Palmarosa, Rose Water, and Time: A Love Letter
This post was written for us by a friend of Clementine Fields, Tess Degenstein.
PalmaRosa, or Cymbopogon Martinii, is a grass-like plant, grown in Nepal, and harvested for its essential oil. The name alone conjures luxury: containing both Rose and Martini, the plant begins courting you before you’ve even met. It is lemongrass’ sweeter sister, and the soft scent the extracted oil emits is light, floral, and as its name suggests, rose-like.
During my childhood, my mom had roses in her room. Not live ones, but printed, captured on duvets, hand-sewn window treatments and ceramics: her room a perfect time capsule of 1989. In fact, that was the year that I, at 2, was taken to Fanny’s Fabrics, to help her pick the rose patterns that would decorate her room. I hazily remember watching her sew the window treatments, mount them herself.
I have many very young, very hazy memories like this, memories that belong to me now, but were formed when I was a tottering little creature: drooling, screeching around the house, peeing in diaper, peeing on floor. (The fact that we are somehow in a continuum with our baby selves, is itself a giant exclamation point on the notion of: Time!) And most of them involve her.
PalmaRosa plants flourish in a nursery. At the early stages- seeding and growth- they can be fragile, and if left to their own devices, easily overrun with weeds. The nursery helps to maintain the pH balance of 7/8 as well as soil moisture above 60%, low nitrogen, and higher quantities of phosphorus, and potassium. It’s all very exacting science that I learned just now on Wikipedia. But the point is: the plant must be tended to, and nurtured.
I have memories of my mother cleaning the eaves, arriving home from work in Nine West pumps, letting me fall asleep on her chest until I was much too old, swaying to Phantom of the Opera, microwaving me nachos, buying off-brand toothbrushes on camping trips, and laughing easily until tears ran down her face. Thirty years later, she still laughs like that, and her bedroom, with its rose-patterned trinkets and window treatments, remains the same, frozen in 1989.
A particular memory has crystallized, in part due to repetition: I am lying on the carpeted floor while my mother washes her face in the morning, similar versions of this memory has us in these same positions as she gets ready for bed at night. She’s applying various salves, not my business, part of the unknowable universe of being grown. Some years later, she told me that she was applying: rose water.
Twenty years later I am staying with a woman and mentor a few years older than me, working for a theatre away from my home. Time! Life has been rocky since I’ve been the one in charge of it…I’d do anything to be swaddled and fed again. One night we’re talking over wine as my friend gets ready for bed, and suddenly the air is filled with the smell of roses: It’s familiar but new…turns out she was using a rose “serum” (first time I’d heard of such a thing) containing palmarosa. I’m observing her routine as I observed my mothers every night growing up, and I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson and poet Dana Ward’s notion of the “many gendered mothers of my heart”, that maternal connection which can flower in the nursery, but can also spring up unexpectedly in the wild.
Years later still, I find myself experimenting with the balms and salves that will become a part of my adult ritual, and I found myself lead back to this same product used by my mentor in my 20s!: turns out its called Rose Glow Serum, made by a company called Living Libations which distills all of their highly concentration oils from wildcrafted and organically grown plants. I the case of rose glow: palmarosa, as well as seabuckthorn berries, rose otto, lavender, geranium… a gosh darn bouquet!
I do not own a house, I have no children, no eaves to clean, I don’t know how to sew a window treatment (had to look up what it was properly called). My skilllessness will keep me young surely! and yet, as my front-facing iPhone camera reminds me at every opportunity, ageing comes for us all, and I have long eclipsed the age I was when my mother had me. I have tried various serums and creams, fumbling about in the dark to soften/ tighten/ renew/ hydrate/ “Glow Up” my skin as experience and age hurtle me forward. Something about palmarosa has stuck, could be the soothing scent, the brightening effects, the dewy sensation of feeling refreshed. Could also be the comfort in tethering back in time, to my mother. Maybe we do this, woman’s lives accordion on each other to say private variations of: I surround myself with roses.
And as it turns out: The PalmaRosa crop grows slowly, taking its time to flower.