Essential oils are getting more popular by the year as more and more people discover their pleasant aromas and fabulous benefits. So...you’ve probably seen them in all kinds of stores and places where you wouldn’t have found them even five years ago. (I’m even beginning to see them in dollar and discount stores.) This of course brings up the issue of quality, which I’ll save for another article.
However, something that may not cross your mind (as it didn’t occur to me when I was first getting into essential oils) is the issue of endangered plant species and — for that matter — long-term sustainability of some of your favorite oils.
After all, to make one bottle of essential oil takes anywhere from dozens to hundreds of plants. It takes three pounds of lavender flowers to make one 15 ml bottle of lavender essential oil. While lavender is on the more affordable side, the sheer quantity of plant matter required to produce essential oils is one reason why some oils are so expensive. Other reasons include how easy or difficult plants are to cultivate (or find in the wild) and how much labor, transportation, and handling is involved. For something like lemon oil, which is affordable due to its ubiquity and the relative ease to grow, about 50 lemons are required to make one 15 ml bottle of essential oil. Rose oil on the other hand, known as an expensive oil, requires almost 50,000 rose petals to make just one ounce of essential oil.
If you stop and think about how many plants are required to make a bottle of your favorite essential oil…and then think about how many of those bottles are produced and sold per year…the question of long-term sustainability comes up. For production of an essential oil to be sustainable over the long term, annual harvest of the plant or part of the plant from which the oil is taken should not exceed the rate of replacement. That means when entire plants are required, for each plant taken other seedlings should be planted to replace it. (More than one seedling or sapling should be planted to replace each plant taken to account for unknowns like disease, drought, poor soil conditions, etc.) When sap is taken, the quantity taken should not kill the plant unless another individual can be replanted. The tree should be able to regenerate and recover before more is taken. When whole fruit is used, sustainability becomes less of an issue except when using the fruit for essential oils causes significant decrease in the amount of available for food. (For some oils derived from fruit — this prevents production at high levels if not entirely.)
For many essential oils, sustainability is not currently a major concern, though it should be monitored over time. However, a few essential oils come from known threatened or endangered species. It is absolutely essential that essential oil enthusiasts and aromatherapists familiarize themselves with and monitor the key issues associated with these species. Some oils should not be used at all for now and others should be purchased only when the source can be reliably traced to a non-endangered plant population. Further, endangered plant species are protected by U.S. laws such as the Lacey Actand international agreement, such as CITES, and are subject to laws and regulations in other countries.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy lists four essential oils that come from endangered plants in its aromatherapy education standards. These are Agarwood (Aquilaria sp.), Frankincense (Boswellia carteri), Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), and Sandalwood (Santalum album). Essential oils expert Robert Tisserand adds Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) to this list. The issues for each oil are slightly different, so let’s explore each separately.
Agarwood (Aquilaria sp.)
Agarwood has a unique scent that has been prized all over the world for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that trade of Agarwood trees has negatively impacted many natural populations of the tree. Members of Aquilaria sp. can be found in numerous Asian countries, and as of 2004 all known varieties are listed as “potentially threatened” by CITES. Agarwood essential oil is extracted from heartwood, meaning trees must be cut down to extract the oil. As with many other trees that we use for essential oils, Agarwood trees can be cultivated on tree farms/plantations. If you want to use Agarwood essential oil, it’s a good idea to make sure that the company selling it sources responsibly (preferably from cultivated varieties).
Frankincense (Boswellia carteri)
This famous oil often comes from Somalian Boswellia trees, which are notoriously over-harvested. Fortunately, these trees can be cultivated on farms/plantations. (You can order Boswellia saplings online if you so desire.) I have found that essential oil companies do not always disclose whether their frankincense is wild or cultivated. I tend to assume that if the bottle is not specifically marked farmed/cultivated that the frankincense is wild sourced. While the Frankincense problem is not as dire as some of the others listed here, sustainability is a growing concern and should be watched in coming years.
Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora)
The tree that is used to produce rosewood essential oil is native to the rainforest areas of South America. Once abundant, rosewood trees are now rare in many parts of the Amazon rainforest. Harvesting the essential oil from rosewood requires cutting down entire trees. New trees do not easily grow to replace those cut, especially with the historical rate of trees cut far exceeding the number of new saplings. While extremely rare, it is possible to cultivate rosewood trees (presumably sustainably) on farms/plantations, though I do not know of any such producers. Illegally imported rosewood was at the heart of a major international trafficking case last year involving a large and well-known essential oil company. To the company’s credit, they fully complied with the federal investigation. Yet this case sheds doubt on so-called sustainable/legal/ethical import of rosewood oil at this time. Due to the endangered status of rosewood trees, this oil should be avoided.
Sandalwood (Santalum album)
This sandalwood species refers to what you may know as “Indian sandalwood” not to be confused with Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), which is not endangered. Indian sandalwood was over-harvested to the point of near-extinction for decades from India and a few other countries. The problem is somewhat allayed now with the advent of cultivated sandalwood trees. As such, sourcing is everything with Indian sandalwood. Indian sandalwood can now be sourced from plantations, such as the one in Australia that Plant Therapy uses to source its sandalwood. Of course, Australian sandalwood is also an option which offers similar benefits but has a softer and sweeter aroma than its Indian cousin.
Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi)
Robert Tisserand cites spikenard, native to Nepal, as one of the biggest essential oil sustainability concerns. In an effort to make harvest more sustainable, the Nepalese government currently requires permits for international trade of spikenard. Inevitably as with many endangered species, some is smuggled. The oil is on the more expensive side, but available from several popular essential oil companies. A large part of the spikenard problem is over-harvesting of wild plants, as the plant cannot be easily cultivated (at least not easily, cost-effectively, and on a large scale). This means that new spikenard cannot be easily and reliably planted to replace harvested plants. Further, entire spikenard plants must be harvested to create spikenard essential oil. Unfortunately, these are problems that trade permits may not be able to solve. While spikenard is prized for its benefits and aroma, there are many other essential oils that provide comparable benefits.
We have explored several endangered/threatened essential oil plant species in this post. Even for essential oil-bearing plants that are not endangered, we need to pay attention to how we create, process, and use these oils to ensure future sustainability. It is always good practice to use only the amount of essential oils that you need to avoid wasting these precious (and pricey) resources. Mother Earth (Gaia) provides the plants from which we get these wonderfully aromatic and therapeutic oils. It is up to us to be good stewards of these precious gifts.
If you choose to purchase any of these oils, check the company’s trade and sourcing practices before you buy. When buying essential oil blends, check which oils are included in the blend to avoid accidentally buying something endangered.
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Once referred to as "Complementary and Alternative Medicine" (CAM), integrative health modalities are intended to work hand-in-hand with allopathic or osteopathic medicine. The emphasis is not replacing one symphony with the other, but rather utilizing both to harmonize one's health.
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