Around the world in nine storied scents
With scents both invigorating and soothing, essential oils have become a staple of spas and massage therapists. Still, their power goes well beyond wonderful smells. Recent scientific studies have proven the wisdom of ancient peoples in using essential oils as remedies for ailments from allergies, joint pain, acne, infection and stomach troubles to sleeplessness, fatigue and anxiety.
We call essential oils “essential” because of their source: the concentrated extracts (or essences) of roots, leaves, blossoms and fruit. They may not have gotten their name by being important, but important is exactly what they are. The historical, medical and even spiritual threads of these aromas are woven into the fabric of history around the world.
EUCALYPTUS – AUSTRALIA
There is perhaps no plant more Australian than the eucalyptus ( Eucalyptus globulus). The stately trees, also known as gum trees and stringy bark trees, bear their celadon leaves and creamy white flowers high above the forest floor.
Early Australian settlers learned of the plant’s medicinal value from aboriginal people, who used it to treat coughs and other respiratory problems. By the mid-1800s, botanists and pharmacists from Europe had set up shop near Sydney, steam-distilling the oil and shipping it around the world. Despite its success abroad, eucalyptus oil has retained a distinctly Australian appeal.
ROSEWOOD – BRAZIL
Many trees are called rosewood, but only one — the Brazilian rosewood ( Aniba roseadora) — produces true rosewood oil. Rosewood trees grow in the heart of the rainforest, along the Amazon River, where tropical bees visit their pink and yellow flowers, and toucans feast on their purple fruit. Like so many rainforest species today, Brazil’s rosewood trees are in decline and in need of protection.
SANDALWOOD – INDIA
To speak of sandalwood is to speak of India. Sandalwood has been cultivated in India for more than 5,000 years. Its oil is some of the most sacred in the world, and is used to perfume temples, deepen meditation and anoint statues of the gods.
The sandalwood tree itself ( Santalum album) is rather more humble, preferring to grow in dry, rocky soil. The best oil is extracted from the tree’s roots, which take their nourishment not from the earth but from other trees around them.
VETIVER – INDONESIA
The tall grass called vetiver ( Vetiveria zizanoides) is appreciated as much for its fine fragrance as for its complex system of lacelike white rootlets. Vetiver is native to India and Indonesia, where seasonal deluges can wash away huge quantities of soil and farmland and cause landslides. The grass’s roots may look delicate, but in a rainstorm they remain anchored to the earth, holding the land in place. These properties have not gone unnoticed by activists, who have begun a literal grassroots campaign to plant it, thus preserving the landscape while creating jobs for local people.
AGARWOOD – VIETNAM
Perfumers know it as oud. The people of Vietnam call it do tram, the wood of the gods. By any name, agarwood ( Aquilaria crassna) is a treasure. Alone, the evergreen tree is unremarkable. But when it becomes infected with the fungus Phaeoacremonium parasitica, agarwood begins to produce an intensely aromatic, musky resin. The resin is made into perfume and incense and incorporated into sacred ceremonies, while the oil is used in traditional medicine. In Japan, a single piece of agarwood made famous in a sixth-century book is still on display in a museum.
MYRTLE – TURKEY
Another tame-looking plant with a storied past, myrtle ( Myrtus communis) figures in ancient rituals, history and mythology. Myrtle has grown wild in the rocky hills surrounding the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The evergreen shrub was a symbol of vitality, used at funerals to pay tribute to the deceased and at weddings to celebrate union. The plant also appears in the epic of Gilgamesh, widely believed to be the oldest known story on Earth. A supplicant makes an offering of myrtle incense, and even the gods themselves cannot resist.
TROPICAL BEES VISIT THE ROSEWOOD TREES’ PINK AND YELLOW FLOWERS, AND TOUCANS FEAST ON THEIR PURPLE FRUIT.
BITTER ORANGE – CALIFORNIA
Sweet oranges get all the glory, but true connoisseurs of bouquet and flavor know to look to the bitter orange ( Citrus aurantium). Bitter oranges, also known as sour or Seville oranges, are a cross between pomelos (enormous, tart fruits) and small, sweet mandarin oranges. Southern California’s sour-orange groves are striking to behold, with their glossy green leaves, vibrant fruit and spicy aroma. These oranges have been used in Middle Eastern cuisine since the Renaissance. Today, the fruit and their essence can be found in liqueurs, haute cuisine and everyone’s breakfast favorite: marmalade.
LAVENDER – FRANCE
Most frequently found today in soaps and sachets, lavender (genus Lavandula) was once the workhorse of plants. The ancient Egyptians used lavender oil as a perfume and as a preservative in mummifying the dead, while the Greeks used it as medicine. The Romans cooked with it, used it as insect repellent, and even bathed in it. In fact, the word “lavender” may come from either the Latin lividus, “bluish,” or from lavare — “to wash.” When the Roman Empire fell, so did the popularity of bathing and plumbing. As a result, over subsequent centuries, the strong, fresh scent of lavender became a favorite among European royalty, who used it to mask the odor of their castles ... and subjects.
OREGANO – GREECE
Most of us associate oregano ( Origanum vulgare) with Italian food, but its roots can be traced back to the gods of the ancient Greeks. The word “oregano” comes from the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganos (joy), making this little herb a mountain of joy to those who encountered it. Legend told that the oregano plant’s sweet smell was created by Aphrodite, goddess of love. With her blessing, Greek couples donned oregano garlands at their weddings. The Greeks also appreciated its medicinal uses. Hippocrates, the father of medicine himself, wrote of its uses for stomach and respiratory troubles.
We travel to see new sights, but so often it is the unique scents and flavors of a place that make memories. The next time you step ashore, take a good look at the wonders around you — then close your eyes and take a deep breath.