Edition 30: April 2011
Essential Oil of the Month
Litsea: Aromatherapy’s rising star
LITSEA CUBEBA, or May Chang, is a small evergreen tropical tree whose essential oil is still being explored in modern aromatherapy.
This tree has featured strongly in Chinese medicinal history, when it was used to treat indigestion, back pain, headaches and travel sickness.
Chinese practitioners also used it to treat cancer tumours, believing it to be carcinogenic.
Today the tree is planted as a wind-breaker in China and the timber is sometimes used for making furniture and crafts; while parts of the plant are still used in medicine.
Litsea Cubeba has fragrant lemon scented leaves and flowers with small pepper-shaped fruit which are processed for essential oil.
The essential oil smells similar to lemongrass, melissa and other oils rich in citral, however, it is finer and less tenacious than lemongrass and more lemon-like; closer to a true verbena oil, but at a fraction of the cost.
The tree can grow up to 12m high and is referred to as a pepper - although it is not related to the pepper family. It belongs to the Lauraceae family with the bay laurel, rosewood and cinnamon trees.
Litsea cubeba is native to China, Indonesia, Taiwan and other parts of Southeast Asia where the fruit of the tree is often made into a hot flavoring for meat known as sambal; while the flowers are used as flavouring for tea. It is called ‘mountain pepper’ in Mandarin and it is a popular spice for the Atayal aborigines in Taiwan who called it ‘maqaw’.
Modern aromatherapy has found litsea a tonic to the cardiac system. It is known to lower blood pressure and is also considered to be useful in cases of arrhythmia; regular massage with litsea is of benefit for those predisposed to coronary disease. It is a friend of the respiratory system, as a bronchodilator and thus helpful in treating bronchitis and asthma.
Litsea is an effective antimicrobial and can be used blended into a light carrier oil (an astringent oil such as hazelnut or grape seed is good) to treat acne, dermatitis and greasy skin. It should be used with caution and very light dilutions on broken or troubled skin.
Oily, mature and inflamed skin responds well to its gentle cooling and astringent properties and added to a hydrosol or floral water; it makes an admirable, refreshing and regenerative skin toner.
Dab litsea directly on spots to hasten healing and use diluted to treat herpes. Use litsea in first aid added to antiseptic washes to disinfect wounds, soothe bruises, scrapes, rashes and irritations. The oil exhibits anti-fungal activity and can be of help for athlete’s foot.
ACTIVATE YOUR CREATIVITY
Try burning 6-10 drops in an aromatiser to boost your creativity when working on your latest project, whether it's art, an essay or even the housework! Close your eyes and inhale, taking note of how it inspires and energises.
Litsea is remarkably deodorising while also helping to curb excessive perspiration; so do add it to a deodorant blend to keep you fresh. Use litsea in the bath or shower with a body brush to thoroughly cleanse the body of germs as well as promote tissue toning and reduce cellulite.
Massage oils for toning flabby areas can be greatly augmented by the addition of this citrusy scented oil and included it in hair treatments to help scalp irritations and alopecia.
Here is a sensational fragrant addition to body oils, and home-made perfumes and soaps; the choice is yours.
Use litsea in massage blends to invigorate those with chronic fatigue and improve liver function. Its qualities tend to counter allergies and indeed may be more suitable for those who have an allergy to citrus oils, yet still need this toning, balancing action on the skin.
Litsea calms inflammatory conditions when massaged into arthritic joints and eases other aches and pains, countering muscle sprains and knots. Litsea massages and baths are a safe and effective aid for promoting milk supply in nursing mothers.
It is an effective anti-viral agent, helping to combat flu and colds and in this capacity is ideal to use in air fresheners and aromatisers to fumigate the home or sick-room, especially during epidemics.
Lemony litsea lends life lightness
In fact, in the home, litsea’s uses are myriad; from sanitising and scenting the laundry, adding to a spa, bathing the dog, to cleaning out musty cupboards and improving pot pourris. Its insecticidal properties further validate extensive household use.
This oil is ideal for car blends, keeping us relaxed and alert because it helps to keep us calm yet does not cause drowsiness.
Litsea is gentle on the digestive system and as an anti-spasmodic; it can assuage upset stomachs and indigestion as well as clear painful obstructions and ease nausea and heartburn.
Flatulence and bloat may be successfully dispelled with litsea abdominal massages, which help detox the body and counter food-poisoning.
Litsea rejuvenates and refreshes a tired mind and is indicated to lower stress levels and with its high citral content; this invigorating oil promotes enthusiasm, lifting our spirit by clearing dark clouds of depression, anxiety and fear.
Considered a balancing scent, it can both stimulate and relax and it is especially suitable to help treat post-natal depression.
The restorative effects of litsea enhance general relaxation and sleep patterns; blend it with roman chamomile and lavender essential oils for this purpose. Or for that get up and go, try blending with rosemary and cypress.
Litsea enables you to stay focused and motivated; it aids concentration and increases mental alertness. It helps us summon the necessary dedication and discipline to realise our dreams.
Under the dominion of planet mercury, litsea cubeba has a youthful energy reconnecting us to the childlike awe that keeps our life fresh and magical. Use litsea for rituals of renewal, such as Easter or spring festivals, to help us let go of our overly serious approach to life and bring a return to that mischievousness and unabashed curiosity of the young and tender spirit.
Name: Litsea Cubeba
Other name: May Chang
Latin name: Litsea Cubeba
Scent: A sweet, citrusy top note, with a predominant lemon scent with fruity and floral undertones and a vegetative note. It is both zesty and intense in character.
Extraction: The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of the fruit of the tree and is pale yellow to yellow in color and of a watery viscosity. Oil can also be extracted from the leaf, but this is considered to be lower in quality. China, Taiwan and Japan are the main producing countries.
Therapeutic properties: antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, cordial, deodorant, galactogogue, hypotensive, cardiac tonic, insecticidal, sedative/ stimulant, stomachic, vulnerary, tonic
Benefits: Acne, anxiety, arrhythmia, cellulite, dermatitis, epidemics, excessive perspiration, flatulence, gastric ulcers, general tonic, high blood pressure, indigestion, insect repellent, nervous depression, oily skin, poor appetite, relaxing, sanitation, stress and tissue toning.
Blends Well With: Lavender, neroli, ylang-ylang, rose, sandalwood, frankincense, geranium, vetivert, fennel and the resinous essential oils. Litsea cubeba lifts a blend, making it more energetic and lively, while also anchoring the citrus essential oils, which tend to be rather fleeting. Be careful if you do not wish it to dominate a blend.
Safety: No known toxicity, non-irritating. Use in low concentration only in skin care as some sensitive individuals may react. .
What Herb is That?
Nurturing remedy from tree wound
BENZOIN has been used for thousands of years in Asia as a perfume fixative and in incense, which was burned to fumigate places against evil spirits.
It has always been a popular cosmetic ingredient and an old-fashioned formula called ‘virgins milk’ was popular; which was a kind of toilet water made from benzoin, alcohol and lavender; supposedly making the skin ‘clear and brilliant’. In China, herbalists used it as a urinary antiseptic and as a digestive aid.
Since Elizabethan times in Europe, ‘Friar's Balsam’ was a part of the home’s first aid box, as an inhalant and antiseptic; it consisted of mostly benzoin resin, various balsams, aloe ferox leaf latex, myrrh and angelica root.
In France, the resin was burned and inhaled to soothe chronic coughs, a custom believed to have derived from the Bedouin people. In the desert, fumigation with resins was a method for cleansing when water was rationed. Traditionally, benzoin was used to treat circumcision wounds.
Benzoin resin is created when the tree is seven years of age or older and it is believed that the first three years' collections give the finest Benzoin.
It is a pathological product because the trees do not produce such resin in normal circumstances; but it occurs when the tree is inflicted with a wound, severe enough to injure the cambium and create numerous oleoresin ducts through which a secretion is produced.
So after the trunk of the tree is hacked with an axe, the liquid benzoin gradually accumulates beneath the bark or exudes from the incisions.
When it has sufficiently hardened it is collected in the form of loose pieces called tears and it is melted by heating over water before it can be used. Several varieties are known, but Siam and Sumatra benzoin are the most prized.
The many forms of Benzoin
Benzoin is not strictly an essential oil, rather an oleoresin. It is available in different forms: resinous powder; (ground from the brittle lumps of resin,) tincture (it is dissolved in alcohol) and as resin absolute oil. It comes in various colours from pale yellow/tan to reddish/brown with a sweet, balsamic smell and strong vanilla note.
The absolute is made from the crude brittle resin using alcohol, which is later removed leaving a concentrated tincture known as a resin absolute.
There are several qualities available and a “true absolute” is characterised as an orange-brown viscous mass with an intensely rich vanilla and balsamic scent. It can be bought already dissolved in ethyl glycol, for which there could be safety issues, therefore it is preferable to buy it unadulterated and semi-solid. Place the bottle in hot water.
Tincture of benzoin is used as an inhalant with steam to ease the symptoms of respiratory problems such as bronchitis. It is naturally astringent on mucous membranes, expelling fluid waste, making it a prime cough and cold remedy.
To use as an expectorant, add a small amount to a bowl of boiling water or vapouriser to relieve both sinusitis and bronchitis. Children with croup may be treated with a benzoin gum vapour and laryngitis can be helped by applying to the throat region a base cream to which benzoin, eucalyptus, tea tree and clary-sage have been added to an appropriate low dilution.
Make your own incense
Like most tree resins, benzoin burns beautifully and you can blend ground benzoin resin with ground myrrh and frankincense resin, mix with other ground aromatic herbs such as rosemary and rose, moisten with some of the thicker fixative essential oils like sandalwood and patchouli and a few lighter tops notes such as cypress and juniper - and there you have a rich, fragrant incense to burn.
In Chinese medicine, benzoin is used for conditions that are cold and damp in nature and it thus acts as an antiseptic for the urinary passages, which is helpful for cystitis. It combats yang-deficient energy of the spleen - which helps improve liver and kidney function and general lethargy.
A massage blend including benzoin with orange and carrot seed essential oils warms and tones the heart and circulation, while stimulating the immune. Such a blend can have a calming effect on the stomach, aiding digestion and helping to expel flatulence and abdominal distension.
Gum benzoin is a useful antiseptic that protects and disinfects the skin. It is a known remedy for treating inflammatory skin conditions and to heal wounds, burns and skin ulcers.
A few drops of benzoin in a blend of essential oils such as lavender and chamomile will calm itchy, irritated skin and conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Or add some benzoin to other parasiticide essential oils such as clove, lemon or thyme to treat ringworm and athlete's foot.
The role in skin care
Benzoin is a preservative of fats, which is why it is included in natural skin care products including soaps, lotions, and creams. Its ability to soothe chapped, dry skin and increase the skin’s elasticity warrants its inclusion in skincare, especially in hand creams to protect against harsh elements.
Gum benzoin may be successfully used in making incenses, perfumes, and other aromatic products. Benzoin is an excellent fixative and base note and adds a sweet note to the aroma. It also serves as an insect repellent.
Benzoin is used in burners and spiritual incenses to create a contemplative space suitable to focus the mind for meditation.
Its sunny smell counters PMT and feelings of depression and anxiety, particularly due to over-thinking.
It assuages feelings of anger as its effects are reassuring and embracing for the lonely and sexual difficulties such as premature ejaculation have been treated with this oleoresin.
It is ideal for those who can’t relax and are geared to sympathetic responses because it tends to switch them from “survival” mode into real living, by stimulating the parasympathetic response which enhances sleep patterns and overall reactions to everyday vicissitudes.
It interposes a padded zone between us and events, softening the mind’s sharp edges. During times of emotional upheaval, when a stabilising influence is necessary, we can count on comforting benzoin to reassure us with its warm, sweet and nourishing qualities.
Name: Gum Benzoin
Latin name: Styrax benzoin
What is it? Native to tropical Asia, the Benzoin tree is cultivated in Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Thailand. The tree features drooping white or yellow clusters of fleshy bell-shaped flowers. It has hard-shelled fruits and ovate, pointed and hairy leaves cover the shrub-like tree that can grow up to 9m.
Blends well with: Bergamot, coriander, cypress, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, orange, rose, petitgrain.
Characteristics: Warming, relaxing, grounding, nurturing, stabilising. A base note associated with the earth element.
Medicinal Properties: Anti-catarrhal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory astringent, cicatrisant, cephalic, sedative, vulnerary, carminative, expectorant, diuretic, antiseptic, deodorant, antioxidant.
Safety: Not to be inhaled by asthmatics. Undiluted it can cause mild skin irritation, so always dilute. Sensitivities can occur in susceptible people. Excessive use can cause drowsiness.