Respecting Essential Oils

Approximately 5% of plant species produce volatile (aromatic) organic compounds to protect themselves from predators, to attract pollinators, and for plant-to-plant communication. By physically extracting these compounds, we collect essential oils that we can use for our own protection and support in health and wellness.

Beautiful green leaves of Lemon balm,  Melissa officinalis.

Beautiful green leaves of Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis.

Different plants produce these natural compounds in different parts of their structures—Chamomile and Rose in their flowers, Peppermint and Eucalyptus in their leaves, Cedar trees in their wood, Vetiver and Angelica in its roots, Ginger in its rhizome, and Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) and Queen of Spice (cardamom) in their seeds. Some plants make more of these volatile aromatic compounds than others and within each plant type, the amount produced depends on growing conditions, sunlight received, and the plant’s maturity or ripeness when harvested.

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts. According to the Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook, it takes about 1 pound (454 grams) of fresh peppermint (Mentha x piperita) leaves to yield 5 milliliters (just over a teaspoon) of peppermint essential oil. To see how many peppermint leaves it would take to make a pound, I placed a few peppermint leaves just picked from the garden on a kitchen scale. With 10 peppermint leaves, it finally budged from 0 to 0.02 ounces. Calculating to a pound, it takes about 8 thousand fresh leaves of peppermint (if all peppermint grew in my garden) to reach that pound. So, a 5 ml (just over a teaspoon) bottle of peppermint essential oil contains the aromatic organic compounds extracted from 8,000 peppermint leaves. If a 5 ml bottle contains about 100 drops of essential oil (although this can vary, too), each drop of peppermint essential oil contains the plant extracts from about 80 peppermint leaves.

Here are a few more essential oil yields to think about (percent yields are measured in weight of essential oil produced per weight of plant material used)1:

—Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, provides a 3-4% essential oil yield from its leaves.

—Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, provides a 2.5-3% yield from its dried flowers; it takes about a third of a pound of dried flowers to produce 5 ml of essential oil.

—Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, provides a 0.015-0.1% yield from its leaves and flowering tops; it can take about 77 pounds of its leaves and flowering tops to produce 5 ml of Melissa essential oil, depending on the particular harvest.

—Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, provides a 1-2% yield from its flowers, leaves, and twigs.

—Rose Otto, Rosa x damascena, provides a 0.02-0.03% yield from its flowers; a single drop of Rose Otto essential oil contains extracts from the petals of 30 to 50 roses. 

—Tea tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, provides a 1-2% yield from its leaves.

Rosemary,  Rosmarinus officinalis , growing strong!

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, growing strong!

Plants grow from small seeds and survive and thrive on water, air, sunlight, and fertile soil. They do their best to protect themselves against harm, growing strong to flower and make seeds to create more plants to continue the cycle and provide food for Earth’s creatures. From seed, sun, and water, each plant is a miracle of Mother Nature and earth sciences. When we harvest them, we step into this cycle to capture each plant’s essence and chemical support system so that we can benefit, too.

Acknowledging the plant intelligence and material that reside in a bottle of essential oil, we want to use each drop consciously. We show gratitude to the plant and its intelligence by only using what we need for the benefit we seek. Peppermint can be very beneficial for reducing headaches, however we only need a small amount, even just a 1 or 2 percent dilution, for a clear head. If we use too much, it can be overstimulating to our nervous system and cause irritation to skin and mucous membranes, like our eyes and nose. For allergies, Lavender can be used to reduce a histamine response. Studies show that a 10 percent dilution is about as beneficial as undiluted Lavender,2 so we don’t have to use so much. When using essential oils to support our wellbeing, creating a blend often creates a synergy that is even more effective than just using a single essential oil, even at a lower dilution. More is not always better. Sometimes less, or just the right amount of the best essential oil blend, is the most helpful and healthful for us and for the planet.

When we respect Mother Nature and the gifts she offers and only take as much as we need to live and be healthy, her bounty will continue to be plentiful for generations to come.

References:

1. Malle, Bettina and Helge Schmickl. The Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook: Extracting, Distilling & Enjoying Plant Essences. Austin, TX: Spikehorn Press, 2015.

2. Tisserand, Robert. “The Power of Dilution: Safety and Efficacy in Applying Essential Oils to the Skin.” National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, Beyond Aromatics II: The World of Aromatherapy VIII, 22 Oct. 2016, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT. Lecture.