Field Notes: In Search of Haitian Vetiver

I'm visiting the beautiful island country of Haiti (again) to source the finest quality vetiver oil in the world. Vetiver is an important ingredient in every perfumers palette with warm woody facets, subtle refreshing citrus-grapefruit aspects and rich earthy tones. Interestingly vetiver (known locally in India as khus) was first introduced to this region by Indians. At Bombay Perfumery, we developed one of our fragrances with Haitian vetiver as a central component to highlight this beautiful root that plunges deep into the earth and soaks up all its golden warmth. 

Even before landing in colourful Port Au Prince, I'm welcomed to the Caribbean by some of the most stunning waterscapes I’ve ever laid my eyes on from my airplane window - turquoise waters and coral stretching for miles.

I'm spending some time in the bustling capital first, a city that would make any Instagrammer worth their salt stop every few seconds to capture the explosion of colours on homes, shopfronts and street side stalls selling beautiful Haitian art. Not to be missed are the coolest public transport buses you will ever see, that second as moving art-pieces paying homages to football stars, local musicians and Rihanna. 

These lottery stations are all over the place.

These lottery stations are all over the place.

Check out this video of a local artist’s mission to cover the hillside suburb of Jalouzi with confident colours that uplift the local community 

My hosts in Port Au Prince took us out for a fun day of sightseeing to the Croix Des Bouquets region to visit an organic vetiver plantation planned for the future, mango orchards, ackee plantations (a fruit used extensively in Jamaican cooking) and also lakes nearby that were so pristine that they seemed other-worldly. 

After a few more days navigating the busy streets of Port Au Prince and drinking one too many Prestige beers (highly recommended) and I make my way to the southern part of the country.

I'm lucky enough to be making the trip on tiny 3-seater propellor plane which is not for the faint of heart. Due to a faulty key (who knew airplanes have keys?) my friendly pilot jimmied the ignition with a swiss knife and we were on our way, navigating choppy bumps and taking in spectacular views of lush green mountains and deep blue waters.

Most of the vetiver in the world comes from Les Cayes; a small town in southern Haiti, which is a global centre for this perfumery ingredient. Vetiver is a key part of the local community's history, culture and economy and plants can be found all around this region. I'm able to spot many hillsides dotted with vetiver during my plane ride which was an unexpected bonus. 

It is in fact the roots of the vetiver plant that are prized in perfumery. The roots grow deep into the soil in all directions (helping to prevent soil erosion) and are harvested after 12-15 months for distillation into essential oil. Local farmers and co-operatives dig up the roots that are neatly packed into bales for further transport to near-by distilleries that use steam distillation to produce the most consistent quality of pure essential oil.

It takes about 150kg of roots to get 1kg of pure vetiver oil and the distillation process is part science, part art and part knowledge handed down over decades of crop campaigns. Hours of careful distillation produce the beautiful golden oil. I wish you could be with me in the distillation room that is enveloped in an earthy, warm, woody scent which explains why Haitian vetiver is one of the most sought after essential oils, making perfumers flock to sleepy Les Cayes to carefully select roots and oils that end up in perfumes all over the world including ours.

Manan Gandhi is the founder of contemporary fragrance house Bombay Perfumery. Follow them on facebook and instagram.