Vibrant Viburnum: the fascinating chemistry of fragrant flowers

There’s a Viburnum carlesii bush (sometimes called Koreanspice) near my front door and, right now, it smells amazing. It only flowers for a relatively short time each year and otherwise isn’t that spectacular – especially in the autumn when it drops its leaves all over the doorstop, and I’m constantly brushing them out of the house.

But it’s all worth it for these few weeks in April, when everyone who has any reason to come anywhere near our door says, ‘ooh, what is that smell? It’s gorgeous!’ We also rear butterflies at this time of year, and they love the flowers once they’ve emerged from their chrysalids. (No, of course this isn’t an excuse to include all my butterfly photos in a post. Painted lady, since you ask.)

But let’s talk chemistry – what is in the Viburnum carlesii’s fragrance? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Fragrances, as you might imagine, often are. We detect smells when volatile (things that vaporise easily) compounds find their way to our noses which are, believe it or not, great chemical detectors.

Well, I say great, many animals have far better smell detection: dogs, of course, are particularly known for it. Their noses have some 300 million scent receptors*, while humans “only” have 5-6 million but, and this is the really fantastic part, by some estimates we’re still able to detect a trillion or so smells. We (and other animals) inhale air that contains odour molecules, and those molecules bind to the receptors in our noses, triggering electrical impulses that our brains interpret as smell.

Most scents aren’t just one molecule, but are actually complex mixtures. Our brains learn to recognise combinations and to associate them with certain, familiar things. It’s not that different from recognising patterns of sound as speech, or patterns of light as images, it’s just that we often don’t think of smell in quite the same way.

Viburnum carlesii flowers have a fragrance often described as sweet and spicy.

So my Viburnum bush – and the flowers I’ve cut and put on my desk – is actually pumping out loads of different molecules right now. After a bit of hunting around, I tracked them down to (brace yourself for a list of chemical names) isoeugenol, eugenol, methyleugenol, 4-allylsyringol, vinyl-guaiacol and methyl nicotinate, plus the old favourites methyl salicylate (this stuff turns up everywhere), methyl benzoate (so does this), indole, cinnamic aldehyde and vanillin, and then some isovaleraldehyde, acetoin, hexanal, (Z)-3-hexen-1-ol and methional.

Phew.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about the chemistry of all of those. But just for a moment consider how wondrous it is that our noses and brains work together to detect all of those molecules, in their relevant quantities, and then send the thought to our conscious mind that oh, hey, the Viburnum is flowering! (It’s also pretty astonishing that, in 2021, I can just plug all those names into a search engine and, with only a couple of exceptions, get all sorts of information about them in seconds – back in the old days when I was studying chemistry, you had to use a book index, and half the time the name you wanted wasn’t there. You kids don’t know how good you’ve got it, I’m telling you.)

Anyway, if you glance at those names, you’ll see eugenol popping up quite a bit, so let’s talk about that. It’s a benzene ring with a few other groups attached, and lots of chemicals like this have distinctive smells. In fact, we refer to molecules with these sorts of ring structures as “aromatic” for this exact, historical reason – when early chemists first isolated them, they noticed their distinctive scents.

Eugenol is an aromatic compound, both in terms of chemistry and fragrance (image source)

In fact there are several groups of molecules in chemistry that we tend to think of as particularly fragrant. There are esters (think nail polish and pear drops), linear terpenes (citrus, floral), cyclic terpenes (minty, woody), amines (fishy, rot) and the aromatics I’ve just mentioned.

But back to eugenol: it’s a yellowish, oily liquid that can be extracted from plants such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, basil and bay leaves. This might give you an idea of its scent, which is usually described as “spicy” and “clove-like”.

Not surprisingly, it turns up in perfumes, and also flavourings, since smell and flavour are closely linked. It’s also a local antiseptic and anaesthetic – you may have used some sort of eugenol-based paste, or perhaps just clove oil, if you’ve ever had a tooth extracted.

Plants, of course, don’t go to the trouble and biological expense of making these chemicals just so that humans can walk past and say, “ooh, that smells nice!” No, the benefit for the plant is in attracting insects, which (hopefully) help with pollination. Which explains why my butterflies like the flowers so much. (Another butterfly pic? Oh well, since you insist.) Eugenol, it turns out, is particularly attractive to various species of orchid bee, which use it to synthesise their own pheromones. Nature’s clever, isn’t she?

By the way, notice I mentioned anaesthetics back there? Eugenol turns out to be too toxic to use for this in large quantities, but the study of it did lead to the development of the widely-used drug propofol which, sadly, is pretty important right now – it’s used to sedate mechanically ventilated patients, such as those with severe COVID-19 symptoms. You may have seen some things in the news earlier this year about anaesthetic supply issues, precisely for this reason.

Isoeugenol has the same “backbone” as eugenol, with just a difference to the position of the C=C bond on the right. (image source)

Back in that list of chemical names, you’ll see “eugenol” forming parts of other names, for example isoeugenol. This points back to a time when chemicals tended to be named based on their origins. Eugenol took its name from the tree from which we get oil of cloves, Eugenia, which was in turn named after Prince Eugene of Savoy – a field marshal in the army of the Holy Roman Empire. And then other molecules with the same “backbone” were given the same name with prefixes and suffixes added on to describe their differences. As I said in my last post, this sort of naming system it was eventually replaced with more consistent rules, but a lot of these older substances have held onto their original names.

Still, regardless of what we call the chemicals, the flowers smell delightful. I’m off to replenish the vase on my desk while I still can. Roll on May, vaccines and (hopefully) lockdown easing!

Take care and stay safe.


*it’s even been suggested dogs’ super-powered sense of smell might be able to detect COVID-19 infections.


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Butyric acid, a very smelly molecule

Did you know that you’re walking around with an incredibly sensitive chemical detector, capable of detecting and identifying substances at levels as low as 0.2 parts per billion (I’m talking about gases here, but if you think about this ratio in another way it’s about half a second in a century), and possibly even lower? Capable of distinguishing between millions and very probably trillions of different substances and mixtures of substances?

nose

Did you nose you were carrying around a very sensitive chemical detector?

Well you are. It’s your nose. Dogs, of course, can do even better than humans (bloodhounds can easily detect substances in the parts per trillion range) but our noses are still pretty impressive.

We are particularly good with nasty smells, for very sensible evolutionary reasons. If it smells bad it’s probably bad for you, stay away and definitely don’t eat it.

Which brings me to butyric acid, or butanoic acid (to give it its official IUPAC name, which literally no one uses outside of A-level chemistry). Butyric acid is a small molecule, early in the list of carboxylic acids, and you might imagine a chemistry student would meet it, well, if not frequently then at least once or twice during their studies. After all barely a week goes by when we don’t crack open the ethanoic acid (also known as acetic acid, the stuff that gives vinegar its pungent smell).

And yet I managed to go for years and years without ever knowingly coming across the stuff. I knew about its theoretical existence of course, and never really thought about it much beyond that. After all, you can’t use every chemical can you? I obediently followed my lab book instructions and then later specialised in physical chemistry, so the opportunity to fiddle around with cocktails of interesting organic molecules of my own choosing never really arose.

Butyric-acid

Butyric acid: it’s very stinky.

When I finally did get my hands on a bottle of butyric acid I quickly learned why it had never featured in an undergraduate practical task.

It stinks.

Of horrible things.

Everyone that smells it seems to identify it slightly differently, but descriptions fall out of the: ‘pooh, farts, sick, smelly feet, sweat, gone-off curry, sour milk’ general category of bad smells. Occasionally someone will generously suggest parmesan cheese, but really, it’s not that nice.

It’s not a smell that goes away, either. It’s a stench that just keeps on giving. One of my students managed to get a tiny drop of it on a lab bench and, despite trying to clean it up, the smell lingered for weeks. In fact it was quite interesting. Most people could smell it for about two weeks (as in, they walked into the room and immediately said “ugh, what’s that smell?!”) After that fewer and fewer people immediately reacted, but every now and then someone would walk in and complain of a horrible stink, which by then no one else was really noticing. I assume these were individuals with unfortunately (in this situation) sensitive noses, perhaps with great futures ahead of them as chefs, sommeliers and perfumers. Although some fairly recent research has suggested that ability to recognise smells has more to do with training than innate ability. Still, who nose? (Hehe)

So what is butyric acid and why is it so stinky? It’s name actually comes from the Latin word butyrum (or buturum) meaning butter, because it was first extracted from rancid butter by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (bet he loved his job). It’s a fatty acid, which means it’s one of the building blocks of fats. The fat molecule made from butyric acid makes up 3-4% of butter, and tied up in this form it’s completely innocuous. However once those fats start to break down, the evil butyric acid starts to be released.

italian-parmesan-cheese

Probably the least offensive thing associated with butyric acid. Probably.

It’s generally found in dairy products, and is a product of anaerobic fermentation (that is, fermentation that happens in the absence of oxygen), hence the links to butter and parmesan cheese. Anaerobic fermentation also happens in the colon. Hence, ahem, the pooh smell. Oh yes, and butyric acid is also what gives vomit that distinctive, smell-it-a-mile-off, odour.

And this, of course, is why we’re so good at detecting it. Humans can pick this stuff up at 10 parts per million (going back to those time analogies, that’s the equivalent of 32 seconds out of a year) which explains why the stench appeared to linger on and on – that single drop of pure butyric acid would have contained something like a thousand trillion molecules. Evolution has trained us to detect and avoid this stuff because it’s very probably a sign of disease and potential infection (gone-off food, vomit, faeces etc). This is stuff we need to steer well clear of to avoid getting ill, and so nature has given us a handy mechanism by which to detect and avoid it, of the “yuck! What is that smell?! I’m out of here!” variety.

pineapple

From nasty to really quite nice: you can make pineapple scents from butyric acid.

Funnily enough though, it does have its uses. There are molecules called esters which can be made from butyric acid (that’s why we were experimenting with it in the first place) which actually smell rather nice. In particular there’s one that has a lovely apple-pineapple smell, and another that smells of apricots and pears. As a result, these much nicer-smelling substances are used as food and perfume additives.

The salts of butyric acid (butyrates, or butanoates) have interesting effects on the cells that might be in your colon. Butyrate actually slows down the growth of cancer cells in this area, while at the same time somehow managing to promote healthy, normal cells. Exactly how this works isn’t well understood, but it seems to be linked to dietary fibre. Yes, I’m afraid to say you can’t swap cheese for bran flakes and vegetables. You still need to eat your fibre.

Butyric acid also helps to prevent salmonella bacteria from taking hold in poultry, and as result it’s used as a chicken feed additive (lucky chickens). It’s also been used as a fishing bait additive, particularly for carp bait. And perhaps not surprisingly it’s been used, along with a cocktail of other stinky stuff, in stink bombs.

So even the stinkiest of molecules has it’s uses, and maybe it’s not so bad after all. Makes you wonder how anyone ever developed a taste for parmesan cheese though, doesn’t it?
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