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Fragrance in the Winter
by Carla Allen
November 29, 1999

Those who make their own potpourri are probably already familiar with the words "essential oils". A few drops of an essential oil can compliment and emphasize the fragrance of potpourri ingredients. They can also help revive or refresh a potpourri that has lost its scent over time. Just what is an essential oil and is it possible for gardeners to make their own? Most aromatic plants have minute glands in one or more parts of their structure that contain essential oils.

The extraction of these oils is a highly complex and expensive business. One of two methods is generally employed - collection by distillation (steaming) or by enfleurage (in grease). Both methods are time consuming and labor intensive but the factor most likely to prevent gardeners from pursuing this project is the sheer amount of plant material required to produce concentrated, pure essential oils. For instance, 250 pounds of rose petals are required to produce one fluid ounce of essential oil. Hence the explanation for the high cost of these fragrant oils - approximately $60 for 100 ml of lavender essential oil, $50 for rose, and over $400 for clary sage.

Grasse, in Southern France has been the center of the world's essential oil industry for the past few centuries. These oils have been used throughout history for many purposes and they have even more uses in modern times. Ancient Egyptians used oils for religious and medicinal purposes. Tiny bouquets known as nosegays or tussy-mussys used to be carried through the cities of Europe, serving in those unsanitary times as a means to mask the stench. They served another purpose as well.....the fragrant oils in these flowers were actually anti-bacterial . A final note on the historical use of essential oils is the fact that the word "parfume" translates as "through smoke" and is in reference to the burning of rosemary and lavender in french hospitals to fumigate them. Nowadays essential oils are sold through botanical outlets, specialty mail order businesses, some hobby stores and gift shops. Throughout the centuries they've played an important part in aromatherapy - the use of essential oils to heal both mind and body. As this form of therapy becomes increasingly popular, so too will become the availablility of essential oils to the piblic.

Essential oils are so powerful and concentrated that instructions relating to their use call for a "drop" measure.

Massage oils can be created by adding a few drops of essential oil to a carrier oil such as sweet almond. One teaspoon of some pure essential oils taken internally could be lethal, so store accordingly.

You'll find many synthetic imitations of pure essential oils on the market. They are considerably cheaper and many find the scent quite appealing. However, for true aficionados, no other oils but pure will suffice.

Essential oils are generally sold in 7ml or a little larger size vial bottles. They can last for many years and because you only use a few drops at a time, their high cost is justified.

Choose from Bergamot, rosemary, eucalyptus, almond, honeysuckle, jasmine, lilac, orange, spearmint and many more.

There are dozens of uses for these oils. For those with wood stoves, the addition of a few drops to a pot of water simmering on the woodstove will add fragrant humidity. Romantic evenings can be made even more special by adding a few drops of essential oil to the melted wax beneath the wick of a burning candle. Sprinkle a few drops on a washcloth and throw it in the washing machine when you do your laundry. Make your own carpet deodorizer by mixing a dozen drops of essential oil to one pound of baking soda. Fill up your own china pomanders by adding 40 drops to 3 tablespoons of kitty litter. Dab a few drops onto the filter in your vacuum - everytime you vaccuum it will release the scent.

Having a selection of essential oils in your house is like having a garden of scents, even in the winter. My favorite way of using them is to add 2 or 3 drops to a hot bath. Luxurious!

Carla Allen and her husband David own South Cove Nursery Ltd. near Yarmouth. Carla is a garden columnist for The Yarmouth Vanguard and the editor of East Coast Gardener Email:

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