As the business model for selling essential oils has gone from mom and pop operations to large corporations the language describing essential oils has become the language of marketing. There is a strong emphasis on brand and the “quality” the brand is meant to guarantee. However, a clear definition of what really constitutes EO quality seems sorely absent. GC/MS analysis has become the ready substitute. Marketing suggests that the quality of an oil is demonstrated through analysis. Let’s explore if this assumption is really true? In order to do this we first need to clarify some more EO related concepts.
Essential Oil Authenticity and Why it Matters for Healing?
The healing properties (physiological effects) of Essential Oils arose in the course of biological evolution as plants developed highly interactive components (secondary metabolites). These components are characterized by their uncanny ability to cause different types of effects: not only inside the plant that originally makes them, but inside a range of other organisms. For instance, EO influence other plants nearby. Or they repel insects or animals that might threaten the plant. EO molecules will also prevent fungi or yeast from spreading. They achieve this through their activity deep inside a fungus or a yeast cell. EO terpenes, deployed by the plant when it senses a colonization attempt by a fungus or a mold, will inhibit the fungus from growing by inhibiting crucial regenerative processes inside the cells of yeasts and fungi. In short, the plant makes these terpene molecules to defend itself from being infested by yeasts or fungi. In aromatherapy we use exactly this quality of essential oils to rid ourselves from Candida.
Plants have optimized these defensive abilities by making not one, but many components which will act together (synergistically) derailing not only one, but many processes in the yeast cell. This interaction of many plant components with many processes in the yeast or bacterial organism makes their action gentle and effective at the same time. In other words the many different EO components in a living plant work together in an elaborate and complex way creating a spectrum of activity that is much more efficient than a single or even a few components ever could be (The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, page 48).
Here is where the idea of authenticity becomes highly relevant. It is the exact composition of the oil inside the plant that makes the synergy so efficient. And the exact composition of an essential oil is tied to the biological population from which its source plants originate. They are genetically connected, as they all reproduce among each other, staying strong by maintaining their diversity. At the same time the secondary metabolites (EO) of a given population will reflect the environmental conditions of a particular geographical area. If, for instance, a specific year is particularly hot the plants will make a slightly different oil than in a cooler year. The genetic code of the plants within the population provides the plants with different mechanisms to respond to challenges such as heat or cold or nutrient scarcity or attack by herbivores. The composition of a truly authentic oil reflects these biological processes that enhance the plants ability to survive and propagate. And if one believes in the powers of nature, the slight variations in EO composition, which arise as the plant contends with ever changing environments, are the hallmark of true authenticity.
Let us look at Fine Lavender in Provence. It usually grows on the most barren and rocky plateaux contending with the sparse soil and the hardy insects and plant pests that can negotiate this rough environment. The specific composition of the essential oil produced by these Lavender plants is its biological response to the conditions in the environment. In aromatherapy, this Lavender oil from Provence, aptly called Population or Fine Lavender will impress the user with a seemingly paradox combination of gentleness and high efficacy. Other Lavenders, clones or also those ever so gently “helped” in the laboratory all have a fragrance stronger than the authentic Fine Lavender oil.
The question now arises, what about all the other Lavenders. Those from Crimea, Bulgaria or China. Generally the plants for these Lavender cultivations in other parts of the world are clonal, propagated by clipping, not seed. These oils may all be very good oils too, albeit different. Clearly a Lavender cultivated on a expansive plane on Crimea faces different challenges to the one on the Provencal plateau. In addition it stands to reason that the limited genetic diversity of the clones allows for much less response of the plant to its prevalent environment.
This is why, in our thinking, the composition of an authentic EO from plants of a specific population is unique and carries properties which are only found in the plants of this specific population.
At the end of the day all the oils will be Lavender oils. Their analysis will show variation in composition, sometimes dramatic and sometimes minor. But these numbers do nothing to explain or predict the differences in the beauty and quality of the oil as we perceive it.
By studying the cultural history of our aromatic plants we learn that medicinal and aromatic plants have originally become part of ritual, medicine and religion in those areas where the biological processes were such that the oils attracted attention within a specific culture. Lavender was esteemed first coming from the high Alps of Northern Italy and then, in the 20th century, from Provence. Patchouli is most esteemed in Northern Sumatra, Sandalwood from India has no rival and German Chamomile from Germany is just simply much more beautiful and efficient than its exotic brethren. This is why we believe that understanding the cultural history of the aromatic plants we use is a tremendous aid in assessing their authenticity and originality and subsequently their superior qualities that can be subtle and dramatic at the same time.
For this reason we would like to call oils arising from their original environments bioauthentic. Bioauthentic originals, oils that became popular in their specific regions, stand at the beginning of the immense popularity they have gained, because they offer a broad range of obvious and subtle benefits. Apparently they aroused the interest of humans a long time ago because of their biological processes and benefits and not because of corporate business plans.
As for the secondary production regions, it is well possible that some of the benefits of the original are not present in oils from cultivated clones. Again, this is because clones lack the genetic diversity of a population, and also because the extensive farming makes for an entirely different biosphere. The Lavenders from the secondary regions are certainly valuable and good oils, but the true sparkle is brightest in the biological – bioauthentic – original.
In an ideal scenario we at OSA prefer oils distilled from plants grown in those – cultural and geographical – environments where they became well respected in the first place. We believe that bio-authentic oils have unique qualities that arise from their specific chemical composition which arises from specific biological processes responding to specific environmental conditions.
We would, however add, that we do not advocate using bio-authentic originals only. In a world and time where demand for essential oils has risen dramatically, it is not only legitimate but often necessary and environmentally sound, to cultivate sought after plants in areas where they will grow readily, whether it is their original habitat or not. This is especially true when wild plant inventories are threatened and cultivation is the sensible answer. We do, however, support interest in the cultural aspects for which the bio-authentic oils are the aromatic messengers. The wine analogy may illustrate it well. It is certainly a fabulous experience to enjoy a high end Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet, even if it may not lend itself to daily consumption.
Please watch this space for the next installment of “The Human Element,” exploring some more bio-authentic originals and where and how people first integrated them into ritual and medicine.