Featured Scent: What Does Vetiver Smell Like?

Vetiver is an intriguing scent used in many perfumes and fragrances. It’s an amazingly versatile base note that comes in many different presentations – depending on the type of vetiver used and the other scents it’s paired with – making it somewhat tricky to put a finger on what exactly vetiver smells like. 

Some describe the smell of vetiver as similar to a grassy lawn. It gives off a sharp and enticing earthiness that adds warm, grounded qualities to the beautiful fragrances that feature vetiver — like those of our “Lady Day” and “Seneca” luxury candles.

If you’re interested in learning about vetiver, this article will help explain what vetiver is and what this scent really smells like.

What is Vetiver?

Vetiver is the colloquial name for Chrysopogon zizanioides, a fragrant bunchgrass native to India and Southeast Asia. In India, the essential oil from vetiver has long been referred to as the “oil of tranquility” and used as an ingredient in ancient perfumes and incense powders.

Vetiver grass grows in small tufts or clumps, unlike the common lawn grass found in backyards, fields, and parks. It can grow as tall as five feet in height, and it shares many morphological similarities with other fragrant grasses, such as citronella and lemongrass. 

One distinguishing feature of vetiver is it’s unique root system, which grows downwards to form a thick vertical tangle of roots (rather than forming a horizontal mat). Surprisingly, these roots can reach lengths of 15 feet or longer underground!

Vetiver was first introduced to the perfume world in the early 1800’s, and has since become a key ingredient in many modern perfumes, candles, colognes, and other scented products. It’s now cultivated in countries all over the world, such as Haiti, Indonesia, West Africa, and Japan.

There are many types of vetiver, mainly due to differences in geography, climate, and cultivation methods. That’s why there seems to be such a large spread in terms of the quality and smell of vetiver. 

The two most common types of vetiver are the Haitian variety, which smells more floral, and the Indonesian (Java) variety, which smells more warm and smoky. When paired with other notes, both of these variants work wonderfully in their own way. 

What Does Vetiver Smell Like?

Traditionally, vetiver is considered to be a more masculine scent belonging to the woody fragrance family. Vetiver smells warm, dry, and earthy — and depending on the type, it can also convey various floral, leathery, balsamic, and smoky notes. 

Again, it’s important to emphasize that there isn’t a singular “vetiver scent” — the type of vetiver used, how the essential oil is distilled, and the other scents it’s paired with can lead to big differences in how the smell of vetiver is presented. 

That said, the smell of most varieties of vetiver share certain qualities:

  • Sharp and dry 
  • Earthy
  • Woody 
  • Rooty
  • Sometimes citrusy
  • Sometimes green and floral
  • Sometimes leathery and smoky

Vetiver smells like dry grass on a warm day, with damp clumps of soil still clinging to its roots. 

Some people perceive slightly citrusy or soapy notes, similar to that of lemongrass. But compared to lemongrass, vetiver has a much stronger earthy and woody qualities. Others say vetiver is similar to patchouli in terms of earthiness, but we say that the smell of vetiver is more complex and resinous compared to patch. 

It’s earthiness can be woody and astringent, sometimes to the point of being medicinal. If that doesn’t sound pleasant to you, don’t worry — in fragrances that use vetiver, the astringency is usually obscured by other sweet, spicy, or citrusy top notes. 

The masculine qualities of vetiver, often used in men’s colognes and aftershaves, might conjure memories of an old-time barbershop. Nowadays, vetiver is used in a lot of unisex and women’s fragrances as well. It’s a very interesting and pleasant smell that blends really well to create a variety of warm, grounding, and sensual aromas.

Some well-known perfumes featuring vetiver as a base include:

  • Chanel Sycomore 
  • Guerlain Vetiver Pour Elle
  • Lancome Hypnose
  • Creed Original Vetiver
  • Carven Vetiver
  • Prada Infusion de Vetiver
  • Tim McGraw Southern Blend

Where Does the Vetiver Scent Come From?

The smell of vetiver mainly comes from its roots. Like we mentioned before, vetiver has a very unique root system that grows vertically downwards. 

These roots are harvested when the plant is 18 to 24 months old. After they’re harvested, the roots are washed, sun-dried, cut, and soaked in water before the vetiver essential oil is extracted via steam or hydro-distillation. 

Unlike the majority of essential oils used in modern perfumes and fragrances, there is no synthetic version of vetiver. That’s because vetiver has a uniquely complex and enigmatic scent profile with over 100 chemical components. Some of its main odor constituents include:

  • Khusimone
  • Vetivone
  • Nootkatone
  • Patchoulol

Khusimone is recognized as the main molecule that gives vetiver its characteristic earthy and woody aroma. Vetivone is another important component that’s responsible for some of vetiver’s woody and medicinal notes.

Nootkatone is known as being responsible for the characteristic smell of grapefruit, and is the reason why some people find the scent of vetiver to be fresh, bright, and citrusy.

Interestingly, vetiver essential oil contains also patchoulol, which is the main constituent in patchouli. Patchoulol is often described as earthy, sweet, and camphoraceous.

Benefits of Vetiver in Aromatherapy

The warm, pleasant aroma of vetiver seems to have a relaxing and grounding effect that helps calm the mind and emotions. After all, vetiver has been long known as the “oil of tranquility” for good reason.

Vetiver is also wonderful scent for boosting focus and alertness, especially when working or studying. Studies have shown that inhaling vetiver oil improves brain function and alertness, helping your brain feel more awake when completing tasks. 

Our Favorite Vetiver Candles

Vetiver is one of those notes that can inspire so many different fragrances, feelings, and emotions. At the Harlem Candle Company, we use vetiver to create a warm, sensual base for our original luxury candle scents like our ever-popular "Lady Day" or our new "Seneca" fragrances.  

Lady Day

Vibrant and full bodied, yet graceful and delicate, just like Billie Holiday herself, this intoxicating blend brings together lush green leaves, neroli, gardenia, ylang ylang, and coffee flowers. A warm, addictive base of coconut milk, sandalwood, and vetiver provide the perfect finish. 

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Seneca

Transports yourself to a fragrant, bustling kitchen with top notes of spiced black tea, wild thyme, and crisp cedarleaf. Incense, cade and red clove create a warm aura at the heart, leading beautifully to the resinous, woody freshness of birch and vetiver. Modern, powdery concrete provides the perfect smooth finish. 

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