Descended from a long line of botanists, bioalchemist Michelle Gagnon traverses the earth in pursuit of revered botanicals that speak to the way we live with nature. We catch up Michelle during a quiet moment in her rooftop garden, a green oasis in the heart of West Chelsea, Manhattan.
You come from a line of botanists responsible for identifying 80,000 rose varieties. How has this background informed your work?
Roses are certainly in my DNA. My father’s uncle was a renowned floriculturist who created the world’s first thornless rose in the mid 1900s, a century old dream at the time. While I was not around to experience this achievement, I have spent considerable time harvesting and distilling roses myself, and share his innate desire to work closely with botanicals.
I began using essential oils for their aromatherapeutic and medicinal properties, and quickly learnt how important quality is to their efficacy. This realization began my life’s work of sustainable sourcing, harvesting, distilling, and studying plants at a much deeper level. Part of the beauty of the work is that we will never stop learning from these materials.
You focus on organic and sustainably wildcraft essential oils. Why is this emphasis important to you?
I believe that true luxury is respectfully sharing the best of what the earth bestows us, and this starts at the source.
Mindful harvesting of wild plants is vital to the health and cultural preservation of our planet. If cultivation practices employ pesticides and insecticides, the health of plants and soil is diminished and the population of pollinators that our ecosystems deeply depend on is harmed. As a side effect, the quality of botanicals we enjoy for health and wellbeing is also reduced.
I work with distillers who use sustainable agricultural approaches and seek to support and learn from time-honored, mindful cultivation practices that have dictated the use of plants for centuries.
I began using essential oils for their aromatherapeutic and medicinal properties, and quickly learnt how important quality is to their efficacy.
You travel the world to discover aromatic plants. Can you tell us a little bit about what these trips involve?
My trips take me to remote locations where I’m surrounded by an impressive amount of aromatic plants and distillers who share my values and beliefs. Here I help harvest the plants and flowers, sometimes for a few hours and other times for days or even weeks. After each harvest, a distillation takes place to extract the essential oil.
Upon returning home, and after a brief olfactory break, I revisit all the oils I’ve just sourced and select those which are most suited for my applications. For the oils which are completely unusual or rare I almost immediately get to studying and experimenting with them, as they provide so much inspiration!
What makes this work especially meaningful are the relationships I have formed with people of different cultures around the world, and the fact that I can support and encourage their hard work and respect for the natural world.
What are issues you care deeply about?
Climate change and bee colony collapse.
At what moments are you your most creative and expressive self?
When I am alone and in silence.
What botanical(s) are intriguing you right now?
This is always a good question. The forever answer is helichrysum (also referred to as Immortelle) - the living plant, fresh blossom, essential oil and hydrosol all resonate with me so well, I refer to it as my spirit plant! I am also feeling inspired by Caguena, an essential oil I encountered in the Amazon jungle. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have never smelled it before, but it is divine; it’s fruity and rich, sexy and earthy. I am working with a local community for sustainable extractions to share with you in the future.
Where is your favorite place in nature?
The Amazon jungle, in all its abundance. For a more immediate escape, I love to retreat upstate and to the woodlands near where I grew up in Durham, Connecticut and take in the meadows, tall grasses and wildflowers.
For those of us new to essential oils, can you share how they support wellness?
Essential oils affect our holistic wellbeing – our physical, mental and spiritual self. We process scent in the same part of the brain as memory and emotions. When we inhale the volatile compounds of essential oils, it alerts the hypothalamus, which sends the scent information to different parts of the body to influence a reaction. Think of essential oils as little chemical messengers that connect the brain to the body. This is why smelling something can influence our mood and response to physical ailments.
The current moment we’re living in is a great time to engage the senses, and diffusing essential oils in the home is a simple way to enjoy and experience the wellbeing benefits of botanical oils.
The weight of what we are experiencing emotionally may linger for quite some time, and essential oils can play a valuable role in supporting healthy emotional and mental states as we recover.
How do you incorporate essential oils in your daily life?
My life is lived in synergy with essential oils; their aroma seeps into all corners of my home, and come from my many daily rituals.
I have a home lab which naturally (and unintentionally) scents the home with whatever materials are inspiring me. I also have a diffuser set to release an aroma morning and evening; currently I am enjoying diffusing Omani frankincense and Poetica’s Verdure (our first creation together).
After showering, I apply a body oil which I make to suit my skin's needs. It usually includes rose, neroli or immortelle. I scent my hand soaps and cleansers with purifying citrus oils grounded in herbaceous or floral notes.
I love to cook, so the kitchen always smells of exotic spices from my culinary adventures. I start my day with lemon water and oolong tea (tie guan yin), so in the mornings the kitchen has a soft, floral aroma.
At the end of the day, lavender, rosewood, sandalwood or vetiver will do the trick to help me unwind into a good night’s sleep.
How do you think the global health crisis has influenced how we live with nature?
Through my work I’m already seeing an increasing demand for natural remedies. I believe many people are reassessing their approach to health and cleanliness, and cleanliness in particular is taking on a new and valued meaning.
I also feel that the weight of what we are experiencing emotionally may linger for quite some time, and essential oils can play a valuable role in supporting healthy emotional and mental states as we recover.
Can you share the inspiration behind Verdure, the first botanical scent we designed together?
We desired a scent that could could refresh one’s daily and essential rituals. We were inspired by reflections that felt clean, cool, and fresh. We took cues from the feeling of a warm cup of Andean mint tea that is refreshing yet earthy and grounding; added a subtle touch of sweetness from the body of a rose; and invoked the centering, meditative experience of frankincense.
The legacy I hope to leave is…
An imprint on the brain fed by the nose.
Follow Michelle’s work on Instagram at @michellekgagon.