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April, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 04

Endangered Plants: A Matter of Ethics and the Buyer Beware

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

In The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, by Salvatore Battaglia, membership in a professional organization is listed as an essential part of being an aromatherapist. I highly suggest this type of membership to my professional-level students.

In Level II, they are required to prepare a written report about an article that appears in an aromatherapy publication. My reason goes further than having a credential to list on a business card or getting some interesting information from a one-time glance at a magazine. The truth is, no matter how wonderful a book might be, it contains only the information between its covers. The best way to stay in touch with what is happening in the field and find out about current research or important issues is to belong to an organization that provides this kind of up-to-the-minute information through journals, newsletters and teleconferences.

If I weren't a member of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, it could have taken me a very long time to find out about the endangered plant situation and how that is affecting essential oils. Even if I did hear about it, I might have been relying on someone who sells essential oils for their take on it and they would be relying on their suppliers in countries they might never have visited to give them the true picture. As with most things, the most objective viewpoint will come from those with no vested interest.

The issue of how to find good sources for quality, unadulterated essential oils in general, when there is no government legislation, has been discussed in earlier columns. However, I have the unhappy duty to tell you that, at this time, two of the favorite essential oils for both the aromatherapy and the perfume industry are endangered. They are frankincense (Boswellia carterii) and sandalwood (Santalum album).

For an aromatherapist, this amounts to a tragedy. It is their very popularity, their incomparable and irreplaceable properties on all levels and their historic application to the spiritual area that has caused overharvesting and exploitation to the point of extinction. Other endangered plants include rosewood (Aniba roseodora) and agarwood/aloewood (Aqullaria malaccensis). These latter essences are less widely known than frankincense or sandalwood, although rosewood is used in perfume, cosmetic and fragrance products and aromatherapy, while agarwood is one of the main essences in the Ayurvedic energetic healing tradition. Sandalwood, rosewood and agarwood trees must be felled to extract essential oil from the heartwood. Frankincense is a resin expressed by the tree, but overharvesting weakens the tree and causes disease and death.

What this means to the massage therapist is that the likelihood of finding unadulterated essential oils for any of these wonderful aromatic compounds is slim to none. The price will be high. The ethics of supporting unsustainable harvesting methods and even, in the case of agarwood, an illegal trade that resembles drug or gun running (complete with cutthroat gangs and prostitutes) is something we must each address as individuals. Suppliers may tell the well-intended wholesale commercial buyer that the oils are being sustainably grown, but without a visit to the actual place of harvest and distillation, these claims are hard to prove. Some propose that the essential oil of a similar plant, such as Australian sandalwood, or even the same plant grown in a different locale, can be substituted, but those with training know that different botanical varieties and different growing conditions produce oils that differ significantly from the original species.

Yes, you will still find frankincense and sandalwood for sale and even by suppliers who mean well but might not have the full information themselves. If the supplier claims sustainable harvest, the buyer must be the judge on whether this is true. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy does not promote or endorse the sale, purchase or use of endangered essential oils. This is a tough stance to take, but in the interests of education, integrity and a love for the plants themselves, it is the only one acceptable. So be aware when searching for essential oils and stay informed by joining a professional aromatherapy association. Another resource for information about what is happening in the world of plants is, which has a free e-mail newsletter.

Click here for previous articles by Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.


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