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Yes, you read that correctly, there are no essential oils in plants. That’s because essential oils are the product of the distillation process.

Let’s explain.

How often are we asked as educators ‘what is an essential oil?’ How many answers have we gone through over the years, trying to describe them in an accurate way?

They have been described in mostly subjective terms—the soul of the plant, the language of a plant, the life blood of a plant—and many variations on these themes. These are evocative terms, but none describe accurately the nature of an essential oil.

Unlike life-blood, if you cut the plant open, no essential oil flows out, if you infused plant material, it didn’t rise to the surface, and if you bruised them, the smell you detected most often didn’t match the essential oil.

That’s because there are no essential oils residing inside plants. Their oils are derived from the volatile organic compounds that exist in all plants—we will call them VOCs from now. So what we are discussing here is not the essence of a plant, but a dynamic compilation of different VOCs.

It’s dynamic because the precise combination (and intensity) of VOCs in plants differ over its life-cycle, between seasons, and depending on environmental factors. In this respect, an essential oil is more like a snapshot of the hormone levels inside a plant at the time it’s distilled.

Essential oils are the product of the distillation of aromatic plants in a closed system (a distillation unit), where the action of heat, water and pressure convert some of the plant’s VOCs into an aromatic liquid that has been named an ‘essential oil’. An essential oil should not be confused with a fixed oil, which is derived from nuts (almond), seeds (rosehips), fruit (avocado), or petroleum (mineral).

Why is it helpful to understand this? Because it helps explain why essential oils differ from other types of oils, and can help us learn how best to harvest and extract them. More importantly it can help us sort fact from fiction in some of the claims about what is in an essential oil. You can find out more in our Foundation Course on Distilling Essential Oil.

— by Jess Culpan

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