Aromatic plants and fragrant flowers are some of nature’s most beautiful creations. In the long history of planetary evolution, it was the appearance of flowers that initiated the rapid expansion of biodiversity that has created the world we now live in. Now, fragrances from flowers, leaves, roots, seeds, and woods are an important part of every culture, as medicines, foods, spices, perfumes, and incense.
The distillation of essential oils evolved over the course of at least 4,000 years; it is one of the many contributions made by alchemists in their search for health, longevity, and spiritual knowledge. Evidence points to the possibility that simple methods for extracting aromatic principles from plants may have been one of humanity’s earliest refinements of botanical materials, and a major step leading toward later herbal preparations.
Essential oils have a direct and profound effect on the deepest levels of the body and psyche. Because their primary route of absorption is inhalation, they have a strong and immediate influence on the mucous membranes of the respiratory system. Passing through the capillary beds of the sinuses and activating the olfactory nerves, the fragrances of the oils enter the brain, producing systemic effects on the neurological, immunological, and hormonal functions. Essential oils powerfully enhance positive mental and emotional states, and build resistance to pathogens.
In Chinese terms, essential oils in general are medicines for the Shen, the spiritual essence that resides in the heart and governs consciousness. In Ayurvedic terms, they enhance the flow of prana (life force), nourish ojas (nutritional / immunological essence), and brighten tejas (mental luminosity). However, the pharmacy of flowers is vast, and it contains highly effective medicines for every kind of physical and nonphysical illness. One could study a small number of oils for a lifetime, and still not know everything about them.
Of all the numerous types of workshops, lectures, and meditation retreats that I have given over the years, sharing essential oils has consistently produced the most wonderful and interesting results of uplifting, energizing, inspiring, and euphorically intoxicating large groups of people. This is in part why nature created flowers and aromas, and why we must work to preserve these treasures for future generations.
The Four Global Benefits Of Medicinal Plants
Medicinal plants, especially the aromatic species, are the key to solving numerous interrelated global issues. The benefits of medicinal plants can be summarized into four major categories: healthcare; sustainable economies; environmental protection and ecological restoration; and preservation of ethnobotanical wisdom. When the full potential and possibilities of these benefits are considered, it becomes apparent that medicinal plants are one of humanity’s greatest natural resources.
The first global benefit of medicinal plants is nontoxic, affordable, locally available healthcare. Botanical medicine is the oldest form of healthcare, and remains the primary source of preventive and curative treatment for 80 percent of people in developing countries.
Aromatic plants and their essential oils have an important role in the present and future healthcare systems of the world. Many are strongly antimicrobial, with antibiotic powers that are highly resistant to bacterial adaptation. A small number of oils can be used for a large number of common conditions, especially infections of the skin, and the respiratory and digestive systems. Many of the common aromatic culinary herbs and spices used throughout the world have significant therapeutic value and are used extensively in traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda.
The economic benefit of medicinal plants has two primary aspects. The first is the income derived from the cultivation, processing, and sales of medicinal plants and their products. Medicinal plants have provided livelihood for innumerable people in every part of the world for millennia. Now, as demand for medicinal plants increases and supplies diminish, their economic value is rising, making them more lucrative as cash crops. Many species of medicinal plants are now the world’s most expensive legal crops; as the global market expands, more communities can begin producing herbal products as a way of lifting themselves out of poverty.
The cultivation of herbs and the production of essential oils are helping to economically revitalize and sustain poor rural areas around the world. By supporting farmers and distillers engaged in theses activities, we are helping them continue their age-old livelihoods. Herb cultivation projects protect communities from the destructive trends of corporate agribusiness and allow people to continue living on the land. Organic agriculture is difficult and labor intensive, but for many people throughout the world the only alternative is migrating to the slums of large cities.
The second economic benefit is the availability of affordable medicines for local populations. Locally grown or wild-harvested herbs are relatively inexpensive compared to allopathic treatments and pharmaceutical drugs, and provide a foundation for nutritional enhancement and preventive therapy.
Most of the important antimicrobial oils, such as tea tree, eucalyptus, oregano, and thyme, are relatively inexpensive, since the plants grow prolifically and produce abundant amounts of oils. These oils require only simple distillation equipment and methods, and minimal investment is needed to start a local industry. The low cost of the oils, combined with their high effectiveness, offers an important alternative to expensive imported antibiotics in developing countries.
The third global benefit of medicinal plants is ecological and environmental preservation and restoration. When a community cultivates crops of high quality organic plants or manages an ecosystem that provides secondary forest products such as wild-harvested herbs, the biodiversity of the region is protected, restored, and maintained.
Herbs are now being used in numerous projects to make forests and wilderness areas economically viable, and thus protect them from logging and other destructive practices.
Another ecological benefit of some medicinal plants is phyto-remediation, the use of plants to purify environmental toxins and to regenerate ecosystems. Several important medicinal plants that are important for ecological restoration, such as neem trees, thrive in barren and degraded lands; some, such as vetiver grass, are sources of aromatic oils.
When communities are supported by plant-based economies that protect ecosystems, ethnobotanical traditions can be preserved. The long history of accumulating knowledge about plants is one of humanity’s most important legacies, and the foundation of culture itself; ethnobotanical wisdom is intimately linked with ceremony, diet, agriculture, art, and innumerable other aspects of traditional earth-based lifestyles. The knowledge of plants preserved within indigenous cultures is not only the basis of local healthcare, but is also valuable in the development of new medicines and herbal products.
The Pharmacy of Flowers multimedia presentation introduces a number of high quality oils and attars that are not commonly known or encountered, and examines some of the ecological, economic, social, and spiritual aspects of the plants they come from. Contained within each bottle of essential oil are many stories - the people whose lives are intimately connected to the plants; the ways the plants are cultivated, harvested, and distilled; the powers of the oil; the history of the oil through the ages; the symbolic, mythological, and religious roles of the plant and its oil; its place in commerce.
A vast amount of documented research and literature is available about these oils; students are encouraged to study their use carefully before utilizing them personally or professionally. Eight of the oils in the program are presented below, with emphasis on their global benefits.
Do not use essential oils internally.
Do not apply directly to skin; always dilute with carrier oil.
Keep out of reach of children.
Avoid contact with eyes and mucous membranes.
Do not use citrus oils before exposure to UV light.
Use only pure essential oils; avoid synthetic fragrances.
Do not use essential oils on infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, or those with serious health problems, without advanced medical study.
Avoid prolonged exposure without ventilation.
Store essential oils and carrier oils properly to avoid degradation and rancidity.
Roses have a long history of use in perfumery, cosmetics, and medicine. They are one of the most important commodities of the floral industry. Of all the flowers, rose is probably the most universal botanical symbol of spirituality in religious culture.
There are more than 5,000 varieties of roses, yet only a few give the fragrance sought by perfumeries. The most popular is the pink to light red Damascus rose (Rosa damascena forma triginipetala). This variety, along with the white rose, (Rosa damascena var. alba), are the two crops grown in the Valley of Roses in Bulgaria, one of the world’s oldest and most famous rose producing areas. The Rosa damascena, Rosa centifolia and Rosa bourbonia are older varieties of roses which play an important role in India's rose industry.
Roses are an example of how organic farming sustains and protects ecosystems and provides local plant-based economies. Sustainable rose cultivation methods have been practiced in some places for hundreds of years; the Damascus rose was brought to the Valley of the Roses from Tunisia in 1420. Roses had been well established throughout this area of the Turkish Empire for several centuries before that time.
The production of high quality rose oil is labor intensive. Unlike plants which produce high concentrations of essential oils, such as lavender or rosemary, rose petals secrete only minute amounts. It takes 3,500 kilos of flowers to produce one kilo of oil; this is 1,400,000 handpicked blossoms to produce thirty-five ounces of oil, 40,000 blossoms for one ounce of oil, and sixty-seven blossoms to make one drop of oil. The petals must be harvested in the early morning hours, before the heat of the sun evaporates the oil.
Roses play an important economic role in all the regions where they are cultivated. In parts of India, Bulgaria, Turkey, Morocco, and other places, they are a major item of commerce, providing perfume oil, fresh flowers for garlands and the flower industry, medicines, food flavorings, and other items.
The fragrance of rose oil produces a gentle but potent antidepressant effect. It brings joy to the heart, promotes feelings of love, reduces fear, drives away melancholy, and helps recovery from sadness and grief. Rose oil relaxes the nervous system, restores adrenal function, and is very helpful for balancing female hormones. As a perfume, rose fragrance represents the essence of purity and innocence, yet is also a sensuality-enhancing aphrodisiac.
Rose petals are valued in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as a sweet, cooling, and astringent anti-inflammatory. Gulkand, an Ayurvedic jam made primarily of rose petals and rejuvenating herbs, is used as a cooling tonic to combat fatigue and heat-related conditions; it is also naturally rich in calcium and has antioxidant properties. Rose petals are used as an adjunct in laxative and digestive formulas, and as an infusion for internal inflammations. Rosewater is good compress for conjunctivitis, infected wounds, fevers, and in various inflammations.
In cosmetics, rose is unsurpassed as a beauty oil. It benefits every skin type, especially infected, dry, and sensitive skin. Rosewater is an excellent skin lotion.
Ocimum sanctum; Holy Basil
Tulsi is an aromatic herb with powerful healing properties that is used extensively both in Ayurvedic clinical and folk medicine. It is also an example of a plant which plays a central role in religious devotion.
Recognizing that plants have special powers, traditional cultures incorporated them into their mythologies and religious practices. By doing so, the plants become part of society, and were protected and cared for. Recognizing the sacred life-giving and health-promoting aspects of medicinal plants and re-introducing them into culture will help bring humanity back into a harmonious relationship with the natural world.
Holy basil has been revered in India for thousands of years. It is regarded as the incarnation of Vishnu, and a favorite plant of Krishna and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. It has a special place in the courtyard of Hindu homes, and the daily religious rituals of many families are centered around the worship of this plant. It fills the surrounding atmosphere with a high quality medicinal aroma, which repels mosquitoes and purifies the air.
Tulsi devotional rituals are based on classical Tantric ceremony. The plant is placed in a special altar, invoked and adored as the embodiment of Vishnu or the Divine Mother, given ritual watering, and offerings of incense and food. The worshipper prostrates to the invoked deity, dresses the tulsi in silk offering scarves, and decorates it with flowers. At the end of the ceremony, the leaves are taken as a sacrament.
Tulsi has a wide range of applications for curing common illnesses and preventing diseases, both in whole plant form and as an essential oil. Ayurveda considers tulsi a purifier of the mind, body and spirit. It is heating in nature, so it benefits cold, phlegmatic conditions. It is used primarily as a diaphoretic expectorant and aromatic digestive stimulant. It is a powerful mosquito repellant.
Holy basil is easily cultivated in a wide range of climates. Two major varieties of tulsi are in cultivation: the green variety, which is the most common, and the purple.
Boswellia sp.; Olibanum
Frankincense is an aromatic resin with a long history of use. It is a powerful medicine, a universally known incense, and a source of livelihood for nomadic tribes. Frankincense has always been synonymous with spirituality; like myrrh, it was a prized possession in the ancient world, equal in value to many precious gems and metals. The resin has been a major item of commerce for at least 3,000 years.
Frankincense is harvested by making small incisions in the bark of the aromatic tree, producing a milky white resin that hardens as it dries. The collected resin is separated into grades, and stored in dry caves to cure before being sold.
The traditions of caretaking frankincense trees and harvesting their resin have played an important role in the life of nomadic desert tribes of North Africa for millennia. The trees are owned by families living in the area where they grow; ancient rituals surround the harvesting of the resin, and guardianship of the trees is passed on from generation to generation. The traditions, customs, and ceremonies surrounding frankincense, like many other important plants, are being lost. As people embrace modern lifestyles, the old ways of caring for the plants vanishes, and the plant’s numerous benefits are lost. Frankincense was once a source of many items of commerce, including medicines, dyes, and cosmetics,
Botanically, frankincense trees are an excellent example of the natural diversity that can occur in different species of the same genus, and different varieties of the same species. There has been much confusion about the proper identification of the various types of frankincense, because of differences in species (approximately 25), varieties of individual species, quality of resin, micro-climates, and time of harvesting. Wild frankincense trees have a wide range of characteristics even within the same basic climatic zone.
The essential oil of frankincense contains more than 200 individual natural chemicals, giving the fragrance a very complex bouquet. There is considerable variation in the proportion of these components depending on the micro-climate where the trees grow, the season at which the resin is harvested, and a number of other factors.
Frankincense has astringent, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It is most beneficial to the respiratory system and the skin. It enhances immunity, calms the nervous system, and promotes a relaxed state of mind. Traditional uses have included chewing the gum for strengthening the teeth and gums and stimulating digestion, inserting the resin into painful teeth, applying to inflammations, inhaling the vapor for headaches, in eye washes to treat soreness and infection, and dissolved in milk for cough.
Frankincense is used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as an ingredient in blood vitalizing compounds, and externally for poultices.
Sandalwood is an aromatic tree that has played an important role in medicine, perfumery, spiritual culture, and religious ceremony. Sandalwood is an excellent example of the challenges facing many medicinal and aromatic species: demand is high, wild sources are depleted, and the trees mature slowly.
Sandalwood is one of the oldest incense materials, which has been in use for at least 4,000 years. Greek texts from the 1st century A.D. mentions sandalwood as one of the items being imported from India. The steam distilled oil is used as the base in making attars, the traditional perfumes of India. The oil is used in international fragrance industry as an important fixative for perfumes.
Sandalwood is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree; it is semi-parasitic, and requires complex symbiotic ecological relationships to thrive. Sandalwood trees reach their full maturity in 60 to 80 years, when the heartwood and roots have achieved their greatest oil content. The harvesting of sandalwood is destructive, because the trees must be uprooted.
Sandalwood trees are facing numerous ecological, political, and economic challenges. They are one of the most lucrative forest products in the world, and under threat from the high demand for wood and oil. Continuous harvesting, little regeneration because of fires, farming, cattle grazing, and disease have led to serious declines in wild populations. Although sandalwood as a species in not immanently endangered, the old growth trees which produce the highest quality oil are under extreme pressure; some authorities believe that the last of the old trees will be gone within twenty years.
The price of sandalwood in India increased ten-fold between 1980 and 1990, and smuggling is widespread. The bulk of what leaves India for the commercial market is exported illegally. Political corruption, a large black market, and lack of resources make enforcement of existing regulations ineffective.
Large programs of sandalwood reforestation are underway in Indonesia. Vietnam and New Caledonia have well controlled plantations of genuine sandalwood; however, the cultivation of sandalwood in India has had limited success. Sandalwood as a short or medium-term source of income is unattractive because the oil is only obtained from the heartwood of mature trees and the tree is slow growing.
The quality of Indian sandalwood oil is generally poor, due to widespread adulteration and distillation of oil from immature trees. Adulteration is no longer detectable by standard tests. According to experts, more than 85 percent of Indian sandalwood oil is adulterated or from immature trees. A true sandalwood oil must be legally procured, and come from mature trees.
Sandalwood has been used extensively in traditional Asian medicine. The wood is used in decoctions, powders, pills, and ointments as a cooling astringent with anti-inflammatory properties; the oil is used in massage and aromatherapy primarily as a calming and relaxing fragrance for enhancing mental and emotional peace.
Aquilaria agallocha; Aquilaria sinensis; Eaglewood
Agarwood is an excellent example of an endangered tree that has tremendous potential for creating economically sustainable tropical agro-forests. It produces one of the world’s most valuable aromatic resins, which is highly in demand as an incense and medicine.
Agarwood trees grow in the foothills of Assam, Burma, Vietnam, and Papua New Guinea.
The fragrant resin is secreted within the heartwood as an immunological response to a fungal disease which attacks the trees. Trees of 80 years old are the richest in content of agar, but trees of 50 years or older yield commercial quantities.
Agarwood is highly endangered. Its resin has been prized for centuries for perfumes and incense, but the tree has nearly vanished due to a long history of reckless harvesting. At $1,000 an ounce, pure oil of wild harvested aquillaria is one of the most expensive oils in the world; because of its rarity and cost, it is also one of the most frequently adulterated oils.
A number of successful projects are underway to develop sustainable agarwood cultivation and increased resin production. In order to have success growing a long-term tree crop, these projects require coalitions of scientists, foresters, farmers, distillers, and industry officials. These projects have found that agarwood plantations can be successfully developed as an agro-forestry enterprise, and that agar trees can be induced to produce resin nearly ten times faster than in nature. Development of agarwood plantations is an ideal way of generating income and employment for low-income families living in and around project areas, as there is a long-term market for a wide range of agarwood products with rising demand and a rapidly diminishing supply.
The oil of agarwood is deeply hypnotic, calming, and meditative. The wood is used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a pungent, bitter, and warming stimulant. It is a strong analgesic, anti-emetic, and benefits certain kinds of asthma.
Nardostachys jatamansi; Himalayan spikenard
Jatamansi is an example of the complex factors which cause medicinal plants to become endangered: high demand, overharvesting of wild populations, loss of habitat, slow growth of the plant, and destruction of its life-supporting parts. It is also an excellent example of a plant that could lift communities out of poverty if brought into sustainable cultivation.
Jatamansi has been used as medicine and perfume since antiquity. It was mentioned by the Ayurvedic physician Susruta (500 BCE) in a prescription for epilepsy. It has been used throughout ancient Persia, Turkey, and Egypt; its use as an anointing oil and aromatic treasure is mentioned in the Bible.
There is a great demand for the root and oil as traditional medicines, which is increasing as Ayurveda becomes known throughout the world. Jatamansi is prescribed by Ayurvedic physicians for a wide range of health problems, but primarily as a nervine tonic with sedative attributes. It is a member of the Valerianaceae family, and functionally similar to Valerian root. Jatamansi oil is used in perfumery and incense; it is also used in hair oils, and is reported to promote growth of hair and impart blackness.
Jatamansi grows in steep alpine areas of the Himalayas. It prefers open, stony and grassy slopes, the turf of glacial flats, and is also found growing in forests of silver birch. The plant grows slowly in the alpine environment, and because the rhizome is used, the plant is destroyed by harvesting. Jatamansi, and the biodiversity of Valerianaceae family in general, is under threat in India and Nepal. Most plant material used in medicine and for oil is collected from the wild, but some cultivation projects are now underway in Nepal.
Jatamansi is a plant that could lift many communities of the Himalayan region out of poverty. High quality roots are in limited supply, and there is a growing demand. Because the oil is scarce, adulteration occurs frequently. It is possible that with more support from local governments and Ayurvedic herb companies, sustainable Jatamansi cultivation could become a significant source of income for the villagers of the remote Himalayan regions. Some projects are now underway in Nepal, primarily in the western Humla district.
Vetiver is an example of an aromatic plant that has important ecological uses. It has valuable uses in protecting and conserving the soil, recharging groundwater, and detoxifying agricultural poisons. It also provides a number of important items to households and farms, such as fragrant sleeping mats, thatching for roofs, mulch, and animal feed.
Vetiver is a grass which grows up to six feet high; its complex root system can be fifteen feet long. Vetiver grows in dense clumps, which act as a highly efficient filtering system that slows down rainfall runoff. The grass is a very effective form of ecological flood control, which reduces the loss of soil and soil nutrients. Of all the grasses, vetiver is the most effective for reducing soil erosion.
Groundwater resources throughout the world are being rapidly depleted. Groundwater not only supplies wells and springs, but also enhances the dry season flow of major river systems. Recharge of groundwater improves when rainfall runoff is reduced. Vetiver’s roots are extremely strong, and can penetrate hard soils that other plants cannot, thereby opening the soil to improved absorption and filtration of rainwater. In places where vetiver is planted, the soil moisture and groundwater are improved significantly; water levels in wells are higher, springs do not dry up, and small streams run longer into the dry season.
Vetiver has a dual function of both increasing groundwater levels and improving its quality. It thrives in polluted water, is effective in removing excess phosphates, and it mitigates environmental problems resulting from toxic minerals. There is evidence that vetiver can remove pesticides as well.
Vetiver is easy to establish, is inexpensive, and needs minimum maintenance. It thrives in a wide range of ecosystems and different soil types, can withstand serious drought and long term water logging, is more tolerant to hot and cold than the other grasses, and is not seriously affected by pests or diseases. It promotes the growth of other plants and helps restore vegetation. Vetiver is now being grown for environmental purposes in over 100 countries.
Vetiver roots are the source of an exquisite oil that has been used for centuries in medicine and perfumery. This oil is one of the most biochemically complex of the known aromatic oils, due to the absorption of soil molecules by the roots. The oil produced by vetiver in one soil type can be dramatically different than the oil produced in another.
According to Ayurveda, vetiver oil pacifies vata (calms the nervous system) and decreases pitta (anti-inflammatory).
Cananga odorata, var. marcrophylla
Ylang ylang, the `flower of flowers,' or the “queen of flowers,” is a tall tropical tree with large pink, mauve, or yellow flowers, which grows in the Philippines, Reunion and Comores Islands (the “islands of perfume”), Madagascar, Indonesia, Java, and Sumatra.
Ylang ylang is an excellent example of an agro-forest product that helps protect rainforests from commercial destruction. In the Comores Islands, the world’s major producer, 60 tons of oil are distilled annually in 400 traditional copper stills owned by families and communities. By providing a sustainable forest crop, ylang ylang trees are an economically viable alternative to destructive logging and ranching practices.
Ylang ylang is an example of how the climate and soil of different regions can affect the quality of the oil. The Superior Extra Grade comes from places with a superior climate for the tree; one of the best is on the island of Mayotte, off the coast of Madagascar.
The fragrance of Ylang ylang oil is very floral and sweet. It is an important ingredient
in perfumes and cosmetics, giving blends a voluptuous, narcotic, sensual, and exotic note.
In modern aromatherapy it is regarded an oil which stabilizes emotions, which is especially helpful for nervousness, depression, and tension.
Published with the kind permission of David Crow
David Crow, L.Ac. is an acupuncturist and herbalist with over twenty years experience, a health educator, and a meditation teacher. He is the author of “In Search of the Medicine Buddha,” a book about his studies of Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine in the Himalayas. He is the founder of Floracopeia Aromatic Treasures, which supports ecologically sustainable agriculture through the production of essential oils and aromatic products. David has presented his vision of grassroots healthcare, preservation of botanical medicines, and the use of plants for ecological restoration to hundreds of audiences, ranging from small private groups to conferences and lecture halls, to a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama broadcast internationally to millions of viewers. He can be contacted at http://www.floracopeia.com
Copyright © 2006 David Crow. All rights reserved.