For thousands of years, people from cultures throughout the world have worked with aromatic plants for healing, perfumes, cooking and for sacred medicine. We are often surrounded by aromatic plants in gardens and in forests. Think of roses, lavender, rosemary, daphne and jasmine that may grow in our backyard. Or think of walking through a forest of cedars, firs and pines. All of these aromatic plants and trees naturally exude “phytoncides”, volatile organic compounds that are enlivening, relaxing and healing.
Aromatic plants carry volatile constituents in their flowers, leaves and sometimes roots. These volatile constituents are found in essential oils and are made up of a number of compounds such as terpenes, esters, alcohols and aldehydes. Evolutionarily, plants developed these aromatic compounds for two main reasons- protection and attraction. Think of a time you have gone out camping and brought tea tree or eucalyptus oil with you to ward off the insects. Plants also exude essential oils to protect against invasion from bugs, critters, fungi and bacteria. They can also emit these chemicals as a warning to other species nearby that predators are invading. On the flip side, they also contain essential oils to attract pollinators. Think of a deliciously scented rose in a garden. That rose scent draws in bees that bothgather the nectar from the flower but also inadvertently gather pollen from the male flower and then deposit the pollen onto a neighboring female flower- leading to fruiting and reproduction. Similarly, humans have long anointed themselves with fragrant plant oils as perfumes to attract others.
On a final note, essential oils in plants can also act as additional help when a plant has been damaged by predation, wind damage or other forms of environmental stressors. Think of a Douglas Fir dripping resin down its trunk. That resin acts as a salve to seal up any cracks or wounds and the essential oil not only protects against further damage but also speeds up the healing process.
Humans have evolved with the medicinal plants around them and have long paid special attention to aromatic plants. We add them to our meals, make them into teas, extract their oils for perfumes, skin care and flavoring agents, macerate them into tinctures and medicinal liquors, infuse them directly into oils and burn them directly as smudge. Aromatic plants such as cedar, sage, copal and frankincense have a long history of use for spiritual and ritual purposes to sanctify, protect and heal.
Briefly, essential oils carry a chemical composition and can consist of literally hundreds of constituents. But generally there are a few main constituents in an essential oil that give it its prime scent. This is just a short list of some of the chemical families that are commonly found in aromatic oils.
Terpenes: Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, improve circulatory metabolism-Limonene, Pinene, Chamazulene (lemons, chamomile, douglas fir)
Esters: Anti-fungal, calming. Linalyl acetate (bergamot, clary sage and lavender)
Aldehydes: Anti-infectious and sedative- citral, citronellal (lemon balm, lemongrass, mandarin)
Ketones: Often toxic when isolated- good for cell regeneration, improve tissue growth, upper respiratory tonics- thujone (cedar, sage, mugwort, tansy) jasmone, fenchone (fennel)
Terpene Alcohols: Stimulate immune system, diuretic, antibacterial- linalol (lavender), geraniol, citronellol (rose, lemon, eucalyptus)
Sesquiterpene Alcohols: anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, ulcer protective: eugenol (clove) thymol (thyme) carvacrol (oregano)
So what happens physiologically when we take in the scent of a plant?
At a very simple level, we passively take in the scent of aromatic plants around us. Think of walking through a pine forest or a garden filled with rose and lavender. The aromatic compounds found in the glands of the flowers and leaves of the plant evaporate into the sky and become an aerosol that we breathe in passively. This form of “aromatherapy” is at the core of the practice of Forest Bathing. This Japanese tradition emphasizes the practice of going to the woods and taking in the beauty and aroma of the forest as a way of reducing stress, lowering anxiety and improving mood. The volatilized aromatic compounds, also known as phytoncides, act to relax and heal us.
Consider that the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors. Compare that to premodern people who spent almost their entire day outdoors. Just the act of being outside puts people into contact with the volatilized aromatic compounds from the plants and trees that help us to feel relaxed and calm.
So when we breathe in a scent, we are gathering these compounds up through the nasal cavity to the olfactory bulb where their scent is then processed by the limbic system. The nose contains receptors for thousands of scent profiles. In the limbic system, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland which then sends messages via the bloodstream, the olfactory cortex, the thalamus and the neo-cortex. The scent is distinguished and processed into thoughts, emotions and hormonal signals that affect our mood and wellbeing.
Different scent profiles will elicit different hormonal and neurochemical repsonses. For example. jasmine and ylang ylang stimulate the pituitary gland to secrete uplifting endorphins. Clary sage stimulates the thalamus top release painkilling enkephalins. Marjoram stimulates the secretion of serotonin.
Aromatic plants have numerous healing powers that humans have noted and taken advantage of over the years. Here are some ways they improve health and wellbeing:
Reduce/regulate blood pressure: lavender, lemon balm, ylang ylang
Antispasmodic: Ginger, lemon verbena, rosemary
Improve Digestion: Angelica, marjoram, thyme, chamomile
Expectorant: Eucalyptus, osha, hyssop, peppermint
Stimulate: Peppermint, pepper, rosemary
Sedate: Frankincense, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, rose
The use of aromatic plants for their healing properties has long been practiced since the time of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. However our modern understanding of aromatherapy, the use of aromatic compounds for their healing potential, really began in 1910 with Rene-Maurice Gattefosse when he wrote a book called Aromatherapy on the use of essential oils in medicinal practice. Aromatherapists are trained in how to work with essential oils for helping with health complaints and to improve emotional wellbeing.
Today, the field of aromatherapy has exploded as millions off people have become interested in working with essential oils. The business of essential oils is now greater than 10 billion dollars a year. While this interest is fantastic, several large scale essential companies have taken advantage of this interest by selling essential oils in immense quantities. It takes an enormous amount of plant material to produce just a small amount of essential oil. It takes 625 pounds of roses to produce just one ounce of rose oil. A few of these large scale companies also have been noted to not be ethical- overharvesting plants, illegally getting oils from plants that are endangered and working with pesticide rich plants in industrial farms. They have also promoted dangerous practices such as ingesting essential oils as well as acting as multi-level marketing businesses that take advantage of those who sell their products.
One of the main problems I see that is that people will work with a variety of essential oils without knowing very much about the plant, where it comes from or what it even looks like. Hey I have been guilty of this too. We also don’t have a sense of how these oils are made and what the process looks like. This is why it is important for me to help folks get to know aromatic plants in a way that is ethically sustainable and helps you to really get in touch with the plants directly.
I work with a copper split top rotating column alembic- a fancy name for a still that has a basket for steaming the plants and flowers. The alembic is copper and hand made by traditional artisans in a practice that goes back to the 17th century. Though humans have worked with stills for more than 5000 years, the modern still that allows for liquor and essential oil distillation was invented over a thousand years ago by the Arab chemist Al-Kindi.
The still became a popular tool for many households in the Renaissance and later- as people became interested not only distilling alcohol, but also distilling essential oils and “floral waters” (also known as hydrosols) for perfuming and cooking (Think adding rose water as an ingredient to a meal).
I consider the still the main “instrument” of herbalists. Just as a guitarist plucks notes with strings to bring forth beautiful music, an herbalist steams flowers and leaves to elicit a dizzying array of aromatic terpenes, alcohols, esters and aldehydes that can bring forth a beautiful scent to the nose. The still is the nexus point of a number of different disciplines.
1- Alcohol making. Sadly we are not allowed to produce distilled alcohol from a still as moonshining is still illegal
throughout the States (unless you have a permit). This is sad for many reasons, but for herbalists the main reason is that alcohol is often one of the main substrates we use for medicines (think tinctures and elixirs). Many herbalists are often forced to rely on industrially made alcohol made from grains. Herbalists traditionally could work with their own local plants and fruits to make a ferment that could then be distilled into alcohol. Think how cool it would be to gather your own peaches or pears, ferment them and then turn them into a liquor. Or think of working with honey made by bees using local flowers and then turning that sugar into an alcohol as a base of medicinal preparations.
Small distilleries with a bioregional flavor are popping up throughout the country but it is still pretty exorbitant (hundreds of thousands of dollars usually) to start one’s own distillery business. Distilleries throughout time have worked with aromatic plants for some of their most famous liquors. Think of gin, made with aromatic juniper berries, or absinthe- made with the bitter and strongly aromatic wormwood. We are in a big movement to reconnect with small scale artisan distilling- but it is still out of reach for herbalists who want to pursue the practice cheaply and legally. Hopefully that will change in the future as other previously illegal practices are being increasingly allowed (cannabis growing in Oregon for example).
2- Perfumery. Prior to the advent of synthetic perfumes, traditional perfuming was done using a combination of essential oils, hydrosols, tinctured and infused herbal oils. There are an enormous amount of scent profiles, and combining scents to make a perfume is truly an art form. Natural perfuming without synthetic compounds is still very niche these days but increasingly people are wanting to return to the roots of this field by not only working with natural fragrances but also distilling the plants themselves. One of the most profound ways of perfuming is to combine a number of plants in a still to produce a “co-distillation”- where a unique perfume is made up of different plants gathered and placed in a still. These natural perfumes can never be duplicated as they come from very particular plants blended together at a certain moment of time.
3- Aromatherapy. This is the discipline of working with plant essential oils for helping people with emotional and physical health issues. From the use of essential oils diluted in carrier oils for massage, to inhaling volatile oils from infusers, aromatherapy is the ancient practice of helping people to heal via scent. As I outlined above there are some serious problems with the large scale industrial manufacturing of essential oils. This is one of the reasons I support people learning how to distill their own plants. This helps for a number of reasons. It leads us to more sustainable usage of plants and helps us know how much it really takes to produce a small amount of essential oil and therefore hopefully use E oils more sparingly. Learning to distill also helps us to value hydrosols (also known as distillate and traditionally known as floral waters). A hydrosol is the aromatic water that traditionally was seen as a byproduct that could be discarded. Now hydrosols are used in cosmetics, perfumery, cooking, cocktail making and for aromatherapy as well.
4- Cosmetics. Though the cosmetic industry is almost entirely involved with synthetic compounds mixed into natural bases and oils, traditionally cosmetics were made from infused and distilled plant oils mixed into carriers. A cosmetic herbalist was deeply adept at knowing how to work with plants from the field and extract their oils and hydrosols using a still for ungents, creams and salves.
5- Alchemy. The practice of alchemy involves the transmutation of base materials into an
exalted state. This can be seen philosophically- such as the transformation of our own soul from a more base state to one that is more refined and more closely aligned with God. Or one could see alchemy as the actual physical process of transforming materials into a more refined and rarefied state- often using a distilling alembic. Though the concept of alchemy has been around for thousands of years, Islamic and European medieval and renaissance alchemists focused on the use of stills, plants, minerals and laboratory equipment to conduct experiments that mixed early concepts of chemistry along with magic, astrology and neo-platonic philosophy. Some of these experiments involved trying to transform lead to gold and working with the legendary philosopher’s stone- a substance thought to impart rejuvenation and immortality.
Today there is a renaissance happening in the field of alchemy. We are more easily able to purchase and access stills and complex laboratory equipment such as the soxhlet in order to make medicinal and alchemical preparations. One of the most important parts of this renaissance is the making of spagyrics, alchemical preparations with medicinal and magical healing qualities. Through the use of stills, alchemists can capture the aromatic volatile oil portion of a plant and combine it with traditional infused alcohol preparations (tinctures) along with using the burnt char of the original herbal material. Each part of this corresponds to traditional alchemical concepts.
In alchemy there are three main properties known as mercury, salt and sulfur.
The mercury represents the life force of a plant, is associated with the water element and is represented by the alcohol tincture of a plant.
The salt is associated with the earth, the body and the grounding force in a preparation and is represented charred ashes of the plant material.
The sulfur is associated with the fire element, the unique signature or soul of a plant, the consciousness and intelligence of a plant. It is represented by the volatile essential oils in a plant.
Generally spagyrics are made with astrology in mind. Certain times of the day and days of the week correspond to energetic patterns and alchemists generally consider these as well as the astrological correspondence between the plants and planets in order to make prerparations.
So as we can see the still is at the core of a number of important disciplines connected and associated with traditional herbalism. I am a huge proponent of encouraging herbalists to reconnect to the roots of herbalism, which often involves still work.
Aromatics in Practice
OK outside working with a still for drawing oils and hydrosols from aromatic plants, there are numerous other ways to connect to aromatic plants. Its key that we don’t just rely on essential oils but also engage with the myriad other ways that we can incorporate aromatic plants into our lives. Lets take a look at some of them.
Forest Bathing: Known as shinrin yoku in Japan, forest bathing is the practice of passively taking in the colors and scent of a forest to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and improve sleep and mood. Though forest bathing sounds like a fairly obvious way to destress, it has been studied extensively since 1990 and shown to be an effective tool for helping people to heal from physical and emotional complaints. By measuring blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol and adrenaline levels before and after forest bathing, scientists could measure the actual salutary changes in health and well being. Researchers are looking primarily at how the aromatic compounds released naturally in forests influence health. Also known as phytoncides, scientists note that taking in these aromatic compounds help with everything from immune function to decreasing inflammation levels to shifting us to a more relaxed parasympathetic state.
Incense Making: Throughout the world, various cultures work with aromatic plants to make
fragrant smoke for healing, sacred work and for pleasure. From the use of resins and dried plant material, one can make incense cones, sticks and powders that can be burned as incense.
Smudge/Smoke Medicine: From the use of western red cedar here in the Northwest to the use of palo santo in South America to the use of tobacco and white sage by certain Native American tribes, smudging aromatic plants has long been practiced as a way to sanctify a space, help with healing and in magics-spiritual rites.
Infused oils: Aromatic plants such as rosemary, lavender and rose can easily be infused directly into a carrier oil such as olive or fractionated coconut oil and then steeped for several weeks or gently warmed on a stove top in a double boiler. Infused oils can be used for massage or easily turned into salves and creams.
Tinctures/Teas: Aromatic plants are often steeped in hot water as teas and infused into alcohol to make tinctures. Many aromatic plants have an effect on the nervous system either as a gentle relaxant (lemon balm, lemon verbena, motherwort, mimosa) or as a stimulant (black/green tea, coffee, mate). Both tinctures and teas can have a effect on improving digestion (chamomile, vervain), helping with circulation (ginger, cardamom) and are generally all antibacterial (rosemary.oregano). They also may act as expectorants (osha, lobelia) or as lymphatics (calendula, ocotillo). Finally some of them may have antispasmodic properties (kava, jamaican dogwood) and diaphoretic sweat inducing properties (yarrow, mints).
Meal Making: Probably the most common way we work with aromatic plants is by adding them to our meals. From Vietnames traditions of adding coriander and basil, to Indian cuisine that includes curry spices such as turmeric, ginger, cardamom and pepper, to Mediterranean cooking that includes thyme, oregano and marjoram, aromatic plants in cooking help us to digest our food more properly while improving the taste and enjoyment of a meal.
Other: Pot pourri, cut flowers, sachets. There are other ways that we can incorporate aromatic plants into our lives- from pot pour to cut flowers and sachets of dried herbs. Lavender and mugwort are classic herbs that are dried and placed in cloth sachets to place under pillows for deeper sleep and for increasing dream activity.
What do aromatic plants do for mental health?
In the arena of mental health, aromatic plants have a very special role. We already know that just the process of being in forest settings can be calming and revitalizing. Aromatic compounds can often both have stimulating and relaxing effects at the same time (think lavender and peppermint).
In general though, aromatic plants often help shift us out of a sympathetic nervous system state (think fight or flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest). That change is fundamental to whether a person can heal. If we are stuck in a highly stressed sympathetic dominant state, we will experience higher heart rates, higher blood pressure, increased muscle rigidity, poorer digestion and elimination. Long term if the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, the immune system will begin to function poorly that can lead to increased colds, flus, chronic illnesses and autoimmune illnesses. Tools such as aromatic plants that help shift people to a parasympathetic state are key to helping people heal physically and emotionally.
Besides stress reduction, aromatic plants are key to helping circulate and move energy. That can mean everything from improving the motility in the gut, to increasing expectoration and reducing mucus build up, to helping improve blood flow during menstruation. Aromatic plants help things move. And on a basic level, those stuck in places of frozen anxiety (think trauma) or stuck in stagnant anxious and depressed states are helped tremendously by aromatic plants. They are helpful for gently moving us out of those stuck states, getting the blood, lymph and fluids moving in the body and reducing the nervous tension that partners with those frozen states.
We know that for people who have experienced a highly traumatic childhood (those with developmental trauma disorders), multiple parts of the body can become stuck and frozen. The digestive system loses motility. The musculature can become rigid. The heart rate becomes less variable (a key marker of stress levels) and thinking patterns can often become circular, looped and negatively ruminative. Aromatic plants help us to begin to unfreeze, to flow again. Freezing locks us into rigid regimented thinking, tight musculature, stuck digestion and reduced resiliency to stress. With flow comes the greater capacity for joy, for ease and play. Working with aromatic plants help us to open, unfold and bring us to greater wild vitality.
Effects of Fragrance on Emotions: Moods and Physiology Stephen Warrenburg
The Sense of Smell: A Powerful Sense Gloria Rodriguez-Gil
Aromatic Herbs for Stress and Mood Guido Mase
The Road to Joy is Lined with Aromatic Plants by Rachel Keener
‘Forest Bathing’: How Microdosing on Nature Can Help With Stress The Atlantic- Rahawa Haile
Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function. by Kobayashi, Wakayama et al.
Is Forest Therapy For Real? by Dr. WeilFollow me on Instagram