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The history of essential oils

... is inseparable from the history of herbal medicine.
 
As far back as 3000 B.C., the Egyptians used aromatic plants for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, as well as for the embalming of the deceased.

Hippocrates, venerated today as the father of medicine, cites a number of medicinal plants in his writings.

In the 10th century, Arabic physician Avicenna left us valuable written documents describing 800 plants and their effects on the human body.  He is also credited with the development of the distillation process for essential oils.  Today it seems more probable that he did not discover the process of distillation, but rather perfected it, for archaeologists have found primitive distillation equipment that dates from before his lifetime.

In the 12th century, the "Fragrances of Arabia" - in other words, essential oils - became famous in Europe.

In the 16th century, there were comprehensive plant catalogs and anyone who could read had access to recipes for oils, perfumed waters and other methods of treating plants.

In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpeper wrote passionate tirades against doctors who prescribed poisonous substances such as mercury; today's concern about the side effects of dangerous (allopathic) pharmaceuticals is, therefore, nothing new.  The major witch burnings coincide with the emergence of chemical-therapy and were urged on as a consequence of establishment physicians' desire to suppress the knowledge of the "wise women", as well as by the church's desire to eradicate the heretics.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists researched the active components of medicinal plants and identified many substances (e.g. caffeine, quinine, morphine, atropine).  Though these do, indeed, play an important role, the search for isolated substances actually led away from the natural use of the whole plant.  Essential oils continued to be used on the side, many remaining in the official pharmaceutical manuals until well into the 20th century, while a small number of them, such as lavender, peppermint and myrrh, are still used pharmaceutically today.  More and more, however, they were replaced by synthetically produced medications, the majority of which were actually byproducts of coal-tar refining. This development accelerated in the second half of the 20th century, with the catastrophic consequences we are now well aware of.

In the Far East,  especially in India and China, the use of plants for therapeutic purposes looks back on an unbroken, thousand-year-old tradition, in complete contrast to Europe, where we only now are beginning to rediscover this once almost lost knowledge.

What exactly are essential oils?

 

They are defined as fragrant, volatile products that are created from plants of a certain species by means of physical processes.  Frequently they are described as the part of the plant that embodies its soul and concentrated power.

 

Often referred to as "ethereal" oils -  
a term that clearly shows how highly these substances were once regarded.  They are also known as "essences" or "herbal essences", for they are indeed the essence of the plant itself.

The fragrances are stored in different parts of the plant.  The most precious and captivating are the  

 

  • petal oils such as rose, jasmine and Ylang Ylang. You also find them in the
  • leaves as is the case with sage or thyme, in the  
  • roots as with vetiver, in the
  • seeds as with angelica, in the
  • wood such as sandalwood, in the   
  • bark as with cinnamon, in the
  • resin as with myrrh, or in the  
  • outer skin of the fruit as with lemon and orange.

 

The most common way of extracting them is through distillation with steam.  This process doesn't only deliver the best, purest products, it also achieves its goal in relatively easy and inexpensive fashion.  In some cases, distillation does not achieve its desired success.  This happens when  the high temperature of the steam destroys sensitive odorants or the amount of the oil contained in the distilled materials is relatively small. Petals are often not suitable for steam distillation.

 

In order to produce the odorants, other processes are used that involve the use of volatile solvents (such as hexane or, more recently, carbon dioxide) or fat to extract the essential oils, or they can be absorbed into fat.  The precise method depends on which plant is involved.  Extraction with solvents is generally employed for mimosa or vanilla, while jasmine and tuberose are produced by means of enfleurage.

 

 

Enfleurage

 

Probably the oldest method for extracting essential oils involves the ability of fats or fatty oils to absorb and hold fast the fragrant oils of plant petals. Many blossoms, such as jasmine, continue to produce essential oils even after being cut off, which in turn makes the yield far greater using this method.  The sensitive, freshly plucked blossoms are pressed into a ca. 3 mm layer of fat, which had previously been spread across a glass plate. Again depending on the type of flower, they are left to stand for a length of time - 24 hours in the case of jasmine.  After this time, the petals are removed, either knocked off or by hand, the fat layer then being reapplied. The process is repeated about 30 times, until the fat is saturated with the odorants.  Alcohol is then used to reextract the essential oils from the fat, the result being a very high-quality oil.

 

Steam Distillation

 

In this process, we take advantage of the fact that steam from water removes the oil droplets from plants and carries them upwards.  Distillation equipment consists of a large cylindrical vat, known as an alambic, into which the plants are added on a rack.  The steam created at the bottom of the vat permeates the plants and carries a mixture of water and essential oil upwards.  The vat is capped off by a special lid.  The steam that collects beneath it, along with the essence, is transported away through a water-cooled, tapered tube into a collecting vessel.

 

 

In general, the essential oil is lighter than water and floats on the surface. There it is either siphoned off or separated using a florentine flask.  The quality of the final product is often determined by the distillation process alone.  If distilling is done at too high a temperature, the yield may well be higher, yet the quality is poorer and smokier.

 

In order to maintain good quality, distillation should be a slow process.  Only this guarantees that as many plant components as possible are transferred over to the ultimate essential oil.

Cold-Pressing

 

When it comes to citrus fruits, the essential oils are actually stored in the skin.  The skin is cut into small pieces, mixed with some water and cold-pressed by a machine.  The oil-water mixture is then separated out using a centrifuge.

 

Extraction with Chemical Solvents

 

Not until the beginning of this century did we begin using solvents to remove essential oils from plants.  The plants are poured with substances such as acetone, petroleum ether or hydrocarbon derivatives. Separation is by means of distillation at specific temperatures, with the oil condensing while the solvent does not. We first obtain the creamy "concrete" and, after the concrete is dissolved in alcohol and double filtered, the relatively waxy and solvent-free aslolu. In this method, however, it is impossible to complete exclude the possibility of residual solvents. For aroma therapy, especially, it is much better to use oils extracted by steam distillation, in so far as they are available.

 

Extraction with Carbon Dioxide

 

This method has only been developed in recent years.  The advantage is that the process takes place at relatively low temperatures, the odorants are almost completely preserved and the oil itself is free of residue.  The disadvantage is that it requires high pressure of around 200 bar, along with high-tech and very expensive distilling equipment, which, in turn, comes with a high price tag.

 

Quality Criteria

 

When oxygen and light come into contact with essential oils, it reduces their shelf life.  Consequently, the oils are generally stored in dark bottles with a dropper, thus minimizing the influx of light and oxygen.

 

 

On the other hand, it is possible to artificially age oils that are still unharmonious by opening the bottles. Within a matter of days, the sharpness disappears and you will have a wonderful oil.

 

If the oil is light and characterless from the very beginning, it will never become a good-quality product.

Most high-quality oils keep for 4 to 5 years if stored correctly (at temperatures as constant as possible).

 

The color and fragrance of the essential oils may also fluctuate slightly from year to year, depending on weather conditions, even if it comes from the same area of cultivation and the same distilling company. You don't always get the same quality every year.  Poor crops, which happen time and again due to climate fluctuations, can immediately drive up the world-wide price for a particular oil.

 

The most important factor is that we have confidence and trust in a particular supplier of our essential oils.