Aromatherapy promotes overall health and wellness by unlocking the healing powers hidden in certain plant’s essential oils. These natural oils have been revered for centuries and form the basis for this ancient artform.
The Ancient Art of Aromatherapy
People have used natural plant oils for their healing and preserving properties since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Back then, plants' aromatic properties were unlocked for both spiritual and physical situations. Harvested from plants such as cedarwood and frankincense, the Egyptians used their oils and resins to prepare their dead for the afterlife. From ancient hieroglyphs, paintings, and artifacts, archaeologists have determined that ancient Egyptian gods were also honored with aromatic scents.
Worldwide scent production (in the Chinese, Arabic, and Indian cultures, to name a few) arose in the 10th century, when perfume was distilled from roses and traded across international boundaries. Aromatics were used in Europe to protect people from sicknesses like the plague and, as common sense would have it, mask the odors that resulted from the overall lack of personal hygiene.
By the 17th century, perfumers in Europe were recording and testing the healing and aphrodisiac properties of their products. These records formed the foundation for this practice and eventually gave rise to modern-day aromatherapy.
French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé coined the term “aromathérapie” in 1928. In his work, he outlined the therapeutic properties of a number of plant essences, setting the stage for their acceptance in the public eye and subsequent use treating wounded soldiers during World War II.
In 1961, Marguerite Maury covered aromatherapy as a health and beauty treatment in her book Marguerite Maury’s Guide to Aromatherapy: The Secret of Life and Youth. Today, aromatherapy is still practiced all around the world and continues to build upon its rich history.
Unlike oils extracted from plants, such as olive or canola oil, essential oils are concentrates harvested from plant flowers, seeds, nuts, bark, leaves, and resins. They are usually harvested when conditions are optimal. Their concentrated form mixes well with water and is highly flammable — an attribute that the ancient Egyptians took advantage of to perfume the air around them. Whereas olive oil is measured in quarts and gallons, essential oils are doled out in drops.
Today, harvesters pass high-pressured steam over plant parts to effectively vaporize the oils out of them. A vacuum system suctions the steam out of a complex still, after which it passes through a cooling system and condenses into a substance that can easily be separated from the remaining water. Another technique known as “maceration” involves soaking the plant parts in hot oil to break down their cells and get them to secrete their own essential oils.
Growing Aromatherapy Plants
Many gardeners already grow aromatherapy plants, albeit for different reasons. For instance, herbs are grown for their use in cooking, but many contain essential oils that also come to play in the therapeutic arena. Basil is one such herb, and it was even used in ancient Greek baths and massage oils for its fragrance. Nowadays, it's most commonly used to treat fatigue, anxiety, and depression, as a nerve tonic, and as a treatment for bronchitis, the common cold, and indigestion. Meant for use in either hot or cold baths, the effect is invigorating and helps with blood circulation. Basil can also be combined with thyme oil to create a strong antiseptic. It's important to note that basil essential oil is not recommended for treating ailments among pregnant women.
Comfrey and fennel are two other herbs that many gardeners have in their yards. Comfrey, which contains a cell-regenerating compound called allantoin, can be used to treat wounds and skin disorders. Its essential oil is often added to compresses and massage oils. Fennel’s sweet aromatic oil, on the other hand, can be used as both a laxative and a diuretic. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate fennel seeds for strength and sweet-smelling breath, and they also used the herb to ward off evil spirits and kill fleas.
Lavender was also used in Roman baths to cleanse the body and ward off evil spirits. Nowadays, the plant is used to treat several ailments, including headaches, nervous exhaustion, and sleeplessness.
Citrus’ essential oils, mostly taken from oranges and lemons, are used in cleaning products, skin treatments, and air fresheners. This oil is either harvested from flowers or collected after cold-pressing fresh fruit peels.
Most gardeners don’t have the sophisticated equipment necessary for extracting essential oils on hand. Still, many of these plants can be collected and used (both fresh or dried) to create herbal remedies that treat the same ailments the oils do. Hang cut plants to dry — sometimes these also form beautiful bouquets. Dried flowers, leaves, and stems can be slightly crumbled and placed into tightly-sealed glass jars for potpourri or added to olive oil to create an aromatic oil. When added to white vinegar, these products make from a sweet-swelling cleanser (a mice contrast to those that have harsh chemical scents).
You can also add your dried flowers and leaves to a carrier oil like coconut or grapeseed oil. These carrier oils “carry” the benefits of essential oils and can either be used in baths or applied topically. This process involves heating the carrier oil over a very low heat for about five hours.
Here are a couple of excellent resources to help you further explore aromatherapy:
Authentic Aromatherapy: Essential Oils and Blends for Health, Beauty, and Home by Sharon Falsetto covers 40 essential oils and their uses. It also provides great information on their basic chemistry and aromatic nature.
The Aromatherapy Garden: Growing Fragrant Plants for Happiness and Well-Being by Kathi Keville.
Keville has several books on aromatherapy, but this one pertains specifically to the gardener. She covers numerous plants used in aromatherapy, home-production, and the benefits of creating a “fragrancescape” in one’s garden.