Exploring plant families and their essential oils
One of our previous blogs looked at the characteristics of essential oils derived from different plant parts (e.g. roots, leaves, flowers etc) and how this can guide you when selecting your oils. In this article we’re going to look at some of the most significant aromatic plant families, and the common characteristics and properties of their essential oils, which can also be useful when learning about oils and creating your own blends.
The plant kingdom and essential oils
Back in 2016, scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew estimated that there were at least 390,900 plants known to science. They believe however that this figure is only just scratching the surface. Scientists are discovering new species all time and estimate that there are thousands more that they don’t yet know about.
Out of this vast plant kingdom, around 3000 of these plants are known to produce essential oils, with only a small number being suitable for commercial extraction. According to Tisserand & Young (2013) there are around 400 essential oils in use, with only 100 of these being regularly used in aromatherapy. This rarity really does underline how very special and precious these oils are.
Knowing where your oil comes from
When learning about and working with essential oils it is particularly important to pay attention to the plant family, the genus and the species that the oil comes from, as this will identify the exact oil that you’re working with and what it can be used for, along with any safety considerations.
For example, our French Lavender comes from Lavandula (genus) angustifolia (species) which is a member of the Lamiaceae family. Together, the genus and the species give us the latin name of the plant e.g. Lavandula angustifolia.
Like humans, plants from the same family share similar characteristics, and this can sometimes give us an indication of what properties those plants will impart to their essential oils.
On the other hand, however, again like humans, plants found in the same family can also have major differences, and this is why it is most important to look at the chemistry of an oil to accurately understand its properties. Click here to read more about the chemical constituents in essential oils.
Common plant families found in aromatherapy
Here are some of the largest plant families used in aromatherapy, along with their essential oils that share similar characteristics.
Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)Commonly known as the carrot family.
- Angelica Root
- Carrot Seed
- Fennel Seed
- Parsley Seed
This is quite a diverse group, so it is virtually impossible to assign general therapeutic properties. The main similarity is their ability to support the digestive system. They also tend to have diuretic (promotes flow of urine) and depurative (detoxifying/blood cleansing) properties.
Commonly known as the daisy family
- Inula Sweet
With analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic properties these oils are often used for muscular aches and pains. They can also be soothing and healing for the skin and calming for the nervous system. Some are also reputed to be anti-allergenic.
These oils are extracted from the fragrant oleo-gum resins that exude from certain trees and shrubs.
Primarily used to aid the respiratory system and to soothe, heal and rejuvenate the skin. They are also good for calming the mind and have traditionally been used for aiding meditation and prayer.
Commonly known as the cypress family.
- Cedarwood Virginian
Common applications for these oils are for pain, the respiratory and urinary systems and as depuratives and diuretics. They can also be beneficial for stress, anxiety and nervous tension and for skin problems including oily skin and acne.
Often referred to as the mint family. This is one of the ten largest plant families and the largest oil producing family. The plants typically have highly aromatic leaves, many of which are used as culinary herbs.
- Bergamot Mint
- Clary Sage
- Melissa (Lemon Balm)
- Marjoram Sweet
Being a large family, these oils have a wide range of applications for the nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system and for skincare and musculoskeletal aches and pains.
Also known as the laurel family. This is another very large family of tropical and sub-tropical plants, many of which produce essential oils.
- Bay Leaf
- Ho Leaf
- May Chang (Litsea cubeba)
Oils from this family tend to be supportive of the immune and respiratory system. They are also calming and balancing for the nervous system and may assist with aches and pains.
Also known as the Myrtle family. One of the most important families from an aromatherapy perspective, with most oils coming from tropical trees.
- Clove Bud
- Pimento Berry
- Tea Tree
This large family has a wide range of therapeutic properties. They tend to be highly antiseptic, healing oils that are commonly used for supporting the respiratory and immune systems.
‘Pine’ oils are extracted from wood, needles or cones.
- Black Spruce
- Cedarwood Atlas
- Fir Needle
- Pine Needle
These oils are mainly used in aromatherapy to aid the respiratory system, especially when infection is present. They can also help with muscular aches and pains, fatigue, nervous exhaustion and stress.
Also known as the grass family. The oils are usually extracted from the leaves, or the roots/rhizomes in the case of Vetivert.
These oils are grounding and strengthening and can be helpful for nervous exhaustion and stress-related conditions. They are also used for skincare, helping with issues such as acne, oily skin and minor wounds and infections. Many have also been traditionally used for digestive problems and as insecticides.
Citrus oils are extracted from either the fruit peel, leaves or flowers.
- Sweet Orange
These oils are generally noted for their refreshing, uplifting, antibacterial, and astringent properties. Common uses are for digestive problems, nervous tension, stress, skincare and for stimulating the circulatory-lymphatic system.
Known as the ginger family
Thees are warming, spicy oils that are commonly used for digestive problems, nervous fatigue and debility and musculoskeletal pain and tension. They can also be helpful for respiratory problems.
As a general rule of thumb, essential oils from the same botanical family tend to blend well together.
Please remember that while it is helpful to know the botanical family from which your oil comes from, you should always consider the individual oil's profile, its therapeutic actions and safety advice when developing your own blends.