Nearly any flower can be pressed, distilled or subjected to the intricate process of enfleurage, to produce fragrance. However, some flowers are considered the royalty of the perfume industry---when accompanied by spices, herbs and other plant- or animal-derived ingredients, they comprise the bulk of perfumes created for the industry worldwide. Five of these "super flowers" are grown and processed in Grasse, the perfume capital of France, and the world.
The most revered and used perfume flower of all time is the rose. It has been cultivated for its beauty and fragrance for thousands of years, and remains as popular today as it was in the days of the ancient princes of Persia.
The essence of roses, called "attar" or "otto" of roses, sells for incredibly high prices. It requires over 5,000 pounds of rose petals to produce a single pound of the sweet-smelling liquid, through a process of steam distillation.
Damask roses are the favored variety for expensive perfumes, as they are thought to combine the floral and spicy scents of the true red rose better than any other. It is believed that roses originated in Damascus, Syria (Syria means "land of roses"), and legend has it that the first rose sprang in the desert from a drop of sweat fallen from the brow of Mohammed.
Jasmine is another of the top perfume flowers; without its scent, over 80% of all the perfumes in the world couldn't be produced. It lends a finishing quality to perfume, and is so delicate it must be carried in special baskets to prevent damaging its natural smell.
It requires even more jasmine blossoms to produce a jasmine "absolute" (a different process used to extract essential oils, involving alcohol as a solvent), than it takes roses to make rose attar. As many as 8,000 blooms reduce to only 1/25 oz.
Probably more lore and history surrounds lavender than any other flower on earth. In recorded use for nearly 3,000 years---one of the mysterious herbs used in mummification by the ancients of the Middle East---it was also used as a perfume ingredient.
Aside from its importance to the perfume industry the world over, and one of the major perfume flowers grown in France, it also has a long, storied history of medicinal use. Long before anyone knew what germs were or how they worked, lavender was used as an antiseptic. It also had uses as a powerful ingredient in ancient "aromatherapy" to calm the nerves, aid in depression, invite and sustain romance and cure migraines. Today, we still use lavender for all these things.
Though it is one of the big names in the perfume industry, the iris is not valued so much for its flowers as for its roots or tubers. Iris tubers are rich in an oily substance that, when processed, is called iris butter---a major component in perfume making. This compound is so prized by perfumers, and French people in general, that it is the floral inspiration behind the famous fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France.
In powdered form, the dried tubers are known as "orris" root, a potent fixative (ingredient added to make the odor of perfume last longer) for perfumes.
A relative newcomer to the perfume industry, Mimosa is a native Australian plant and was not available in Europe until after Australia had been well colonized by the English---sometime in the mid 19th century. It is a legume, or pea characterized by sensitive leaves that close when touched, and large bracts of golden yellow flowers. According to Perfume 2000, mimosa adds a green, sweet floral scent, that "softens and ties together" the various other notes within perfumes.
Though it was used earlier in perfumes---especially those originating in Grasse, France--mimosa did not become a principal component in a named perfume until 1947, when it was introduced by perfumer Farnesiana de Caron.