Where do Essential oils come from – Really?

by Penny Keay © 2010

Do you ever wonder where exactly do essential oils come from? Most folks realize they come from plants but more specifically it is specialized cells within the plant. Essential oils do not come from animals or rocks.

To explain. Essential oils are produced by plant cells in and around specialized glands. These glands store and then secrete ‘essential oils’ which are very complex composition oils. These may consist of hundreds of different chemical constituents.

Depending on the plant and part producing the essential oils some essential oils are produced abundantly such as the Lemon peels and Eucalyptus leaves and others are produced sparingly as is the case with Jasmine and Rose.

Essential oils, as most of you know, are extremely volatile oils and quickly dissipate into the air. When they are completely evaporated, they leave no visible mark or stain, nor scent.

Do not confuse essential oils with ‘essential fatty acids’. Essential fatty acids can be produced from both plant and animal sources. They are commonly referred to as nutritional supplements as they are taken internally as a food source. Essential oils come only from plants and are not considered a food source.

Each plant has specialized epidermal cells that form glands. They are called "Glandular Trichomes". They are found in almost all plants and are secretory in nature. These glands are found in various parts of the plant ranging from the flowers, peels, berries, leaves, petals, wood and roots, depending on the type of plant and what the purpose for the essential oil will be utilized by that plant.

Essential oils are released from these glands by hair-like structures or tubes as the plant part is touched or stimulated.

Plants will produce essential oils for several reasons. Some are just a result of their metabolic processes, and is an excretory product. Others produce the scent as a type of pheromone to attract insects or animals to aid in their reproductive processes. And yet some plants produce essential oils to deter their enemies – either insect or animals that may eat them! And yet some produce essential oils to deter other plants from invading their area needed to obtain nutrients for growth.

So why is it important that you know this? Well, it isn’t so important you know what the particular plant cell structure that produce essential oils. What is important is that you know what plant part was used – whether it was the flower, petals, peels, berries, leaves, stems, bark, wood or roots. These are helpful for knowing the different uses of the particular essential oil.

Just knowing the plant species will not tell you about the essential oil that can be produced by that plant. As is the case with the plant Citrus Aurantium. This plant produces essential oils from the fruit peel, the flowering blossoms and the stem/wood. Essential oil from each part having it's own unique chemical footprint.

So when purchasing essential oils you need to know more about the plant. Make sure you know the part the essential oil was extracted (distilled) from. They will each smell different and have their own properties and uses.

Information for writing this article was obtained from the following resources:
Aromatherapy Science, A guide for healthcare professionals by Maria Lis-Balchin
The Chemistry of Essential oils by David G Williams
The Encyclopedia of Essential oils by Julia Lawless
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood
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