There is something so genuinely pure about growing plants simply for the delight of their fragrance. It has been my family’s job for 3 generations. How we came by this occupation is quite a story and one that comes with a rather odd request. We, or rather I, must ask you, dear reader, to use discretion about revealing the contents of what you will read hereafter.
The story begins in 1946. My grandfather, Dr. Jamison Edward Charles Stewart, taught what is now called Paleoethnobotany and Ancient History as a visiting professor in several universities around the world. He received his credentials from Balliol College Oxford. He spent 2 years traveling around the Middle East studying ancient and modern medicinal plants in detail.
Grandfather Jamie was born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, England. He learned all about the medicinal uses of the famous Pontefract licorice; this sparked his desire to learn about plants and herbs that have been used throughout history to treat ills. He thought he might like to be a chemist, creating medicines. However, he loved to travel, and he knew that if he became a chemist he’d be stuck in a stuffy laboratory. That would never do. Instead, he pursued Ancient Near East History and Botany in University. Eventually he became rather well known as a lecturer. He had a certain knack for helping people outside academic circles understand complex concepts in what he liked to call “historical botany”. He repeatedly told us that he hated all those stuffy academic words and pretentious settings. His goal was to help the general public to understand how history and botany worked together.
Grandfather was in every way a gentleman. His behavior, demeanor, choice of clothing, even the way he spoke distinguished him from most men of his social standing. He was a humble man. People from all walks of life found him approachable.
This skill set turned Dr. Jamison Edward Charles Stewart, ordinary lecturer and Paleoethobotanist, to an international man of mystery. He became involved in intrigue and subterfuge in 1948 in the wake of WWII before the declaration of independence by Israel. It was never his intention however, he could hardly refuse a request for help.
At the request of a fellow scientist he had stopped at the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco. This friend must remain nameless due to the sensitive nature of his work during the war. The British Government had hired my Grandfather as a consultant on the study of ancient grains that might be resistant to diseases and pests. During the Second World War food was important to the morale of both the British people but also to the troops. If they could grow grains native to Britain that were also resistant to most pests and diseases the food supply would be more secure. However, the opposite was also true, if the British could disrupt production of food or the supply lines of the enemy it might bring the war to a screeching halt. It was during this time Grandfather was introduced to a scientist working on fungi that might weaken grain. A man that escaped to Britain from Rommel in Africa. The two men became friends. It was this man who asked Grandfather to come to Morocco.
Though my grandfather was anxious to get home to my Grandmother Anne, my Uncle James and my mother Veronica, he could hardly refuse a request from his friend. For the purposes of this story we’ll call the man Khalid. Khalid was a brilliant scientist. My Grandfather was flattered to receive his invitation. Upon arriving at the home of his friend, he was surprised to find another man, a scientist named Binyamin Ostad. Happily the three men discussed the progress made in their various studies for a couple of hours. Then the subject turned to Binyamin’s presence.
Morocco, after the war, was full of people from countries all over Africa and the Middle East looking for a way to Europe where they might find work. Khalid explained that Dr. Ostad was a Pharmacologist. He used his training during the war to compound medicines from readily available plants. His talents were highly sought after by many unscrupulous people. He and his family were of Persian Jewish descent therefore, they were not safe living in Iran. My Grandfather was curious, of course. Khalid explained that he would need the help of a British citizen to safely accompany Dr. Ostad out of the country. Proper papers had been secured for his friend to legally enter Britain. The British government had agreed to accept him, his wife, and son as refugees. However, one problem presented itself, the papers refer to him as a gardener. Therefore, he’d need a British citizen to vouch for him as a gardener. While Grandfather Jamie had done some very important things during the war, he was no hero. For the sake of this man, his family, and for future generations, my Grandfather agreed to help Dr. Ostad. He admitted to Khalid a certain amount of apprehension. He was not sure he could protect them from harm.
To complicate matters Dr. Ostad brought with him from Iran some extremely valuable frankincense trees, a particular type of rockrose (Cistus Labdanum) valued for their scent, and some bulbs of paperwhite (Narcissus Tazetta Ziva) that he had cultivated. These plants were all very important to the Jewish people, to many faiths worldwide and also to the perfume industry. The plants were legally obtained and cultivated by Dr. Ostad in his own private garden. There should not be a problem getting them into Britain without question. These types of plants were transported regularly. The question became could they get these plants home to Britain safely. They were valuable. Kahlid, with the help of friends in the botany world, had thought of everything.
My Grandfather was, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary scholar. He had a wife, 2 children, a home, some inherited property, and an affection for the game of darts. Nothing had prepared him for what he was about to do. He wasn’t being asked to cheat or steal, but he was being asked to take responsibility for a man and his family. A proud man, a fellow scholar. Not to mention Dr. Ostad's life's work.
Binymin Ostad was a tall man, upright, with piercing dark eyes, a thin face that was deeply tanned, his hands showed the calluses of a gardener. His wife had striking blue eyes (a recessive trait), she was petite, but strong in her own way. Their son had eyes like his mother but the look of fierce determination that he had seen in his father’s face. Naturally, it would not be easy, but Khalid had prepared well.
They would set off the next day as Khalid had found them room on a large merchant ship headed for Spain. In relating this story to us Grandfather said that he had slept fitfully that night. Worrying that something would go wrong with the papers or the plants they were carrying with them. My Grandfather would have to say that the plants were legally obtained at his request. Very few people questioned his veracity. He was average in every way except his ability to communicate with confidence. Grandmother Anne used to say he could charm the birds out of trees. She was right.
My Grandmother received a telegram from my grandfather stating that he would be bringing a Gardner back to help him tend his ever expanding collection of various species of plants. She was glad, this way she would not have responsibility for them every time Grandfather went away. The plants were priceless to grandfather and to the government’s Ministry of Food. Naturally my mother was more than happy to have a gardener and his family come to live with us.
Once Grandmother knew of Dr. Ostad’s renown, he and his wife Nazrin Kashem Ostad and their son Abtin Cas came to our home as equals. He was a masterful scientist with an innate sense of what plants need to thrive. He helped my grandfather with the food plants he was growing while persuing his work with the species he brought from Iran. Mrs. Ostad would go on to become a professional language tutor. Together they had 2 more children: a boy, Dastan, and a little girl, Caspara. My mother and my uncle grew up alongside the Ostad children.
Soon my Grandfather was released from his duties at the Ministry of Food. While he continued to have an interest in Paleoethnobotany, he and Dr. Ostad began investing most of their time in improving the frankincense, rockrose (what some would call Myrrh) and the Narcissus (paperwhite) Tazetta Ziva plants. Eventually, and before the Frankincense trees became too large, the families decided that they would move to New Mexico in the United States. A farm would give room necessary for the Frankincense to grow, the families could expand their business and they could enhance security around the greenhouses. Preparing to move all the plants safely and securely was a bit of a logistical nightmare. None-the-less the move was accomplished without much damage to plants or people.
Together the men grew variants that were so unique in their scent, perfumers from across the world wanted to buy even a few grams of the rockrose or frankincense resin. The Narcissus was quite another story as it requires 500 Kilos of flowers to create 300 grams of oil. They produced the narcissus oil in much smaller quantites. While Dr. Ostad and my grandfather were fascinated by science. My mother and Abtin were learning the business end of botany and perfumery.
Some outside the small world of perfumery might say that our family had become obsessed with our particular business. It must have looked like that to outsiders. Howbeit, it was and is a big responsibility to cultivate plants with such a rich history in the ancient world. The present was bound up in the past. My parents taught me that nurturing living things teaches us lessons about nature and about ourselves.
For instance, The frankincense trees were large, over 6 feet tall, and appeared to be strong however in order to produce the best resin for fragrance, the trees must have the perfect environment. The tree will not start to produce quality resin until it is between 8 and 10 years old. Their significance to medicine, embalming, and perfumery was well known throughout the world. The tree is cut into in order for the resin to form and must be removed by hand in a painstaking process. The tree bears the scars of its notariety. Like humans, when we are hurt in our spirit, we grow stronger producing more beautiful character qualities. Wounds release our true grace.
Paperwhite Ziva, or Narcissus Tazetta Ziva, is grown from bulbs. They are in the daffodil family. Said to be the oldest Narcissus to bloom (also called by some The Rose of Sharon) is a tiny bright white flower with an orange/ yellow center that grows in some of the most austere conditions in the wild. The stems can grow to be 18 inches tall. They are very agreeable plants. They will grow inside or outside a house even in colder climates. Their delicate flowers have a sweet spicy scent valued by perfumers. Though the flowers are smaller than their “cousins” the daffodils, the paperwhite will grow to be about 18 inches tall. Paperwhite plants are quite remarkable, they never give up hope. The bulbs send roots down to search for needed water through hardened soil and rocks. The stems stretch up towards the sun that provides their needed nourishment. We all need friends like the little Paperwhite Ziva, those who never give up hope that life can be better even in the most unforgiving circumstances.
The Rockrose Or Cistus Labdanum is a tough little plant that grows wild in the mountainous desert areas. It has a very long history in the Middle East. Used in incense, and other ceremonial purposes the Rockrose is now valued as an ingredient in perfume. A hardy little evergreen species, the bright white flowers have a splash of brown in the petals and bright yellow centers. Their beauty against the stark desert area of their native habitat must be breathtaking. I know they are breathtaking in our greenhouses. Rockroses make the best out of their situations. They create beauty where they are simply because they can. I find that deeply inspirational.
In 1956 another sort of life else began to grow between the two families, a love life! A relationship between Abtin Ostad, the man who was to be my father and my mother Veronica Lea Stewart. This was not a natural progression. This relationship had more than a few ups and downs. My mother was a strong-willed woman with fiery red hair and a temper to match. Abtin, my father, was oftentimes unyielding in his opinions and argumentative. Still, he had his mother’s blue eyes, and an irresistible smile. It took some time for the two to realize that they were destined to be together. They were married on the new farm in New Mexico. Needless to say, when it came to business they were both committed to making it a multi generational family operation. Adding two sons and a daughter to the Ostad-Stewart family.
Sanctus Arbore, as our business became known, incorporated in the United States in 1957. Our goal was to achieve the most distinctive scents without compromising any of our plants. Where others used shortcuts in an attempt to speed the process along we used the methods that my grandfathers had learned. Compromise on these methods, in our opinion, would also convey compromise on our heritage. We, even the extended family, were pressured by outside forces to reveal our secrets, to take shortcuts, bribed to bring cuttings of our plants and various other acts of corporate espionage. All of us had made the commitment to creating a business of which we could be proud. These flowers, the bushes, and the trees were our legacy.
My brothers David and James went to college to study chemistry and I decided to take a different path. I wanted to learn horticulture. I wanted to tend and care for our greenhouses day to day. My mother decided I should go back to England for a year to study with friends in the Women's Farm and Garden Association. It was fascinating to visit other farms, large gardens and to talk to other women who had been tending gardens for years. When I came home I was very excited to work with my parents and their staff. I had so much more to learn. Such as, grafting in new wood to our trees. I needed to learn the specifics of manual pollinating and using insect pollinators. Composting, fertilizing, even keeping worms were all a part of developing plants and trees that could fend off disease without using chemicals. Each step had to be properly documented so that our clients could see the science behind our fragrance but not our trade secrets. At times the work was tedious but the result was so worth the effort.
This year my grandparents were to be recognized by the Fragrance Federation International for their lifetime achievement in growing and protecting the magnificent trees, shrubs and flower variants in our collection. Though my Grandfather Ostad had started the work, he and my Grandfather Jamie were two of a kind. The science and the soul of our corporation. Beside them as always my Grandmothers Anne and Nazrin. This was a great honor for our family. We celebrated with our co-workers on the farm and our community. It was the last major family event my Grandfather Ostad would see. Shortly thereafter, he took ill and passed away. Strangely enough, one of the original trees he brought from Iran died just one day later. Though odd to most outsiders, it was a reminder to us that life is brief and that we must do our best to leave the earth with a legacy of life and hope.