Michelle K. Gagnon is a plant whisperer.
Far beyond having a green thumb, the bio-alchemist, olfactive artist, distiller, aromatherapist and environmentalist sees botanicals as “master communicators” and mysterious sources of beauty. She comes by this sense honestly, descending from a longline of botanists and gardeners.
As she traveled the world as a young woman, she found herself gravitating organically towards learning about the plant-life in each destination, exploring their various benefits, scents and souls. Ultimately, she spent six years creating her signature Face Oil, replete with rare botanicals, the likes of which even she had never seen.
Now, she’s readying to officially launch her line, Bio Alchemy Olfactive, with a hair oil and balsam for lips and skin sourced from her extensive aromatic collections, as well as resin-based collaborations with Peruvian artisans.
Here, she explains what plants can teach us:
Live The Process: How did your family’s legacy of botany and gardening impact your own interests?
Michelle K. Gagnon: My great uncle was recognized as the world’s finest floriculturist during the mid 1900s. He bred roses and created an extraordinary amount of new species and varieties, including the first thornless rose—at the time, a century-old dream finally accomplished. Although I did not grow up in the rose greenhouses like my father, I grew up in the woods with wild berries, wild flowers and meadows, and I feel rose running through my veins.
LTP: How did this become your life’s work? What do you mean when you say that “plants are master communicators”?
MKG: Since I was a little girl, I have been curious; and I believe my curiosity has led me to so intimately explore aromatic plants as both medicine and olfactory art.
My work with essential oils and distillation began as a lifestyle. My travels organically became focused around botanical medicine and cultural tradition through pure passion and intrigue. I have devoted myself to—and fully immersed myself in—this lifestyle, which I love wholeheartedly. My experience distilled into sustainable work almost without my awareness. In a way, I feel as if this work has found me.
Plants are highly intelligent. They are master communicators with well-established communication systems. One way they communicate is via their essential oil (their scent). These chemical signals can be broadcasted to surrounding species, ward off predators, attract pollinators and allow a plant to survive and thrive in its environment.
Plants can communicate via mycelium networks and root systems; the doctrine of signatures can also be viewed as means of phyto-communication.
Plants also have the ability to communicate with us directly. The reason we can inhale lavender and feel a sense of calm and ease is because the phytochemicals come in direct contact with our brains and trigger physical changes in our body chemistry—such as lowering blood pressure, relieving pain and so on. Messages from the plants transmit to our bodies and minds directly.
LTP: What’s unique about your creations?
MKG: I create luxury experiences and high-quality bio formulations that elicit a shift in one’s consciousness and encourage a meaningful connection to nature, our environment and ourselves. All of my creations offer a sensorial experience that encourages homeostasis, fosters curiosity and delivers potent phytonutrients to the skin and the bloodstream beneath, effecting the physical, emotional and spiritual body.
Face Oil was my first formulation for my own line and has taken me six years to complete. The formula is imbued with over 2,000 phyto-antioxidants, vitamins and trace minerals provided from organic, biodynamic and sustainably wildcrafted botanical extractions I’ve sourced from around the world.
What makes my face oil unique is that I can share a story about each and every ingredient—the farmers who grow them, the harvesters who collect them, how they are distilled or extracted and where. A deep understanding of these botanical materials gave way to this extremely potent, high-quality luxury face oil. It is a synergy of some of the most precious botanical extractions in my collection, including a quartet of roses—some wild, some biodynamic, some organic. It is exquisite, if I do say so myself.
LTP: You travel the world, uncovering rare botanicals. Why is it important to you to work with ingredients in this way? Can you tell us a bit about a recent discovery or two?
MKG: It is imperative to me to work with high-quality oils and extractions. Since 90% of essential oils on the market are adulterated, I am only interested in working with materials whose origins I know.
It is such a pleasure for me to participate in harvests and distillations around the world and to experience this earth’s abundance. Although hard work, it feels like such luxury. These experiences allow me to connect more intimately to the plants, uncover new exciting materials and deepen my understanding.
There are so many variables in this field of work: The soil composition or altitude where a plant is growing can affect its chemistry and overall aroma profile. Once I began to source, I realized there are many considerations, and some may be more appropriate for a particular usage than others.
I also feel as a society, in general, we can get so fixated on trends or new “superfoods” and we consume until the resource is dried up. With the biodiversity this planet has to offer, there is no reason to repeatedly use the same ingredients or oils. I am more interested in what I don’t see than what I see so repeatedly.
I always have a new botanical muse. This past May, I visited the Rose Valley in Turkey and Bulgaria and encountered a rare rose essential oil I’ve never heard of or even seen before. This new rose oil is like a rose jam, slightly citrus when it hits the nose, sparkling, a little fruity and very voluptuous. This is now in my Face Oil.
I am also very intrigued by some of the aromatic plants I came into contact with while traveling through the Amazonian jungle and the Andes this past winter.
I found a plant in the pepper family whose essential oil is so crisp and clean, like a sip of fresh mountain air—unlike anything I’ve ever smelled! I am currently working with local distillers and botanists there to identify which variety and species we will work with.
LTP: Please tell us about all your upcoming launches and projects. And please do be specific about ingredients etc. They sound amazing
MKG: At the moment, I am working on some special formulations and collaborations for a few clients in the wellness world. I am also very excited about some more products I’m launching for my line, Bio Alchemy Olfactive. This will showcase some of the rarest and most exquisite collections from my journey with this work. In addition to Face Oil, I have just finalized a formulation Hair Oil, inspired by wild jungle aromatics. It uses some very special artisanal extractions from jungle trees and fruits. I’m also working on a balsam for the lips/skin made with the sweetest, most delicious resin I’ve ever met, which grows only on one small island.
I am working closely with some indigenous communities throughout Peru and South America and am honored to share what we’ve been exploring together. The collection will expand to include a unique curation of raw tree resins and woods to burn as natural incense, one of a kind hand-sculpted incense burners and a selection of exotic essential oils that are difficult to come by—from countries and climate zones around this Earth.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
MKG: Happiness looks, smells, feels and sounds like many things to me.
I find that I often equate happiness to exploration—of self, of a passion or curiosity, of a feeling, place, emotion, plant or desire and of growth, since it is inevitable in all things.
Happiness is also contentment and peace. My inner happiness and peace is easily brought forth by nature—walking barefoot outdoors, sun-ripened fruit on trees, a bee rolling around in pollen, the smell of a flower or the earth after rain, communication with no words, a warm pot of tea and the sound of silence.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
MKG: To me, “living the process” is exercising what I believe in and continuously feeding my curiosity. I ask questions and explore answers, form my own opinions and live according to my ethos, which reaches all corners of my life. I feel nothing is impossible and find joy in the down and dirty aspects of my work/life, even if it means sleeping on a wooden plank in the thick humid jungle.
I admire the process; I appreciate it and I respect it. I understand that knowledge is infinite and, with this, my process continues.
Photo by June Bug Kim