We appreciate essential oils from a therapeutic perspective, and their odors can be enjoyed by most people, particularly when blended to create a cosmetic product or perfume, but why do plants produce them; what is in it for the plant?
Despite the naming, essential oils are not ‘essential’ to the plant in order for them to survive – they are not indispensable. Initially it was thought they were just the leftovers from a metabolic process, and in some instances this is likely to be true. However, in many cases they can prove to be hugely beneficial to the plant.
Over millions of years, plants have evolved to survive in almost all types of habitat throughout the world.
Much like us, some other animal species ‘enjoy’ the fragrances given off by flowers. By attracting specific insects, some plants are able to pollinate more efficiently.
Conversely, other plants use essential oils to defend against insects and other animals. It has been shown that the saps and resins produced by some trees deter wood boring beetles. When eaten, other plant species are nauseating and toxic to mammals due to the chemical compounds found within.
In some environments plants are exposed to harsh climatic conditions, it is thought the essential oils which collect on the leaves of some plants protect against water loss.
The antimicrobial use of essential oils has been well documented when studied by man. Plants that produce these essential oils are better equipped to protect themselves against funguses and other microbes.
Even if the plant is situated in a near perfect environment not subjected to any of these trials, it may have to compete with other plants. Most essential oils contain compounds that are toxic to other plants by inhibiting respiration and photosynthesis – these are thought to be used to prevent other plants germinating in close proximity.
With many essential oils, we extract these and use them for the same or similar applications they were initially used for by the plant from which they came. In recent years the numbers of studies using essential oils for therapeutic benefits has increased – we always like to keep abreast of any new developments we can use.