Orange Blossom in Morocco and Tunisia

Orange Blossom in Morocco and Tunisia

Orange Blossom...

A flower whose scent and flavor are an indelible part of our collective memory, the orange blossom occupies a central role in the history of Western perfumery.
Originating from the southern slopes of the Himalayas, the bigarade or bitter orange tree was probably first cultivated more than 2,000 years ago in China, where it was valued as an ornamental tree for the delicate fragrance of its flowers.
From Asia, this precious plant was brought to the shores of the Mediterranean, whose soils and climate suited it to perfection. In the footsteps of the Arab conquest it was spread throughout the entire region, especially in Spain, where it still adorns the lanes and gardens of Seville.
As early as the 14th century, the very first perfume recipes called for orange blossom, and by the 17th century its sweet, mellow fragrance was highly prized in the French court. Louis XIV had the architect Mansart build an orangery in Versailles in order to enjoy the subtle odor of its flowers in the spring. Anne Marie de La Trémoille, wife of the Prince of Nerola, loved its fragrance so much that the essence of orange blossom, neroli, was named after her.

..the flower of the mediterranean

The first known instances of orange blossom distillation in Europe date from the 16th century. A milestone came in the late 18th century, when neroli, combined with petitgrain and bergamot, inspired the first cologne, the famous Eau de Cologne 4711.
Soon after, the first orange groves for perfumery were planted in southeastern France around the city of Grasse, and thrived until the mid-20th century. Today the bigarade orange tree is grown mainly in northern Africa, in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.
Every part of this marvelous tree is a source of aromatic pleasure: its flowers, leaves, fruit and zest are used in floral waters, infusions and essential oils for myriad purposes ranging from personal care to fragrance, from cuisine to aromatherapy. In these pages we invite you on an adventure, to discover a flower with an eternally enchanting fragrance.

The promise of springtime

A spring flower, the orange blossom makes its appearance only after the cold of winter, which plays an indispensable role in its life cycle. In April the first buds emerge, turning the tree branches white.

A fresh, delicate flower

As the flowers bloom, their vibrant fragrance marks the first sunny days of the year. The air fills with a zesty floral odor, subtle but penetrating.

A generous tree

A hardy, robust plant, the bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium var. amara, offers an extraordinary abundance of riches. The bitter pulp of its fruit is used to make the marmalades beloved by the British. Its zest, pressed to yield bigarade oil, flavors liqueurs like Grand Marnier. Its leaves contain an essential oil called petitgrain, and its blossoms are gently distilled to produce neroli and orange floral water.

A well-traveled tree

Originally native to the foothills of the Himalayas, the bitter orange tree was brought west by Arab travelers and the Muslim conquest, first to Syria and Egypt, and then the entire Mediterranean Basin. Eventually it arrived in southeastern France, although its exact route is not known.

From Grasse to North Africa

For nearly a century, until the 1950s, Grasse was a center of neroli oil production. With the first days of spring, the sweet odour of orange blossom wafted across the rolling countryside.
In 1956 a severe frost killed most of the Provençal orange groves, hastening the decline of French production, and the market was gradually taken over by North African growers.

North Africa, the bitter orange tree’s adopted homeland

Already in the early 20th century, French perfumers seeking warmer climates with less frequent frosts began planting bitter orange trees in North Africa, mainly in Morocco and Tunisia. Oranges were also grown in Egypt, but not on such a large scale — the trees there were mostly cultivated by the English for the production of marmalade.

A domesticated plant

Despite its hardiness, as evidenced by the sharp thorns that naturally cover its branches, the bitter orange tree is grafted with varieties bearing evocative names like Bouquetier de Nice (“Niçois bouquet maker”) and Bigarade à Fleur Empereur (“emperor blossom bitter orange”).

A flower worth waiting for

After the tree is planted, it takes at least five years before the first flowers can be harvested, and five more years to reach full productivity. With regular tending, the trees can continue bearing blossoms and fruit for more than 40 years.

An intensive harvest

Grouped in clusters, the buds open one by one during the monthlong blossoming period. The flower pickers go over each tree four or five times, picking the blossoms as they open and leaving the buds for later.

In Tunisia, orange groves by the sea

The Nabeul region, 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Tunis and not far from the sea, offers a warm, humid climate that is ideal for the bitter orange tree.

Small plots of land

In local tradition, each family has its own small orange grove, lovingly tended for the blossoms. As a result, the Tunisian crop comes from a multitude of very small growing operations, with an average of 40 trees. Cultivated without grafting, the trees grow tall, obliging the harvesters to use ladders to pick the blossoms.

The flower market

In the morning, the freshly picked flowers fill the market squares, where traders, after fierce haggling, gather up large bundles for delivery to the distillation sites. Many Tunisians also buy orange blossoms at the market to make floral water for their own household use.

In Morocco, orange trees between the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains

Morocco’s green belt, between Fez and Marrakech, is home to the largest bitter orange plantations. Every year the warm breezes from the Atlantic Ocean clash with the cold air from the Atlas highlands, making it impossible to predict when the first blossoms will appear.

Integrated growing operations

Most of the handful of factories that produce neroli have their own orange groves. Biolandes tends 50 hectares (125 acres) of bitter orange trees in Khemisset.

A smooth organization, run by women

Well before sunrise, the women are ready for a day of picking. The buses that take them to the orange groves begin swarming the roads at dawn. At the height of the harvest, up to 1,200 women work at the Biolandes site in Khemisset.

A fast-paced day in the orange groves

The harvesters work in teams of three or four. The youngest one climbs the tree while the others pluck the blossoms from the low branches. Tarpaulins are spread out around the trunk to catch the picked flowers. Any leaves that fall among them must be carefully sorted out — at the factory, no trace of petitgrain oil from the leaves can be allowed to alter the neroli oil from the blossoms.

Hard work and tea breaks

The women pause for a cup of mint tea at the edge of one grove before continuing onto the next. For them, the orange blossom harvest is also an opportunity to chat for a while and socialize.

From the fields to the factory

Twice a day, at noon and in the early evening, bags of blossoms are trucked from the fields directly to the factory. Or, if the factory is nearby, the tarps themselves are delivered as soon as they are full.

Weighing, and compensation for the pickers’ time and effort

The burlap bags filled with flowers are ready to be weighed — an important moment of the day, when work is translated into earnings.

Letting the flowers breathe one last time

At the factory, the bags are emptied and the blossoms spread out on the ground to await processing.

Repeated distillation

Steam rises from the stills as the men take turns loading them at a steady, rapid pace.

A precious golden liquid: neroli

At the end of distillation, the precious neroli is retrieved from the separator. One ton of flowers, representing a full day’s work for a hundred pickers, yields a single kilogram of oil. Every drop counts.

Orange blossom fragrances

Neroli oil has a zesty floral odor whose fresh yet mellow character is inevitably associated with eaux de cologne. The absolute is much more sensual, with a subtly animalic, sometimes almond-like tinge. Its opulent note is often used to enrich floral oriental compositions for women. In addition to these qualities, there are also distinct differences between the two origins: more honey-like for Moroccan orange blossom, more floral for the Tunisian variety.

Expertise in fine natural products starts with the soil

The Biolandes orange groves in Morocco are all organic certified, guaranteeing a neroli of the finest quality.

Looking to the future…

While perfumery remains an important market for orange blossom extracts, neroli and orange floral water are finding more and more uses in natural cosmetics, aromatherapy and flavors. The high demand is encouraging the development of growing operations, not only in North Africa but also in countries where bitter orange is a new crop. The adventure of the orange blossom is far from over…


North Africa: Morocco 1,200 tons of blossoms, Tunisia 1,500-2,000 tons, Egypt 500-800 tons.

A low yield: 1 ton of flowers for 1 kg of oil and 2.5 kg of concrete.
An annual production of 2 to 2.5 tons of oil and about 1 ton of absolute.
A large global market for orange floral water, totaling several hundred tons.

In addition to perfumery, orange floral water has many applications in cleansing, cooking, cosmetics, etc. The essential oil is also prized as an ingredient in cosmetics, and for its beneficial effects in aromatherapy. As a food flavoring, its floral note enhances many fruit flavors.

An operation at the source with a processing site in Morocco: An organic plantation in Khemisset spanning 160 hectares (395 acres), 50 ha. of which are devoted to orange blossom.