Pick up any popular book on aromatherapy and you are transported in an instant to ancient Egypt. To the land of Pharaohs and the Blue Lotus. Or, perhaps, to Sheba or even to Aquaba in King Solomon’s time. If not, you will certainly pass Avicenna and the glories of the Silk Road, and Bokhara. Perhaps you may traverse China and come back to Europe with the Crusaders to settle on alchemy. The object of the journey is invariably the same; to establish that the ancients did indeed use aromatherapy. There seems a need to establish credibility by ancient usage, a need to establish modern ideas with those of the ancestors.
Today’s aromatherapy is built around the contents of the ubiquitous little brown or blue bottles of essential oils. Today’s purpose and usage indeed have overtones of the past but it is doubtful if most of the ancients ever saw an essential oil as we know it until well into the Middles Ages. Distillation in a crude form undoubtedly existed in some cultures and different epochs but the user of aromatic substances did not see essential oils as the universal raw material, or panacea, for every situation as we so often do today.
Doctor, priestess, shaman or even pre-historic “social user” were most adept at using aromatics in a form most suited to the occasion or need. They did not have the benefit of the pharmacy, supermarket or mail order catalogue to dispense the concentrated powers in the little bottles. So although the use of aromatics in the past has been so very widespread the methodology or vehicles have been very different. The essential oil burner of today is likely to have been the incenser of the past. Common people often could not afford candles, let alone try to fragrance them! Essential oils were costly and rare in the early days and yet they were used in therapeutic contexts over a long time. How so?
Most of the texts refer not to a distilled essential oil but rather an aromatic extraction. In other words aromatic herbs were seen as beneficial food ingredients or even preservatives such as in the East where a whole system of medicine was eventually woven about the concept of taste and diagnosis by smell. Western herbalism relied heavily upon water extracts, tisanes or teas, or perhaps tinctures which themselves replaced in a way the earlier wines and vinegars. These latter items formed the backbone of much rural and historical medicine chests. In the 17th century many manor homes boasted a still room and country medicinal wines were in vogue.
What too of the aromatherapy one hears of in Greece and Rome - gladiators, athletes and emperors? Of course, much of the myth is founded on fact but what materials did they use? Our research tendency today is simply to read a book which often just repeats what somebody else has said as academia demands the bibliography. In the end there is not that much original thought around. At the turn of our century this trend is not only distorting our view of history but trivialising our knowledge of native peoples and their traditions. Fortunately the last decade or so has seen a rise in people able to question objectively the restraints imposed by regulatory academia. There are still plenty of people in the world who “practice” aromatherapy just as their ancestors did. The way aromatics have been used in the past is still alive today - if you look objectively. I have found these methods in North and South Africa as well as the Far East and even caught a whiff of this with my own grandparents. The commonest, cheapest and most extractive method for aromatics has long been maceration in a fatty solvent, either vegetable or animal. The pommade of the perfumer was the salve of the apothecary. Whilst the ointment makers of Egypt were pleasuring their masters and mistresses, the priest-physicians were healing them with sweet smelling unguent. Galen was simply telling athletes to use a rosemary body rub or friction rub!
This was first brought home to me in an exchange of “medicines” with a sangoma (traditional healer) in Africa. Whilst he readily accepted my German Chamomile Oil I was not so keen on accepting his various potions based upon goat fat. It was only really in discussion and thinking through the issue that I came to realise what I was seeing and the value of his method within an historical context. It was not then such a large leap from goat fat to St John’s Wort oil. In my work with aromatic plants I had observed that some yield their essential oils very readily to distillation. They seemed perhaps ‘built for the job’. Others did not, St John’s Wort being one. However, the plant yields its ‘oil’ and spicy aroma very easily to a vegetable oil placed in the sun. I found that other difficult-to-distill oils similarly yield their aromatic principles readily to different vegetable oil solvents. This traditional process lacks the science of the laboratory distiller or the manufacturer with their GLC and mass spectrometer. Nevertheless it is a true aromatherapy which most people can handle in their own backyard without many of the problems of concentration and potency associated with neat essential oils. It is intriguing that the aromatherapist, having gone to all the trouble of obtaining the essential oil via the distillation process, simply adds back the essential oil to a vegetable oil in most instances.
Western medicine has an insatiable desire to find the miracle active ingredient in a plant medicine. Witness the desire of so-called holistic therapists to take essential oils apart and find the magic molecule that cures X, Y or Z symptom. Traditional healers have somewhat limited this analytical exercise to saying, for example, that the active part of rosemary is its essential oil and, on that basis alone, proceed to use it. The oil macerations, herbal oils, infused oils or phytols (meaning here phyto=plants, ol=oleum, rather than the other uses of the term) can be made at home and are a cheap and enjoyable alternative to expensive essential oils. They are produced commercially and, as you would expect, come in various grades being the products of both high-tech and low-tech processes. My company has pioneered their uses gaining much valuable experience along the way from therapists who have trialed and acknowledged their uses. Industrial processes can simply be an improvement of the sun method which takes time and, commercially, is expensive. Other methods include centrifuge and vacuum extraction whilst the cheapest and commonest method is simply a compression process in oil. This latter process although cheap has not shown any respect to the plant and does not achieve desirable results. It is unfortunate that the market is price driven and so confusion exists between good quality and poor quality because the processors are unlikely at the poor end of the market to confess to a low quality product. Hence, if you can’t afford the good quality material then I would recommend that you take the time and trouble to make these infusions yourself. There are two principle techniques.
The first is the hot method. Take some good organic sunflower oil, say 500mls, and add 250 grams of dried herbs to the oil. Heat the oil and the herbs in a glass bowl over a saucepan of boiling water or, if you have one, use a double saucepan. Heat gently for two to three hours. Keep a fire blanket handy and behave sensibly! Hot oil is no fun. Keep children well out of the way. Take the bowl and pour the mixture into a small wine press and strain it into a jug. When everything has cooled and settled down pour off into your brown storage bottles. The extract should last for well over a year but keep it in a cool dark place.
This hot oil technique is suitable for most leaf herbs such as Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano and many aromatics plants you probably never even thought about. Buy a good Herbal and put aside some of the aromatherapy ‘pop’ books.
If you are going to use fresh herb rather than dried herb, as a rule of thumb you will need three times as much plant material, i.e. 250 grams becomes 750 grams to 500ml of oil.
The cold method is usually used for plant petals or flowers such as Calendula or St JohnsWort. You need a large wide-mouthed jar such as Granny used for bottling and pickling. A kilner jar is ideal. Pack the jar as tight as you can with plant material but leaving enough room to pour sunflower oil on to the herb. Slowly pour the oil in making sure it reaches every part of the plant. Put the lid on and leave in the sun, turning the jar occasionally for two to three weeks. There is nothing to prevent you stopping and re-starting this process, pouring the once-infused oil to more plant material and so re-using the oil. The final mixture should be squeezed through a jelly bag or fine muslin. Allow it to settle, strain again and bottle. You are now ready to go!
You could go a stage further and add this herbal or infused oil to an ointment or cream. Unfortunately ointments today tend to use petroleum jelly or soft paraffin wax. Recently I have been using a balm base, based on shea butter and carnauba wax. Ointments are useful where you do not want any blending with the skin and where there is a need to have some occlusion or protection. You can simply heat the base, again over a pan of boiling water or in double saucepan, and stir your herbal oil into the liquefied base. A very hard ointment can be made simply using beeswax. If you do, the unrefined yellow wax is best in my opinion. There is of course nothing to stop you from melting your wax or base and adding aromatic herbs as with the infused oil. But my advice in this instance is to use around only 50 grams of dried herb to 500 grams of base or beeswax. The same hot method process is followed as with an infused oil. You need to move quickly as the wax soon hardens and you will need thick protective gloves when you come to straining the liquid in a jelly bag.
The uses for herbal oils are as for the essential oils but the advantage of herbal oils is that you have also extracted any fat soluble vitamins, or other oil soluble actives, at the same time. They can of course be diluted with the addition of further vegetable oil and they can be mixed together. It is as sensible to mix Yarrow and St John’s Wort as it is with lavender and bergamot.
Herbal Oils have a long and respected tradition. To me they represent the core of historic aromatherapy and perfumery. Their use is as much art as science. They have been very under utilised in the modern rush and hype of that which we call aromatherapy. They lack the glamour of essential oils as their smell is often subtle compared to the concentration of the distilled material. Nevertheless those that use them report excellent results. This brings its own problems as those who write or educate in aromatherapy can’t find so much about herbal oils. The subject is not part of many formal educational programmes and getting good raw material is more difficult than with essential oils and so is less beckoning to essential oil sellers. Be that as it may, infused oils work and respect tradition. They are a serious competitor to the uses of essential `oils in many therapeutic situations. In addition you can make them at home and have fun!