The Forager's Path - School of Botanical Studies

Fresh Perspectives on the Use of Essential Oils

Our Foundations of Herbal Medicine program spent the weekend working with and learning about essential oils. Each time I teach this part of the course, it always strikes me how much I learn from the experience of interacting with the oils. My understanding of them deepens and my appreciation of this field grows. Watching people’s faces melt in delight the first time they inhale a Silver Fir or a Rose Attar makes this one of my favorite topics to share.

In this article, I want to share some recent insights I had while working with the oils.

Education v Marketing
Some of the gatherings and classes in the industry are advertised as education when, in fact, they are nothing more than a sales pitch. There is nothing wrong with making a living selling a product, but be honest about what you are doing. Don’t call it education if all you are doing is promoting one company.

Extreme Loyalty to a Specific Company or Teacher
In the general herb community, most schools and conferences teach, promote and give thanks to the wide variety of influences and traditions that have been a part of one’s healing journey.

For some reason, there is almost a cult-like exclusivity among sections in the essential oil community. They give off a sense that only one person has the secret to health or only one label has ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ oils.

In reality, I am aware of at least a half dozen companies that offer excellent quality oils. They aren’t the biggest or the most advertised, but they are run by folks who have extensive experience, knowledge and a passion to finding the best sources.

The teachers with whom I have studied, Jade Schutes and David Crow, are excellent and I am very grateful for the training they have provided. As much as I like and admire the work they do, there are other viable learning opportunities.

The Validity Question: Is There a Science to Essential Oils?

The short answer is yes. The scientific basis for claims can be made by looking at the chemistry of oils. Entering the world of phenols, mono-terpenes and esters gives  a student a very different view of what is inside the little brown bottles.There are predictable, measurable and repeatable results from the research. This is especially true for the oils’ effects on our immune system.

The drawback to simply looking at chemistry is that we can miss out on the more subtle aspects of the oil. Watch someone’s face when they first inhale a wild, high elevation lavender from France. There is some thing more happening that simply breathing in a terpene alcohol. Chemistry informs us of the potential of an oil but doesn’t provide the entire picture.

Disconnect from Bio-Regional Herbalism

Ideally, plant healing involves a close interaction between the person, the plant and its environment. This is why I encourage students to become familiar with the plants in a 50 mile radius of their homes. There is something quite special about finding, harvesting and using a plant in its native space that goes much deeper than simply purchasing a tincture off the shelf.

This is difficult to do with essential oils. For most people, the oils are hidden inside a brown bottle that is almost entirely covered by the label. That same label often has a plant name that we have neither seen nor heard before… ylang ylang, palmarosa, cistus, ravensare. I am often very aware of not being able to walk out into the woods near my home and spend time with these the way I do with the many herbs that are an important part of my life. While this disconnect is unfortunate, it does not mean we shouldn’t benefit from the healing potential of these plants.

Some oils are produced from local plants. Pinon pine and juniper quickly come to mind. Even with these, few essential oil users are involved in the harvest and production of the finished product in the same way that is possible for salves and tinctures.

Modern Novelty or Ancient Tradition?

The current essential oil market in the US is often viewed as a recent arrival in the alternative healing and herbal communities. Some even view it as a novelty. This view has some validity if we limit it to only what is in the little brown bottles that are for sale at the local spa.

A broader view is to include the use of aromatic plants throughout the course of human history. From this perspective we see the use has been both widespread and long term. A good place to start is in the kitchen. Have you ever added…

  • Black pepper to a meal?
  • Cinnamon to a bowl of oatmeal?
  • Basil, oregano, or thyme to pasta or a salad?
  • Sage to Thanksgiving stuffing?
  • Or eaten ginger bread?

Our kitchen cupboards are full of dried aromatic plants that have been used for millenia.

Other examples of the bigger picture include:

  • Frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, given to the infant Jesus
  • Smudging and burning incense, often used to clear ‘negative energy’, use aromatic plants with antibacterial oils
  • Giving a bouquet of roses to express love on Valentine’s day
  • Giving flowers as a Get Well gesture for sick people
  • Peppermint oil used in candy canes and flavoring for many products
  • Pine oil used in Pinesol
  • Thyme, eucalyptus, and the camphoraceous rosemary used in Listerine and Vicks Vapo Rub

With all this in mind, one of my goals as an instructor is to take the mystery, novelty and disconnect out of essential oil use and help people integrate them into their daily lives in a safe and effective way.

Recommended Sources for Products and Information
Aromatics International
Eden Botanicals
White Lotus Aromatics
Nature’s Gift
Original Swiss Aromatics
Kurt Schnaubelt: excellent books available on Amazon and elsewhere


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