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The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

People love citrus fruit!  What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons?   This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees.  Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions!  The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets.  All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas.  It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid).  Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times).  Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them.  Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.

citrus

In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual.  The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills.  Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims.  In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).

"Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?" (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

“Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?” (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade.  In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange.  I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing.  I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you.  In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?

The color citron

The color citron

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

Here in New York the weather outside is February gray.  The buildings are gray.  The sky is gray.  The trees are gray.  The people are dressed in gray and black.  Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!

Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial.  This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state).  The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America.  They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring.  The females build nests out of mud and resin.

Museum specimens of orchid bees

Museum specimens of orchid bees

The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids.  Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters).  The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees).  Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved.  On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce.  Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest.  Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science Website)

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Website)

Musk Deer

Continuing our series of posts about saber toothed mammals we come to a second family of living creatures.  Half way between the primitive chevrotains (mouse deer) and the familiar true deer (cervids) are the Moschidae, a family of small artiodactyls consisting of one genus with several similar species.  The musk deer are small delicate grazers which live in the forested mountains or alpine scrubland of Asia.  Musk deer weigh between 7 and 17 kilograms (15 and 37 lb) depending on gender, age, and species. Unlike true deer, the little creatures lack antlers, but male musk deer make up for this absence with a pair of elongated canine teeth which they use to fight for breeding rights.

Alpine Musk Deer (Moschus chrysogaster)

Like true deer, musk deer eat the tender shoots of trees and grasses, as well as berries, lichens, and mosses.  Females live in small territories of approximately 100 to 200 acres.  The territory of a dominant male will overlap several of the females’ territories.  Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn.  Musk deer are nocturnal or crepuscular.  They use their acute hearing and excellent sense of smell to flee from predators at the slightest hint of danger.

The skull of a male Siberian Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus)

Male adult musk deer have a musk pouch located between their genitals and their umbilicus which they use to attract mates.  Unfortunately for the little saber toothed deer this pouch also attracts human hunters.  For centuries (or longer) musk has been a prized luxury good, so much so that, at times, prices have soared to $45,000/kg on the black market. The musk is said to have an incredibly complex aroma but the main notes are earthy, woody, and “animalic” (i.e. fecal).  Dried musk grain must be substantially tinctured with alcohol before it produces a perfume which is pleasant to humans.  The resultant substance however served as a mainstay of the perfume industry and as a cure-all nostrum in ayurvedic medicine until the creation of synthetic musk.  Poor musk deer from several species were nearly wiped out because of whatever mysterious power their sexual marking fluid has on humankind.

The Dwarf Musk Deer (Moschus berezovskii)

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