I follow my nose and delves into the world of fragrant plants and their benefits
As anyone who has wafted past a lavender bush on a warm summer’s day or sunk their nose into a rose blossom will know – scent can have a profound effect on our mood and well being. Whether it’s geranium and dianthus, calendula or jasmine, the fragrance of plants aren’t just attractive to wildlife but have a myriad of benefits for us too.
When we inhale a fragrance the scent triggers the hypothalamus to release hormones connected with emotions, and early research suggests aromatherapy – where essential oils extracted from plants are administered via massage, baths or inhalation – may even improve physical and cognitive performance.
While pure essential oils require significant expertise and many hours to create (it takes a whopping 2,000 roses to produce 1ml of essential oil for example!), there are plenty of ways we can use aromatic garden herbs and flowers for a homemade fragrant pharmacy.
“Making healing oils, flower waters and infusions from aromatic plants is a tradition that goes back to the very birth of civilization,” says renowned aromatherapy expert Julia Lawless, founder of aromatherapy company Aqua Oleum and the author of more than 20 books on botanicals and essential oils including The Aromatic Garden. “Herbal medicine and aromatherapy are not new or modern techniques but are based on ancient medical systems that have been built up over thousands of years from accumulated empirical evidence.”
Indeed, the roots of aromatherapy can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians who burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices in honour of their gods.
“The ancient Greeks also used aromatic oils and ointments, cosmetically and medicinally as well as for their fragrance. Marestheus, a physician, recognised that aromatic flowers have either stimulating or sedative properties, and mentions rose and hyacinth as being refreshing and invigorating to a tired mind, and lily and narcissus as sleep inducing. Theophrastus of Athens investigated how scents affected the emotions,” says London-based complementary therapist Mary Dalgleish at Head 2 Toe Massage.
The invention of distillation to extract the essential essences from plants is credited to the Persians, but it was 20th century French cosmetic chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, who coined the term ‘aromatherapy’.
“He discovered the effectiveness of lavender oil on burns, after injuring his hand in a small laboratory explosion and subsequently treating it with the oil,” adds Mary.
Since then, further studies have suggested that inhalation of lavender oil could ease the symptoms of PMS and depression, while other fragrant plants have been shown to promote sleep and relaxation. Research at the Catholic University of Korea found pain levels in 40 patients with rheumatic problems reduced when they were treated with lavender, marjoram, eucalyptus and rosemary oils.
Grow your own fragrance
Mary fondly remembers her first fragrant garden plant. “When I was about five years old my grandmother helped me make a rose ‘perfume’ for my mother’s birthday,” recalls Mary.
“We picked a large jar full of red rose petals (from about three roses) and put them in a saucepan with a small amount of water just covering them. When the water started boiling, we put a lid on and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. The water became a beautiful pink colour and we let it cool and then strained it into a jar, which I presented to my mum as her birthday gift.
“Rosemary is another lovely herb. Rub between your fingers to release the scent and breathe in deeply – it’s good for mental alertness. And a fresh tea is a wonderful way to get the aromatic benefits of the peppermint plant. Inhale the vapours that are released when the leaves are steeped in hot water.”
Mary also likes to cuts bunches of lavender blooms for lavender bags. “Snip long sections and secure with twine before hanging in a warm place for few days,” says Mary. “When completely dry, remove the flower buds from the stems and drop them into drawstring organza bags. You can drizzle in some lavender essential oil when the fragrance begin to fade.”
Julia Lawless, who caught the gardening bug from her Finnish mother and grandmother, has also been cultivating herbs and aromatic plants since she was a child.
“I would collect and press them as a hobby and I therefore learnt the names and characteristics of masses of native plants by an early age,” says Julia. “My mother would ask me to pick verbena to make a lovely bedtime herbal tea or chop up mint leaves for making a fresh mint sauce. Dill was another great favourite, which I would slice up finely to serve with cucumber, as is still traditional in Finland.”
Julia says even a small container will allow you to grow some fragrant favourites. “Melissa and lemon balm are both herbs that have a lovely lemony fragrance, especially when their leaves are crushed. They have a pronounced uplifting, anti-depressant effect on the entire system and are good for stress or nervous exhaustion. The dried leaves also make a delightful herbal tisane when infused in water or small sprigs can also be tied in bundles then attached beneath the hot bath tap when it is running to give the bath water a pleasing uplifting, citrus aroma.”
Indeed, lemon balm has been suggested as a treatment for the anxiety associated with dementia. In one study, essential oil was combined with a base lotion and applied to the patients’ faces and arms twice a day, with 60 per cent experiencing an overall improvement in agitation levels.
“The scientific world is now reappraising the value of natural remedies,” says Julia. “As the limited effectiveness and unwanted side effects of aggressively synthesised medications are being recognised, aromatic essences are coming back into their own once again. Herbal medicine and aromatherapy consequently represent a return to nature, being based on principles requiring ecological awareness. This corresponds with many people’s interest in “green” issues, and a widespread concern regarding the unknown effects of certain chemicals on the whole ecosystem.”
First published in Vegetarian Living magazine
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