What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are the concentrated essences of plants.
For the most part these have usually been freed from the plant by a process of steam distillation when vapours capture the aromatic chemicals and are then cooled and separated off into oil and water. (Citrus oils however are also pressed from the peel of the fruit.)
“Essential” presumably comes from the source word essence, because the bizarre thing is plants don’t actually need them at all. They are certainly not essential to the plant! The correct term for the glorious scented fluid in your bottle is Secondary Metabolites.
These constituents metabolise, or form, from the primary chemicals that our beautiful plant uses to process its nutrients and grow. They are not used for survival, but rather to make life more comfortable for her.
My plant is a her.
She might be called Rose, Lilly, Iris or Heather but the heroine of our tale today is Gert.
I’ve no idea why.
Perhaps you should ask her mum.
But for what she lacks in elegant titles, Gert makes up for in glamour. She has lustrous thick glossy green leaves, deep strong fragrant roots that plunge deep into the ground, a rich blousy pink flower and fragrance like you would not believe.
Gert is absolute stunner.
(Incidentally, at this point Gert is a rich figment of my imagination with all the features of spectacular plants rolled into one).
So, Gert’s flower looks very much like a peony.
Its showy, bright, and elegant and you can’t fail to take notice of it.
Neither can the butterflies.
You see Gert’s internal processes have created chemicals to make this lovely pink colour to advertise to the bug world that the reproductive factory is well and truly open.
Brazen floozy, that she is, she expects every Tom, Dick and Butterfly to come and take a bit of her pollen and rub it onto one of those sexy boy flowers down the road. Its this swapping of seeds that makes her fertile.
Gert has a friend called Apple.
Funnily enough, Apple is an apple tree!
Now, apple’s finest blossom frock might not be as showy as Gert’s, but it is easier for us to see how her sexuality works.
So long as Apple gets enough bug- action, when her dainty flower fades, in its place a fruit will grow. Inside, are seeds to propagate the next generation of her species. Apple, of course, relies on birds and eight-year-old boys to toss their cores onto the grass, so another apple tree will eventually set seed and grow.
But, how do Gert and Apple seduce all these creepy crawlies to their wanton show? The same way as you and I do, girls.
With a spritz of perfume.
They disperse aromatic molecules into the air with specific signatures to sing out:
“Oh Come all ye faithful…joyful and triumphant….Oh come ye, oh come ye…. to Gert’s Hymen”
Just for clarity, I am not sure if plants do in fact have hymens (in fact I have a very strong suspicion they do not) but I was too pleased with my rather bizarre ditty to leave the song out.
But what I am sure of, is those beetles, bugs and butterflies are indeed very faithful.
Because here’s the thing, every insect has a specific set of molecules and fragrances that he looks for, and then will remain true to. It tends to be that insects will naturally gravitate to plants of one specific family.
So, when you see a rose with a bee in, it’s because he has recognised the signature scent and zoned in on it. He might also be interested in Lemon Balm, but he will stay away from thyme and spearmint bushes because of the particular fragrance profile they are putting out.
Now, this answered a very big question for me.
How can bees know to go to the manuka and only the manuka before they make their honey? I used to think it was marketing hype. How on Earth could the farmer say the bees had only gone on the manuka? The miracle is that, in fact, all insects do the same thing. It’s like going home to them.
No other plant will do.
To be clear…what they are responding to is what we recognise as the essential oil.
But even more strange is that within this aromatic signalling, there are also warning signs to tell other creatures to stay away. We saw that with the bees on the spearmint. So why would they do that?
Well, imagine you were Gert, with your lustrous green leaves. It’s a warm summer’s day. There’s a soft breeze; the birds are singing and all’s well with the world.
But then you feel a tickle, then an itch, a nip then a full-on bite! More bites…everywhere.
Loradmercy …you’re under attack as tiny caterpillars are emerging from eggs on your underside and incisors are not only spoiling your leafy show, they are flipping well hurting you.
You can’t swat, you can’t run, you can’t head for a spray can of deet….
Wait a cotton-picking minute!
That’s the deal.
Gert needs and insect repellent. So, she creates a series of hideous tasting chemicals to tell the caterpillar to bug*** off. Startled by the sudden change in taste, caterpillar and all his many legged mates jog on to another plant further down the garden.
But Gert is not finished.
Because there is no such thing as an average flower…they are all intelligent in their own way…and Gert realises the problem isn’t in fact el-caterpillo, it’s the beautiful diva butterfly who was rude enough to lay her eggs on her on the first place.
So, she sends out more aromatic signals to tell the frisky female… take flight and don’t even think about laying your pesky eggs on me again.
But there’s more.
Those nasty chemicals that the Very Hungry Caterpillar grazed upon, are far more sinister than they appear. Because not only do they taste like the Devil’s armpit, they are not at all good for the bug’s sex life either, screwing around with his estrogenic mechanisms.
In human terms, our hungry beast has eaten something that will make it harder for her to reproduce.
I know, right?
You just wait till the next chapter when I explain how that same chemical can help get rid of your cold! Now that’s seriously freaky, I tell ya!
But for the moment, let’s remain with Gert a while, because underneath those glossy leaves she is hiding another glorious secret…her roots.
(I know. Its rather rude to lift up her skirt without asking. Feel free to beg her pardon if you feel more comfortable doing so. Personally, I’d feel a bit daft talking to a plant 😉
Her roots then?
What’s happening there?
Well, if she were a bit like the vetiver grass, she would be doing some seriously amazing stuff. Not only would she be drawing up vitamins and minerals from the Earth to feed herself, she would be taking toxins and heavy metals out of the soil too.
This phytoremediation, quite literally, returning the soil to good, is not usual. Many plants clean the soil including cannabis.
Now Gert’s cleaned her home, naturally she wants to keep it spic and span. The last thing she wants is any down and outs cluttering up the neighbourhood like nettles or chick weed, for instance. Worse still, grasses! Grasses are such tarts that they have their seeds right n show for everyone. The slightest breeze and they shimmer their sexuality for everone to see. Before you know it there are grasses shooting up everywhere.
And Gert knows this, so she is going to emulate another one of my favourite sassy gals…spotted knapweed. Here, she secretes other secondary metabolites – essential oils or aromatic compounds- into the soil to prevent any plant’s seeds from germinating.
In effect, she has ethnically cleansed the neighbourhood.
Not seeming quite so sweet and lovely, now is she?
So, Charles Darwin hypothesized that evolution was down to the survival of the fittest.
Certainly, when we look at plants it seems to be so.
What’s interesting is the chemistry that evolves in a plant is directly related to the environmental pressures and assaults it experiences.
I find it very interesting that some of our most efficacious herbs such as lavender, thyme, oregano, and chamomile thrive in dry and neglected conditions. The hotter the sun shines, the less water available, the harder the plant has to work to create these spectacular chemicals to protect itself and adapt. It’s almost as if, the harder the challenges it faces in life, the stronger it becomes.
I know a few people like that. Do you?
Essential oils form in a plant to help it respond to challenges it faces. They are without doubt, strange and magical things.