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Gavdos - Ancient Plant used for Roman perfumes

Experts discover plant which is the mother of ancient Roman perfumes

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Researchers have discovered a new plant growing on coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean which is the maternal ancestor of Reseda odorata, a plant used in ancient Roman to make perfume and cosmetics .

In the study published in the journal Annales Botanici Fennici, the researchers from Pablo de Olavide University in Seville outline the new species of flowering plant, called Reseda minoica, which has been found to be growing in Crete, Cyprus and Southern Turkey.

"The importance of this discovery is that Reseda minoica is the maternal ancestor of a cultivated species of hybrid origin, Reseda odorata, used since Roman times due to the fragrance of its flowers, and whose essence was used in the ancient cosmetics industry. The location of one of the parts of its origin (the mother species), provides information about the evolutionary mechanisms which produce species which are later useful to humankind," said Pedro Jiménez Mejías, the other co-author of the study and also a researcher at UPO.

Until now, the plant had been confused with related species, but the scientists have now been able to identify it as its own distinct species based on the number of stamens, seed size and petal colour.

Cosmetics, first used in Ancient Rome for ritual purposes, were part of daily life for women, especially prostitutes and the wealthy. The use of makeup was a time-consuming affair because cosmetics needed to be reapplied several times a day due to weather conditions and poor composition. As well as the “designer brands”, there were also cheap knock-offs that were sold to poorer women. 

Perfumes were very popular in Ancient Rome, and were used by both men and women, although mostly by women. In fact, they were so heavily used that Cicero claimed that, “The right scent for a woman is none at all.” They came in liquid, solid and sticky forms and were often created in a maceration process with flowers or herbs and oil. Perfumes were rubbed on or poured onto the user and were often believed to be helpful against different ailments, such as fever and indigestion. Perfumes were also used as deodorant, to freshen houses, and in thermal bath houses.

By April Holloway

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