Some Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy are Endangered Plant Species, istockphoto, used with permission
Some Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy are Endangered Plant Species, istockphoto, used with permission

Essential oils are extracted by various means and are used in aromatherapy for therapeutic purposes.  However, some essential oils (or, to be more precise,  the plant from which they are extracted from) are actually considered “endangered” or “threatened” and it raises the question with certain aromatherapists as to whether we should be using an alternative.  Although there are several essential oils that are are extracted from various levels of endangered plant species (check out the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the Cropwatch Files to learn more), these are three of the most popular endangered essential oils used in aromatherapy:

Frankincense Essential Oil

Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) – There are several species of frankincense but the most commonly used species for aromatherapy is Boswellia carteri.  According to the Cropwatch Files, Boswellia carteri was listed in the IUCN List of Threatened Species in 2008.  In addition, Patricia Davis, in Aromatherapy: An A-Z, writes that frankincense has become difficult to obtain because of drought and wars in frankincense “growing” and “producing” areas.

Rosewood Essential Oil

    Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) – Rosewood essential oil is extracted from a tree that is native to the Amazon rainforest.  Although an oil extracted from a wild tree in the rainforest does contribute to the destruction of the rainforest, there are now many cultivated rosewood plantations that are controlled.  However, the Cropwatch Files list rosewood as being on the IUCN List of Threatened Species in 2008.  The question to ask, as an aromatherapist, where does your rosewood oil originate from?

    Sandalwood Essential Oil

    Sandalwood (Santalum album) – sandalwood trees are slow-growing; in fact, sandalwood essential oil is only extracted from trees that are at least 30 years old.  Historically, sandalwood essential oil has been produced from trees in the Mysore region of India.  According to the Cropwatch Files, Santalum album, the type of sandalwood species that is most commonly used to produce sandalwood essential oil for aromatherapy purposes, is at greater risk from spike disease than exploitation.  However, it is listed on the IUCN List of Threatened Species for 2008.  In addition, don’t be confused by “Australian” sandalwood essential oil (Santalum spicta); chemically, it is a “poor substitute” for Santalum album – and it also has been over-cultivated in the wild, although it is protected in some Australian reserves now.

    Endangered Essential Oils

      The above essential oils are just three essential oils that are extracted from endangered oils; consult the Cropwatch Files for a full list.  In addition, note that plants get added to, and removed, from the IUCN List of Threatened Species all of the time, as their situation is re-assessed.

      As an aromatherapist, you should be asking where your essential oil has come from; is it “endangered” and is the supplier trying to sell you an inferior/substituted product in its place, claiming that it is the same “quality” and standard.  If it is extracted from an endangered plant species, what is the current level of threat to that plant species (IUCN has varying levels of threat to a plant, depending on the perceived circumstances/conditions/future for the plant).  Finally, is there an alternative essential oil, with similar chemical components and properties that you could be using?  Make your decision based on the facts that you discover.

      References:

      • Davis, Patricia, 1999, Aromatherapy: An A-Z, UK: Vermilion
      • Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, UK: Thorsons
      • The IUCN Red List website
      • The Cropwatch Files website, Threatened Aromatic Species: v.1:11, March 2009, Tony Burfield
      • National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

      You might also like:

      The Future for Plants and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

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