Lesson 11: Botany
Foundational Aromatherapy 1st edition, pages 15-21; 2nd edition pages 16-22
A Little Botany
Names mean things about plants—what does your name say about you? We won’t go crazy with this; I want to give you just enough to make you “dangerous.”
Common Plant Names
Common names for plants vary in different places in the world. However, common names for plants can be misleading. Take the Morning Glory, for example. I grew up in California and had Morning Glories growing in our yard. It is a beautiful flowering plant that climbed our trellis with big blossoms that opened each morning. After I got married and moved to Utah, I told my husband that I wanted to plant Morning Glories and he had a fit because to him Morning Glory is a weed. I learned there are different species of Morning Glory.
In Utah, the species that grows almost everywhere is indeed a very noxious weed that can take over your whole yard—and its flowers are small and white, not the brightly colored blooms I had known. To make it more confusing, the weed has another common name—it is called Bindweed by farmers. So, if it is growing in your yard in Utah, the weed is called Morning Glory; the same plant on a farm is called Bind Weed. By either common name it is definitely not the same flowering plant I loved. If we had understood the Latin names, I could have told Kent, “I want to plant Ipomoea purpurea,” and he needn’t had fled in fear from the seed section in the hardware store.
Latin Names for Plants
Plants have Latin names for scientific and international reasons. With Latin names, no matter what country you are from or what language you speak, everyone can focus on the same plant.
Latin names for plants have two parts: the Genus and the species. They are the equivalent of a surname and a given name, with the surname always listed first (e.g., similar to listing your last name first on a form).
Think of Genus as a surname, which is always capitalized, and species as a given name, which is all lowercase (i.e., Ipomoea purpurea, the Latin name for Morning Glory). Just like a group of relatives with the same last name (the surname), plants that share a Genus (e.g., Ipomoea, or the surname) are in a family, and each unique plant has a species name (i.e., purpurea, the distinctive name), which describes its prominent characteristics. Each unique plant also has a common name (i.e., Morning Glory).
I like to think of Latin plant names this way: Genus is general as in generality, and it is always a noun; species is more specific, and it describes the plant and is usually an adjective.
You might say each lavender descended from a parent or ancestor Lavandula plant going back thousands of years, and now they are separated as siblings, or as cousins. Just like human families, children may have the same parents yet each child is different in many ways. For example Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia smell different and have different beneficial properties. Lavandula angustifolia primarily benefits the skin, and can relieve stress, while Lavandula latifolia relieves sore muscles as it increases circulation and stimulates the nervous system.
Four Classifications of Plants
Plants can be classified in four different ways; sometimes by where they are located and their chemical constituency; sometimes by the way they are bred, and sometimes simply by the color of the flower or leaf. Let’s learn what this means to you and I, and the oils, in a practical way.
Related plants, some known by the same common name, are differentiated by chemo types, or “ct.” This is when you have the exact same plant growing under different conditions creating different qualities; in effect, making it a different oil. It’s one of those amazing things that Mother Nature does. These plants look exactly the same but smell different and have different chemical constituents. These plants have the same Genus and species. They have individually changed their chemical composition by adapting to one or more of the following: altitude, climate, disease or parasite resistance, light, soil, and rainfall. Thyme, rosemary, and basil all have different chemo types. Thyme has several chemo types: thymol, carvacrol, geraniol, thujanol, and linalool. In this book, we will focus on thymol and linalool. Below are brief descriptions of both so you can understand why it is important to pay attention to the differences.
Thyme Thymol’s Latin name is Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol. It is a “hot” oil. We need to be careful with it around mucous membranes and we would not inhale it for long periods of time, if at all. It also requires dilution with a carrier oil or combined in a blend with more skin-friendly oils when applied to the skin. This oil should be used for only short periods of time for acute conditions, not for long-term or everyday use. It is very good for colds and flu and bacterial infections. Do not use on children under the age of ten.
The Latin name for Thyme Linalool is Thymus vulgaris ct. linalool. This oil is antiseptic and antimicrobial yet very gentle on skin and mucous membranes. It is known as a safe children’s oil, stimulating the immune system and great for lung ailments such as bronchitis or a bad cough.
So you can see especially where the two thymes are concerned, we do not want to tell someone “Just use thyme for this or that because it helped me, and it should help you, too.” It is important to distinguish between chemo types. Always ask, “Which thyme?”
Two other examples are Rosemary and Basil. Three chemo types of Rosemary are: camphor, 1.8 cineol, and verbenone. The Rosemary used in this manual is Rosmarinus officinalis ct. 1.8 cineole. Two of the chemo types of Basil are: linalool and methyl chavical.
A clone is a plant taken from a cutting rather than growing from seed. This is done for consistency so that every plant has the exact same chemical profile. Lavender Mailette is a cloned lavender, its aroma is sweet and floral. This scent is noticeably lacking in the sharper fragrances found in other lavenders you may have tried. This particular clone is unique among clones in that it can also reproduce from seeds.
A hybrid is produced when two plants are crossed to make a different plant. These plants are usually unable to reproduce. It reminds me of a mule, which comes from a cross between a horse and a donkey and cannot reproduce. Of course, cuttings cannot be taken from a mule to grow mules, but this can be done with plants.
Variety means we have the same plant, same Genus and species, but with different physical features such as color of flower. For example, Neroli essential oil comes from the bitter orange tree, which has several varieties. Neroli essential oil, the kind referenced in this book, comes from a variety that is identified in Latin as Citrus auriantium var. amara. In Latin plant names, the variety name immediately follows species, and is also written in all lower-case letters.
All the different Genus and species are further grouped into specific plant families, just like people are grouped within larger groups in some other way, such as city or country, ethnicity, religion, place of origin, etc. Learning about the different plant families, which also have Latin names, helps us to further understand and classify our oils. Some of the plant families have only one Genus, such as ylang ylang.
Plants are categorized into families according to physical features such as flower shape, whether a tree or herb, and sometimes shape of leaves. They each have different therapeutic effects and characteristics. Having a working knowledge of the general therapeutic qualities can help us when choosing an oil or oils—whether a single oil, one of our blends, or a blend of your own.
At our farm retreats, we take guests through meadows and woods to introduce them to wonderful plant creations, where they can actually see, smell, and touch several kinds of plants that will eventually find their way into essential oil bottles. We don’t distill oils commercially there, but we do distill for demonstration purposes on a much smaller scale. We encourage guests to just enjoy the plants that grow naturally or those we have planted—the same species as some of our oils. This helps them become familiar with these plants and their oils on a more intimate level.
For this same reason, to help familiarize you with the plants and oils, we have listed below all the single essential oils discussed in this book according to their plant families. (There are other oils in several families that are not included here.) For easy reference, in the Single Oils chapter we have provided a profile of each single oil with its general benefits for body and mind, plant family other technical data and properties, along with suggestions for use.
Ylang Ylang is the only essential-oil-producing plant in this family. Plants in this family are usually tropical shrubs, trees, or vines with fragrant flowers.
Properties: Calming to the adrenals and nerves, balancing, antidepressant, antiseptic, assists the thymus, and is known for its aphrodisiac properties. I have had good results when applied to the pulse points for lowering high blood pressure as well.
All of the chamomiles, tansy, and helichrysum, are in this family. These flowers grow all over the world and are the largest flowering family, each with different therapeutic properties. The flowers look like a daisy made up of tiny little flowers instead of individual petals and are usually yellow in color.
Properties: An aide to the digestive, nervous, and urinary systems—in turn benefit the tissues and skin. They contribute to structural alignment—specifically the blue oils such as tansy and the chamomiles—and are regenerative, soothing, and anti-inflammatory.
The birch tree is the only essential-oil-producer in this family. Some may assume that wintergreen is in this family from its similar aroma and constituents, but it is not.
Properties: This is the go-to oil for joints and bone pain; it is also therapeutic to the muscles, nerves, lymphatic, and urinary systems. It provides pain relief, is anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, decongesting, and diuretic.
Frankincense and myrrh are in this family of timber trees. The resin is collected from these desert or tropical trees.
Properties: These oils are cooling, drying, anti-inflammatory, antioxidants, antiseptic, and expectorant. They assist the respiratory system, help wounds to heal, and reduce scar tissue. They act as a tonic to the whole body as well as for emotional balancing.
This conifer family includes cypress and juniper berry.
Properties: The endocrine, nervous, circulatory, and respiratory systems benefit from these oils; they also help to balance the hormones. They are reviving, warming, restorative, anti-arthritic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, and diuretic; they remove mucus, are tissue-firming, and reduce cellulite.
These herbs and shrubs give us geranium and rose geranium oils.Properties: These oils benefit the digestive, endocrine, hormonal, nervous, and urinary systems as well as the skin. They are cooling and soothing to the skin, anti-inflammatory, tissue rebuilders, wound healers, antidepressant, diuretic, and antispasmodic; they reduce bleeding of all sorts and repel insects.
This is the largest of all the oil-producing families and includes certain herbs and low-growing shrubs. The plants grown for essential oils are: basil, clary sage, lavender, marjoram, oregano, patchouli, peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, and thyme.
Properties: An immune stimulant, these oils all have a variety of benefits, including headache and muscle-pain relief and can serve as a nasal decongestant. They are fever reducing, great aides to the digestive system, and diuretic.
They can act either as a stimulant or a relaxant, depending on dosage
This family includes some evergreen trees and shrubs. As the name implies, Laurel leaf is also known as bay laurel (Laurus nobilis); it is not to be confused with bay leaf (Pimenta racemosa), which is in the Myrtaceae family. Also in this family are cinnamon and ravensara.
Properties: The oils in this family are tonics for the nervous and immune systems, the cardiovascular, lymphatic, and hormonal systems, and the skin. They are warming and stimulating, and help regulate blood sugar levels. They are also antifungal, antiviral, pain killing, and antidepressant.
This family includes clove, eucalyptus, niaouli, and tea tree. All of these are very hardy plants and trees with strong wood and aromatic flowers and leaves. The fruits are sweet and pungent.Properties: The oils provide antifungal, antiseptic, pain relieving, and antispasmodic qualities. They are an expectorant to the respiratory system, a digestive aid, as well as supporting the lymphatic, immune, and urinary systems.
Jasmine is the only oil-producing plant in this family. The olive tree is also in this family. The flowers are known for their strong aromas. Where I live, there are many Russian olive trees; when they blossom, the scent can be smelled all over town and is so strong that to some it is almost nauseating. I personally enjoy it. Properties: This oil is very soothing and uplifting emotionally, it has an affinity to the respiratory and endocrine systems. It is antispasmodic, anti-depressant, and aphrodisiac.
This is another conifer family; in it we find black spruce, cedar wood, and balsam fir.Properties: These oils are antiseptic, calming, and warming. They assist the nervous, endocrine, and respiratory systems. They are hormone balancing and are used for arthritis and for increasing oxygen absorption.
This family is comprised of small trees and shrubs and some vines. The only essential oil from this family is black pepper.
Properties: As you may have guessed, this oil is warming, even to the point of heating. It is also drying, stimulating, and pain relieving. It is an antiseptic, digestive aide (particularly for constipation), muscle relaxant, anti-inflammatory, increases circulation, and aids in eliminating fluid retention in the tissues.
From this family, lemongrass and palmarosa are the two single oils this book addresses. They are both grasses that are also used for foods as well as for their therapeutic properties.
Properties: Both oils are hydrating and refreshing to the skin, calming to the cardiovascular and digestive systems, and stimulating to the lymphatic and urinary systems (acting as a diuretic). They aid connective tissues in the body, work as an antiseptic, a nervine, and air purifier, and are helpful for pest and parasite control.
Rose is the only essential oil from this family. It includes other shrubs, herbs, and trees such as almond.
Properties: An aphrodisiac, rose is also uplifting, toning to the skin, aides the urinary tract and reproductive organs, and supports the nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive systems. It is also antiseptic and promotes the healing of wounds, reducing scar tissue.
This family is citrus. All citrus oils come from citrus shrubs and trees, whether from the peel, flowers, or leaves. In this book we include bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, green mandarin, red mandarin, neroli, and orange.
Properties: Oils from citrus fruits give a cooling and refreshing feeling; oils from the flowers are calming, sedating, and uplifting. Citrus oils are generally an aide to the digestive, cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, urinary, and muscular systems. They are also a great benefit to the tissues and skin due to their anti-inflammatory, astringent or skin-tightening, scar-reducing, and pain-relieving properties.
The only essential oil from this family is sandalwood. The plants in this family are herbs, shrubs, or trees. Sandalwood oil comes from a tree.
Properties: Sandalwood essential oil is antidepressant, antiseptic, soothing to the skin, astringent, diuretic, and a tonic for the digestive, genitourinary, respiratory, and nervous systems.
There are some cautions involved with some of these oils. Please check individual oil profiles for safety tips. This family of plants has a group of flowers that resemble an umbrella and include carrot, dill, fennel, and coriander.
Properties: These oils work as an aid to digestion as well as to the endocrine and respiratory systems. They are diuretic, calming, and can serve as an expectorant or tonic.
From this family, we include only ginger oil. Plants in this family are herbs that have rhizomes, a type of root that is actually an extension of the stem that grows underground and from that grows the actual roots of the plant. The rhizome is where the plant store proteins, starches, and other nutrients.
Properties: Warming to the body, it is a tonic for the entire digestive system, aiding in cases of all kinds of nausea. It is pain relieving, antiviral, antioxidant, and a stimulant to the endocrine, circulatory, and immune systems.