Essential Oils – Ancient and Modern Wisdom

“Earth 114 million years ago: One morning just after sunrise, the first flower ever to appear on the planet opens up to receive the rays of the sun. Prior to this momentous event that heralds an evolutionary transformation in the life of plants, the planet had already been covered in vegetation for millions of years. The first flower probably did not survive for long, and flowers must have remained rare and isolated phenomena, since conditions were most likely not yet favorable for a widespread flowering to occur. One day, however, a critical threshold was reached and suddenly there would have been an explosion of color and scent all over the planet – if a perceiving consciousness had been there to witness it.”

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

Without nature we humans could not live on this planet. We are part of nature, not separate, with our roots deeply interwoven with the earth. Components found in plants are similar to those found in the human body. We have used plants for shelter, warmth, food and medicine, and for offerings to the gods. Leaves and berries, roots and bark were gathered, and plant juices were extracted for healing purposes. Aromatic plants and their essence oils were used by ancient civilizations: the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, and by the peoples of China and India. Throughout history, from well before Medieval times into the present, this revered knowledge has been passed on. Much more is being discovered today as ongoing research verifies the benefits and healing properties of the essences of plants, what today we call essential oils. The art and science of using plant oils for the purpose of healing and cleansing the body, mind and soul is defined as Aromatherapy.

Essential oils are synthesized and stored in many parts of the plant, and in several different types of secretory (secretionary) structures. For instance, Eucalyptus and Tea Tree oils are found in sacs within the leaves, while those of Peppermint occur in sacs on the leaf surface. Rose oil or Otto is extracted from the flower petals. Juniper yields its essence from the twigs and berries. Citrus fruit oils are pressed from the rinds. The oil of Frankincense and Myrrh comes from the resin of the tree. Vetiver oil from the roots of the plant.

Depending on the needs of the plant, its fragrance can either attract or repel insects, birds and animals. Just as essential oils possess, on a therapeutic level, powerful antibiotic properties, so in nature they often display the potential to prevent attack from fungi, bacteria and other organisms.

There are a number of methods by which the volatile components of aromatic plants are currently being extracted. The most common is through the distillation process from which an essential oil and hydrosol are obtained.

“Distillation is nothing but the separation of the subtle material from the crude – it separates that which is fragile and destructible from that which is indestructible.”

-Alchemist Hyeronimus Brunschwig, of the 15th century.<

The art of distillation dates back to about 3000 BC. A perfectly preserved terra-cotta distillation apparatus was found in Pakistan. Similar devices have also been discovered in China and more recently in Italy and France.

Steam and water distillation are amongst many other methods of extracting essential oils which include extraction using carbon dioxide, chemical solvents, and enfleurage; the use of fats to dissolve the plant oils from very fragile flowers such as jasmine or tuberose. However extracted, essential oils are a valued resource for healing, perfuming, scenting and connecting us to the plant world.