Aromatherapy is a method of healing using very concentrated essential oils that are often highly aromatic and are extracted from plants. Constituents of the oils confer the characteristic perfume or odour given off by a particular plant. Essential oils help the plant in some way to complete its cycle of growth and reproduction.
For example, some oils may attract insects for the purpose of pollination; others may render it distasteful as a source of food. Any part of a plant the stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots or bark may produce essential oils or essences but often only in minute amounts. Different parts of the same plant may produce their own form of oil. An example of this is the orange, which produces oils with different properties in the flowers, fruits and leaves.
The therapeutic and medicinal properties of plant extracts have long been recognized and their use dates back to earliest times.
Art and writings from the ancient civilizations of Bgypt, China and Persia show that plant essences were used and valued by priests, physicians and healers. Plant essences have been used throughout the ages for healing-in incense for religious rituals in perfumes and embalming ointments and for culinary purposes.
There are many Biblical references that give an insight into the uses of plant oils and the high value that was attached to them. Throughout the course of human history the healing properties of plants and their essential oils has been recognized and most people probably had some knowledge about their use.
It was only in more recent times, with the great developments in science and orthodox medicine, particularly the manufacture of antibiotics and synthetic drugs, that knowledge and interest in the older methods of healing declined. However, in the last few years there has been a great rekindling of interest in the practice of aromatherapy with many people turning to this form of treatment.
Extraction of Essential Oils
Since any part of a plant may produce essential oils, the method of extraction depends upon the site and accessibility of the essence in each particular case. The oils are produced by special minute cells or glands and are released naturally by the plant in small amounts over a prolonged period of time when needed. In order to harvest the oils in appreciable amounts, it is usually necessary to collect a large quantity of the plant needed and and to subject the material to a process that causes the oil gland to burst, one of the most common methods is steam distillation.
The plant material is paced tightly into a press or still and steamed at high temperature. This causes the oil glands to burst the essential oil vaporises into the steam. This is then cooled to separate the oil from the water.
Sometimes water is used for distillation rather than the steam. Another method involved dissolving the plant material in a solvent or alcohol and is called solvent extraction. This involves placing the material in a centnifuge, which rotates at high speed, and then extracting the essential oils by means of a low temperature distillation process. Substances obtained in this way may be called resins or absolutes. A further method is called maceration in which the plant is soaked in hot oil. The plant cells collapse and release their essential oils, and the whole mixture is then separated and purified by a process called defleurage.If fat is used instead of oil, the process is called enfleurage.
These methods produce a purer oil that is usually more expensive than one obtained by distillation. The essential oils used in aromatherapy tend to be costly as vast quantities of plant matenial are required to produce thenm and the nmethods usedare complex and costy.
The next part of this blogspost will be talking about storage and uses of essential oils, techniques used in aromatherapy and how to store essential oil.
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