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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
Aromatic plants of the same botanical family share not only similar physical characteristics but also similar medicinal properties that are used in aromatherapy as essential oils.
Some plants release aromas that are used in the practice of aromatherapy; although there are over 200 plants from which these aromas (commonly called essential oils) are extracted, not all of them are used medicinally due to the high levels of toxicity they contain. However, there are twenty one aromatic plant families that do produce usable essential oils and commonly share similar characteristics within the same family.
Abietaceae and Annonaceae Plant Families
The Abietaceae plant family belong to the conifer class; members of this plant family include cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica), silver fir (Abies alba) and pine (Pinus sylvestris). Abietaceae plant family members are highly antiseptic and effective on respiratory disorders. The Annonaceae plant family is very small and contains only one species of plant used in aromatherapy, that of ylang ylang (Cananga odorata).
Apiaceae Plant Family
The plants in the Apiaceae plant family look very similar; the flower heads resemble umbrellas. Essential oils obtained from the Apiaceae plant family are high in ketones or phenolic ethers and are therefore often hazardous; many are uterine stimulants and may be abortive if misused. However, seed oils are balancing to the digestive system. Apiaceae plant family members include coriander (Coriandrum sativum), dill (Anethum graveolens) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
Asteraceae Plant Family
The Asteraceae plant family has daisy-like flower heads, composed of numerous small flowers instead of petals. Asteraceae plant family members are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and soothing to the skin and the digestive system. Asteraceae plant family members include roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), helichrysum (Helichrysum angustifolium), Moroccan chamomile (Ormenis mixta) and German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita).
Burseraceae and Cupressaceae Plant Families
Burseraceae plant family members are expectorant and therefore particularly helpful in treating bronchitis; they are also useful in healing wounds and ulcers and reducing scar tissue. Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) is a Burseraceae plant family member. The Cupressaceae plant family belong to the conifer class; family plant members include cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) and juniper berry (Juniperus communis). The Cupressaceae plant family have medicinal properties that help to treat stress, insomnia, nervous tension, reduce cellulite and are astringent.
Lamiaceae Plant Family
The Lamiaceae plant family contains the largest number of aromatic plants used in aromatherapy; essential oils are easily released from the plants as they are stored on the surface of the leaves. Lamiaceae aromatic plant family members are chemically complex; they are a mixture of alcohols and aldehydes. However, they are generally safe to use.
Medicinal properties include use in the treatment of headaches, muscular problems and nasal congestion. Plant family members are numerous but include:
– lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
– patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
– rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
– peppermint (Mentha piperita)
– sage (Saliva officinalis)
–sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
–melissa (Melissa officinalis)
–basil (Ocimum basilicum)
–clary sage (Salvia sclarea).
Lauraceae and Myrataceae Plant Families
Lauraceae plant family members are anti-fungal, bactericidal, anti-viral and either a tonic or a stimulant; aromatic plant family members include cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), rosewood (Aniba rosaedora) and litsea (Litsea cubea). The Myrataceae plant family contain the eucalyptus and melaleuca trees; they are highly antiseptic, a tonic or stimulant and are particularly useful on the respiratory system. Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), clove (Syzigium aromaticum) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Smithii/Staigeriana) are members of the Myrataceae plant family.
Poaceae and Rutaceae Plant Families
The Poaceae plant family are useful in treating aches and pains, acne and stimulating the circulation; plant family members include citronella (Cymbopogon nardus) and palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii). The Rutaceae plant family contains the citrus oils that are expressed from the peel of the fruit, with the exception of neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara flos) and petitgrain (Citrus aurantium).
Rutaceae plant family members are good digestive oils and are usually beneficial for the skin; other family members include:
– bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
– lemon (Citrus limon)
– mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
–orange sweet (Citrus sinensis)
–orange bitter (Citrus aurantium)
–grapefruit (Citrus paradisi).
Other Aromatic Plant Families
Additional aromatic plant families and members are:
–Geraniaceae – geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
–Myristicaceae – nutmeg (Myristica fragans)
–Olaceae – jasmine (Jasminum officinale)
–Piperaceae – black pepper (Piper nigrum)
–Rosaceae – rose otto (Rosa damascena)
–Santalaceae – sandalwood (Santalum album)
–Styracaceae – benzoin (Styrax benzoin)
–Valerianaceae – valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
–Verbenaceae – lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla)
–Zingiberaceae – ginger (Zingiber officinale).
–Lawless, Julia 1995 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils UK: Thorsons
–Price, Shirley 2000 Aromatherapy Workbook London, UK: Thorsons
This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as The Medicinal Properties of Aromatic Plant Families
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