referred to as neroli Portugal. Neroli oils adulterated in this way will be thinner and less richly scented.
The bitter orange probably originated as a wild tree somewhere in the Middle East. Today, a domesticated version of the plant can be found in countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea. Italy and France are major producers of fine neroli and bitter orange oils. Tunisia, Morocco and the U.S. also produce the oils.
The tree has evergreen, shiny leaves, wiry greenish twigs and richly fragrant, waxy-white flowers. The fruit is intensely bitter and sour, so it is seldom eaten.
There is not much recorded historical medicinal use of the bitter orange, although the English herbalist Gerard recommended the hot and bitter juice of citrus fruits against worms and the stings of scorpions.
But the aromas of neroli, petitgrain and bitter orange oils have always been well appreciated. Gerard also refers to an ancient book by Theophrastus, who wrote of laying citrus fruits among clothes to scent the fabric and repel moths. This is still done today with clove studded orange pomanders.
To make a pomander, take an ordinary orange and prick the surface all over with a toothpick. Insert cloves into the holes and allow the pomander to dry naturally. In its dried state a pomander can retain its fragrance for years. Boost the aroma occasionally by applying a few drops of sweet orange, neroli and petitgrain oils to the pomander's surface from time to time.
Neroli is relaxing and gently strengthening. Its fresh and comforting floral aroma inspires courage, quiet resolve and happiness. Petitgrain inspires strength and commitment. Its fresh, woody aroma is stabilizing and reassuring.
A mixture of neroli and petitgrain produces a fragrant blend. Not only do their respective aromas meld perfectly, but the benefits they inspire are reinforced through their bond. Individuals who are sad and lacking confidence will find it helpful to focus on a combination of pleasantly reassuring neroli and strengthening petitgrain.
Combine 20 drops of neroli and 20 drops of petitgrain with 8 ounces of distilled water. Place the mixture in a bottle with a spray atomizer attachment. In times of stress shake the bottle, then lightly mist the face and inhale the aroma.
The blended oils can also be diffused using an aromatherapy lamp. Or try adding 3 drops of the mixture to a teaspoon of oil and use as a gently relaxing massage. Sweet therapy indeed.