Ambrette is a cotton and okra relative that originates from India and is cultivated for its seed which yield a valuable essential oil. The main centres of cultivation are its native India, the Seychelles islands, Nosy Be island in Madagascar, El Salvador in Central America, Martinique in the Caribbean and Ecuador and Colombia in South America.
It is a coarse annual undershrub, commonly 1 to 1.5 m (3 to 5 ft) tall, woody at the base with an erect, semi-woody main stem and with slim stems branching off all around, all of which have a covering of bristly hairs.
Leaves deep green, large and broad, up to 20 cm (8 in) long and even wider, variable in shape but usually palmate with shallow or deep lobes, toothed margins and are covered with fine hairs.
Flowers large, hibiscus-like with yellow petals and purple centres. They are followed by five-ridged seedpods similar in appearance to okra but are shorter and wider and like other parts of the plant are finely haired. When mature, they contain many small, greyish-red, sometimes greenish, flat kidney-shaped seed.
An essential oil traded as 'Musk oil' or 'Ambrette Seed Oil' is extracted from the seed. The oil is traditionally extracted by steam distilling the whole or crushed seed, however, this is slowly being replaced by new supercritical carbon dioxide extraction technology, which allows extraction at low temperatures with a less damaging effect on the oil.
The oil is highly valued in perfumery as well being sought after as a flavouring agent for a variety of products, including branded chewing tobacco, alcohol beverages such as liqueurs, vermouth and bitters and some baked goods and sweets. It is a clear light to dark yellow liquid with a distinctive, long-lasting brandy, floral and musk-like aroma and flavour.
Tinctures or water-based liquid extracts are also prepared from the seed, for use, in combination with the oil, as a flavouring component in the manufacture of branded vermouth and bitters products.
Seed production averages around 900 kgs per hectare per season in commercial plantations and with an oil content of 0.2 to 0.6% yields 1.8 to 5.4 kgs of oil, or 1.6 to 4.8 lbs of oil per acre.
The seed has value in traditional Indian or Ayurveda medicine for use in preparations for treating stomach and urinary ailments as well as nervous debility. In Chinese medicine, they are used in the treatment of headaches.
Grows naturally in humid subtropical and tropical lowland to mid-elevation climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 13 to 25 °C, annual highs of 23 to 35 °C and annual rainfall of 800 to 2500 mm.
It is grown from seed sown in prepared soil at the start of the rainy season, after which the plants are tended until they flower and form fruit, which is about four to five months after sowing.
Growth performance and disease resistance is best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a mildly acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 and on sites with full sun exposure.
The seedpods are harvested when mature and have begun to turn from green to brown. Then they are strewn on a flat, hard surface in the shade where they are left to dry until they split open and release their seed. Afterwards, the seed are collected for processing or are bagged for shipping to a processing facility.
It bears many seedpods, each of which contains many small viable seed that are easily dispersed when the seedpod matures and splits open. It is recorded as an invasive species in at least one reference publication, a term reserved for the most serious weeds of the environment and agriculture.
The fine hairs on the plant and seedpods are an irritant to the skin in some people.
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