Sacred Earth

Exploring nature and culture, ecology and eco-psychology

Nature Notes 

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

At Midsummer, the life-giving power of the Sun has reached its climax. We celebrate the longest day of the year! In pre-Christian tradition, it is said, that during the 12 days of Midsummer and the 12 days of Christmas the veils between the world are thinnest. At this time spirit beings can easily cross the threshold that separates our worlds. Likewise, those who are particularly perceptive to the ‘otherworldly vibes’ can receive magical gifts, or catch a glimpse of the spirit folk. It is a time of celebration, but also for making offerings to the Gods, to ask for protection of the harvest, and to receive blessings. The wisdom-keepers would use it for scrying, to determine the signs of the times. But for most people it was a festive time, celebrated with gatherings around huge bonfires fires. Dancing, feasting, and merry-making were the order of the day – the Sun-God and the Earth-Goddess were celebrating their wedding day and consummate their love. The people joyously join their celebration and thus ensure fertility and abundance for all.

At Midsummer, Bel, the young Sun-God has reached his climax and exhausted his power. Lugh takes over the reign. We are at the turning point of the year and about to begin our long journey of descent through the dark half of the year.

This is a good time to cherish the gifts of nature, to count our blessings, and to give thanks for all that we have. It is a time to share our blessings and to join in the spirit of celebration with friends and kin.

For herbalists, it is the prime time for gathering healing herbs. This is also a good time to seek council from the spirit world or to embark on a vision quest.

Welcome to the Sacred Earth website!

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by! My name is Kat Morgenstern, and I am delighted that you have found your way here!

I have created the Sacred Earth website as a forum for nature lovers of all stripes. Come and join me on a journey down the garden path, and off into the virtual woods, where we will explore, learn and discover all about the intertwining roots of nature and culture.

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What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are all around us and anyone, who has ever stopped to sniff at the roses has experienced them directly. Essential oils are aromatic compounds of plants, which not only occur in the flowers but may also be found in the leaves, roots, or seeds. Interestingly, essential oils that derive from the same plant, but from different parts of that plant can have quite different scents and very different properties.

Although they are collectively known as ‘oils’, essential oils are chemically very different from fatty oils (such as olive or almond oil). Chemically, essential oils belong to the huge family of terpenes, which are ubiquitous in the plant world. Terpenes are very complex and some form enormously long-chained molecules. Most essential oils tend to have a rather shorter sequence, known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, or form ring-like structures called ‘benzene rings’.

Biologists think of essential oils in terms of their function – they regard them as ‘the chemical weapons’ of the plant world: they repel insects, or fight bacterial or fungal attacks. They may also play a part in the ‘sex-life’ of a plant, acting as ‘plant pheromones’ that are supposed to attract and seduce their pollinators.

Those of us, who see plants as living beings, rather than as chemical factories or sources of raw materials, consider essential oils as the fragrant essence of the plant’s soul. Their ethereal nature, concentrated as scent, is the means by which plants communicate with the world around them.

In human anatomy, the olfactory center is situated in the oldest part of the brain, which has its seat in close proximity to the area that stores emotional memories and instincts. Scents speak to us on a pre-verbal and non-rational level, which is why our reactions to them tend to be so instinctive. This explains why perfumes can be so effective in attracting the opposite sex, or why certain smells can conjure up such intense emotions and memories.

Essential Oils

Medicinal and Therapeutic Properties of Essential Oils

Medical professionals are more interested in the therapeutic properties of essential oils – many oils show antibacterial, fungicidal, relaxant, stimulating, antidepressant, and other effects that have been utilized for thousands of years. But some years ago, essential oil research has given rise to a form of therapy known as Aromatherapy, that relies solely on the use of essential oils.

Aromatherapy offers a very holistic approach since it can affect the mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and a skilled aromatherapist will take all three into consideration when blending their oils.

The specific oils are usually delivered via a massage, but a client may also be instructed to use an oil diffuser or other application to benefit from the scent.

Nowadays, Aromatherapy cosmetic ranges are available for various skin types and conditions. But this practice has become a bone of contention with regulators since fragrance components are regulated under different rules than therapeutic agents.

Antique Perfumery

Ancient Origins of the Uses of Scent

The origins of Aromatherapy date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and India. Archaeological remains of ancient stills and perfume vials have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the ancient world, fragrances were very important. Long before people had figured out how to capture the ethereal scents of plants, they burnt fragrant resins, roots, and seeds to perfume themselves or to make fragrant offerings to the Gods. The word ‘perfume’ literally means ‘through the smoke’.

It was believed that the Gods derive their nourishment from the scents that were sent to heaven in the form of incense. To burn incense was to honor the Gods and to invite their benevolence and protection. To neglect the ritual of incense burning meant the abandonment of the Gods.

When essential oils were discovered, they were at first primarily used as perfume. Good scents delight the Gods. But just where and who first discovered the art of perfumery is lost in history. There are references to perfumes in the Bible, but they are not the oldest by any means. There are also Babylonian and Sanskrit references, but the most ancient actual archeological evidence has been unearthed in Cyprus at a site that dates back to the Bronze Age. The huge site, that covers about 4000m2 indicates that perfumery was practiced here at an industrial scale.

The Egyptians were also masters of the art and scent was part of every aspect of their culture. (Some claim that this was merely to cover up the stench of rotting food or feces and that strong scents were used to cover up the stench. However, this may say more about our modern prejudice, and may not necessarily fit the ancient reality. It would fit the image of life in Medieval Europe, though.)

In Egypt, fragrant roots, barks, berries, and resins played an important role in their cult of the dead. Huge amounts of these special and precious substances were used to embalm the bodies of the departed royals so they would be well received by the Gods. Perfume vials were even placed with the bodies as funeral gifts.

 

How Essential Oils are produced

Essential oils are very volatile. They can evaporate at room temperature. Some have a very low ‘flashpoint’, which means that they must be extracted very carefully so as not to lose some of their complex aromas, or causing an explosion.

Essential oils are soluble in both fatty oils and in alcohol. they are usually captured by steam distillation. But some can also be cold-pressed.

Although essential oils are ubiquitous and occur practically in all plants and plant parts, the actual quantities they produce tend to be minuscule. Thus, vast amounts of plant materials are required to produce even small amounts of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely highly concentrated and their power should never be underestimated.

Distilling Essential Oil

Extraction methods

Enfleurage

This is the oldest and simplest, but also the least efficient method of extraction. This method is particularly suitable for the fragile flower petals. In this method, the plant materials are macerated in a scentless fatty solvent base. It can be done as a cold or hot process. Heat facilitates the release of the essential oils, but it can also easily destroy them. In this process, a large glass surface is covered with a blend of the solid vegetable fat that has been mixed with the plant material. After three days the spent plant parts are removed and fresh material is added and macerated for another 3 days. The saturated fat is now called a ‘pomade’. To extract the essential oil the fat is ‘washed out’ with alcohol, which is then evaporated in the next step, leaving a pure essential oil behind. Some fragrant parts remain fixed within the solid fat residue which is sometimes used in soap making.

Distillation

This is by far the most common process of essential oil extraction. There are several different methods, although all of them basically involve heat and water. The more elaborate process is done by heating water and passing it as steam through a vessel that contains the plant materials. The steam causes the oil glands to burst and carries the volatile substance with it. A cooling coil is attached to the other end of the vessel, which causes the steam to condense and drip down into a collection vessel. The essential oil and the water separate and the oil, which has a lower density than water, floats on top and can be siphoned off.

The old alchemists used a similar but simpler method. They placed plant materials and water in the same vessel, which was then heated so that the oils would be released into the water. As the water heats up and turns into steam it is captured by the cooling tube, where it condenses and separates as in the example above. This is the oldest method of extraction and some sophisticated versions are still widely used.

The problem with this method is that the heat may be too intense, thus destroying some of the more fragile components of the essential oil, or worse, the kettle can run dry, which would burn the herbs. In the worst case, the still can crack or the resulting oil will smell burnt.

Flowers are almost invariably too delicate to be subjected to this process, as it destroys many of their aromatic components. Sophisticated technological advances have made it possible to distill at very low temperatures, repeating the process several times – a time-consuming process, which makes it expensive.

A byproduct of steam distillation is the so-called hydrosol (flower water): the distilled water, which retains some of the fragrance, is often used in cosmetics.

Solvent Extraction

Some essential oil components are extremely fragile, which makes it very difficult to extract them by distillation. In such cases, a solvent such as hexane is used. The hexane dissolves the essential oils as well as other extractable substances (e.g.wax and pigments). This solution is then filtered and subjected to low-pressure distillation, which produces a highly fragrant, waxy substance known as a ‘concrete’. The hexane has thus been ‘cleaned’ and can be used again.

In a further extraction process, this time using heat and ethanol, the concrete is broken down. The essential oil combines with the alcohol, leaving the wax behind. However, the resulting mixture still contains some waxy parts and other impurities and must be further purified and separated. It is a lengthy process involving freezing and agitating the mixture, which promotes the precipitation of the wax particles. The resulting oil is called an ‘absolute’. Most flower oils are produced by this process and are available as absolutes. But Aromatherapists don’t like working with them as they still contain some solvent particles and impurities. Perfumers are less fussy. They work with alcoholic extracts all the time.

CO2 Extraction

This is a newer method of extraction and much ‘cleaner’ than solvent extraction. CO2 is gaseous at normal pressure, but at high pressure, it transforms into a liquid. In this liquid state, it can be used to extract volatile oils. When the CO2 is depressurized, it reverts to its gaseous state, leaving no trace behind in the essential oil. This process has made it possible to extract oils from plants that previously had never been distilled. It is no possible to extract essential oils from calendula, coffee, or even rosehip seeds, to name but a few. CO2 extracts are more complex as it allows for more of the fragrant components of a given plant to be extracted. Some of the waxes are also extracted, often producing a rather pasty substance.

Potentially this is the cleanest method of extraction, although in some instances the plant material is first subjected to hexane extraction to produce a concrete, which is then processed using the CO2 extraction method. This method is often used in floral CO2 extracts, such as Rose or Jasmine. The equipment needed is also quite expensive, which is reflected in the price CO2 extracted oils.

Cold-Pressed Oils

This process can only be used for plants that literally ooze with essential oils, such as citrus fruits. Their peel is so densely covered with oil glands that mere pressure is sufficient to extract them. In this process, the peels of the citrus fruit, (e.g. orange, bitter orange, lemon, lime, mandarin, tangerine, and grapefruit) are chopped into small pieces and subjected to pressure, while simultaneously being cooled. (Intense pressure produces too much heat, which would destroy the oils). The resulting liquid is a somewhat watery essential oil. This hydrous component is the reason why cold expressed citrus oils don’t keep as long as other oils.

Essential Oil Diffuser

Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are used in a myriad of household products: as a flavoring in the food industry, and fragrance for cleaning materials, soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. At the higher end of the market, they are the foundation of perfumery. Unfortunately, many natural oils are replaced by synthetics – which are supposed to be aroma identical, but of course, are not. There is a chemical reason for this that is too complex to explain here. Suffice to say that man has just not yet been able to reproduce nature’s tricks. Although chemicals can be produced with much greater consistency than pure essential oils, they lack the complexities and depths of their natural counterparts.

The specific qualities of the oil vary depending on the growing conditions of the plants that are used, harvesting times, and the weather conditions that a particular batch has been exposed to – much like good wine, essential oils have a ‘vintage’. No two oils will ever smell the same.

Safety

Despite their widespread use, there are a number of safety concerns. Essential oils are very highly potent and some of their components may be carcinogenic, phototoxic, photosensitizing, or allergenic. Currently, there is a raging conundrum over ‘safe levels’ of certain chemical components within various products as well as over particular oils themselves.

This hysteria is due to the fact that scientists have a tendency to regard the action of component parts as equal to the sum total of all parts. In other words, it is assumed that if an oil contains a certain compound, say a ketone, which is lipolytic, mucolytic, and sedative, the oil that contains ketone as a component will also have these characteristics. But in real life, the sum total of the ‘component parts’ creates a unique synergy, which may or may not actually produces any of these effects. As essential oils are extremely complex compounds, containing both known and unknown components, it is impossible to judge their effects and safety from an analysis of its known parts alone. Another problem is the fact that essential oils are tested on animals with the assumption that the metabolism of rats and humans are sufficiently similar to draw parallel conclusions. While that is sometimes true, it is not always the case and some oils that may be toxic to rats can be perfectly safe for humans, or vice versa.

Certain precautions should always be taken:

  • Use oils only in dilution, and, if you are unfamiliar with a particular oil and don’t have any experience with its effects on you (everybody reacts differently), use the skin patch test: dilute the essential oil in base oil and apply to a small area of the inner arm. Wait at least 6 hours to observe your skin reactions. If you notice any adverse signs (e. g. itching, redness, rash), do not use the oil.
  • Some people may even be sensitive to diffused oils. If you notice any ill effects, e.g. difficulties in breathing, headaches, itching, etc. do not use the oil in an infuser either.
  • Remember that a little goes a long way. Even just one drop of essential oil can contain the equivalent power of a kilo of its source plant.
  • People who use essential oils professionally, e.g. perfumers or aromatherapists, or people who make their own cosmetic products should be especially careful:
  • Keep essential oils well away from children or animals
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Wear goggles (to safeguard against splashing)
  • Don’t handle essential oils in the presence of naked flames,
  • Before heating them to any degree take note of their flashpoint.
  • Certain oils must be avoided during pregnancy and while nursing or if suffering from certain medical conditions (e.g. hypertension)
  • Anybody who wishes to use essential oils for medical reasons should consult with a qualified aromatherapist.

Plant Profile:

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

.’“But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.” – Anne Bronte

It is almost superfluous to describe such a well-known and much-loved plant as the rose. Everybody knows and loves the thorny, but beautiful rose, although we are most familiar with the cultivated varieties. They have come to be recognized as an almost universal symbol of love and adoration.

Description:

Wild roses can be found in every hedgerow. But they are a much humbler breed. There are about 150 species of wild roses that mostly occur as shrubs and climbers. They are at home in the northern hemisphere. Wild rose species can be recognized by their fragile flowers consisting of 5, quite large white or pinkish petals that guard a profusion of yellow stamen in their center.

By contrast, cultivated varieties can take on many different flowering patterns and color variations – they come large or small, with packed or single flowers, scented or unscented, and in almost every shade of color from burgundy red (almost black) to pink, yellow and white.

Wild Rose shrubs can grow as low as 80 cm or climb some 30m high, sprawling over other plants and trees. They are prickly fellows and although the thorns of natural varieties tend to be much finer than those of the hybrids, they are no less sharp.

The leaves tend to be pinnate, with stalked, ovate leaflets, and finely toothed margins. The stems and leaves bear thorns.

In autumn, they produce bright red, pear-shaped seed-capsules with a hard, thin, outer skin. Their center is filled with small triangular seeds that are embedded in a cozy nest of scratchy fluff, which children utilize as ‘itching powder’. These fruits are known as ‘rose hips’, famous as a rich source of vitamin C.

Ecology:

Wild roses are not as picky as their cultivated cousins. They grow in open woodland, fields, and heaths, or even on dunes and sandy soil. Their thorny bendy bows provide effective shelter for small animals. It’s a habitat with a built-in security system. The thorns effectively ward off predators and human intruders. They are often planted in the hedgerows and provide winter nourishment for many birds and small animals. They are not so keen on the hard shells, but once the frost has bit the hips the cortex turns soft and more palatable for the little critters. Thus, bright red hips can often be seen to adorn otherwise bare hedges, even in the midst of winter. Rose-hips are not a ‘snack-fruit, but the rich content of vitamin C makes them very valuable to humans as well.

Distribution:

Wild roses occur naturally throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, from China to North America. However, Asia boasts the greatest species variety.

 

rose culivarsHistory & Mythology

Roses are most famous as a universal symbol of love. And most of the ancient stories focus on the old cultivated varieties. Rosa gallica, a deep red, fragrant flower, also known as ‘Provins Rose’ has garnered most of the attention. (It has been named after a small town near Paris, France, which was once was a center of Rose cultivation and trade, not to be confused with ‘Provence’, a region in southern France famous for perfumery and vast Lavender fields).

For some reason, the humble rose has long inspired horticultural passions. It has been under cultivation since ancient times (at least since 3000 BC), which makes it extremely difficult to trace the family tree of a specific variety.

Roses were among the first plants (if not THE first plant) that were grown for their beauty’s sake alone, a practice that flourished in Asia and the Middle East long before such a thing had ever been heard of in Europe. A garden surrounded by fragrant roses was the epitome of sanctity – it was seen as an earthly representation of the Garden of Eden itself. Thus, roses adorned the patios and pleasure gardens of palaces, as a floral symbol of female virtue.

In ancient Greece, the Roses was an emblem of the Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. According to some stories, the flower sprang from her tears as they mingled with the blood of her dying lover Adonis. But others have claimed this story for the origin of the Scarlet Pheasant’s Eye, (Adonis annua).  Judging by its ancient associations with various funeral cults, Rose is the more likely candidate.

Rose symbolizes eternal love – beyond the grave. It has long been used to signify the approaching death and a ‘rose garden’ is often regarded as synonymous with the’ final resting place’. This symbolism is echoed in fairy tales, such as the Sleeping Beauty, who is overcome by a ‘magical sleep’ after pricking herself with the spindle. The entire castle and all within it become engulfed in an impenetrable mass of rambling Roses until she is finally brought back to life by the love of her prince.

Ancient myths often mesh the symbolism of life, death, and love – reminding us that they are closely related. The red Rose symbolizes blood, the magical conduit of the life-force itself. In dualistic philosophies, life and death are seen as mutually exclusive opposites rather than different phases of a process that consists of both and is cyclic in nature. Love engenders life and life engenders death. But death is a phase of recomposing, Once rejuvenated the soul returns when love calls.

Since the earliest times, Arab perfumers knew the secrets of this beautiful flower and incorporated its scent into their perfumes and cosmetics. The Damask Rose, a crossing of Rosa gallica with either Rosa phoenicia or Rosa moschata, is the source of Rose Otto, the highly prized ‘perfumer’s gold.

In case you ever wondered why anything to do with roses should be named Otto – the word derives from the original ‘Attar’, which is the western phonetic rendering of the Arab root ‘itr’ – meaning ’essence’. Thus ‘Rose Otto’ means ‘the essence of the rose’. However, these days the term is steam distilled rose oil.

Although it is said that Avicenna invented the art of distillation in the 10th century, remnants of essential oils have even been found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and in pre-historic alembic stills dating back thousands of years BC.

Perhaps the oldest method of oil extraction was to simply macerate fragrant flowers in a fatty oil base, a simple form of enfleurage. Another story claims that rose oil was discovered accidentally – in a most romantic fashion, of course: the waterways that meandered through the palace gardens had been filled with rose petals in preparation of a royal wedding. Engulfed by the heavenly scent, the couple floated through this sea of roses in their barge, when suddenly they noticed a layer of oil on the water – the heat of the midday sun had extracted the oils naturally and thus the essential oil of rose was discovered.

 rose garden

The Ladies in those ancient days were crazy for the heady, warm, sweetly-spiced scent of Roses. Then as now, this sensual aroma is thought to inspire love, a power that even Cleopatra had no shame to exploit as a means of seducing Mark Antony. She filled her bedroom with a carpet of rose petals 2 ft deep and Mark Antony succumbed.

During their most decadent era, the Romans were famous for their lavish (some would say ‘wasteful’) use of rose petals. They used the petals like confetti to shower returning warriors, they poured them over banquets to the point of almost suffocating their guests, and covered floors and beds with the fragrant petals. Perhaps this was the origin of ‘strewing herbs’. They also worked them into a myriad of medicinal concoctions, cosmetic applications, and even culinary treats. Roses had become so important to them that they ripped out the fruit orchards to make way for rose cultivation.

One of the oldest cultivars or rose is R. gallica – the apothecary’s rose. This variety is highly fragrant but only has one flowering season. It seems most likely that the Romans first introduced this Rose to northern Europe, but it may have been lost and forgotten again until the crusaders brought it home with them during the 10th century, as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Monks began to care for them in their monastery gardens, tending to them with devotion. They tried hard to give this most sensuous of flowers, the emblem of female sexuality and love, a chaste Christian image. They presented it as a symbol of pure love, embodied by the Virgin Mary. But the Rose never lost its associations with romantic, and carnal love. Sales figures on St. Valentine’s Day prove the point.

By the 15th century, the rose had turned into a dynastic royal symbol in Britain. That association is commemorated in the tales of the power struggle between two royal houses. Their conflict became known as ‘the War of the Roses’. The house of Lancaster was represented by a red rose (Rosa gallica?),  while the house of York had adopted the white rose (Rosa alba?). After many battles, peace was eventually returned to the land when the two families were joined by the marriage of Henry VII (house of Lancaster) and Elizabeth (house of York),. The joining of their roses begat the Tudor Rose, which has become emblematic as the ‘Rose of Britain’. However, this Rose is an idealized symbol and remains a horticultural fantasy. Although scores of rose breeders have attempted to create a rose that would bear both red and white petals, none have so far succeeded.

At one stage, there was such a fascination with all things ‘rose and beautiful’, it was only natural that the apothecaries of the day developed a Rose cult of their own. They invented an entire pharmacopeia based on the rose. John Gerard, the famous British Herbalist writing in the 15th century devoted some 13 pages to extolling the virtues of roses. Rose petal tea, syrup, jelly and preserve, powders, pomades, pastilles and electuaries, liqueur, tonic wine, and honey, rosewater, and oil were all part of their repertoire. Some of these have survived to this day, although generally roses are no longer used medicinally. However, they do still feature as flavoring agents to sweeten medicines, or as a therapeutic ingredient in manifold cosmetics.

Folk-medicine utilized roses ‘according to ‘to the doctrine  ‘like cures like’, to stay the flow of blood and to soothe inflammation and burns.

Read more about the medicinal uses of Roses next week

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