Scented plants can actually soothe the body and heal the soul in more ways than you might imagine.

When we smell a plant, our noses sense the presence of chemicals that are released by that plant and carried through the air. Not only our nose but our whole body is surrounded by, and exposed to thousands of tiny particles released by the plant, and some of those particles will be absorbed into our body and even into our blood. The affect can be remarkable, and varied.

The Scented Garden

Aromatherapy begins with plants, and the simplest form of aromatherapy is the scented garden! Scent has been valued for its healing properties for thousands of years, and scented gardens have long been planted for their psychological and physiological benefits, as well as their aesthetic value.

Long before we coined the term ‘aromatherapy’, gardeners and plant lovers walked along pathways especially planted with thyme and enjoyed the soothing warm scent, or realised that brushing by rosemary could clear their heads for thought and contemplation.Lemon balm and lemon verbena were picked to keep in one’s handkerchief to uplift the spirits, and lavender was enjoyed for its soothing and calming qualities. Greek, Roman, Arab and Medieval healers often promoted walks through scented gardens as a way of restoring a sense of wellbeing and joy.

You can treat yourself to aromatherapy simply by lingering among the scents of a garden that has been planted with perfumed annuals and perennials such as jasmine, geraniums or roses, with fragrant herbs such as basil, sage, and catnip, or a combination of both. Many native shrubs and trees, such as tea trees, lemon-scented gums, and scented grevilleas, emit delicious aromas at different times of year, and can be used for healing purposes as well. And many scented plants come in a range of aromas, so you can develop a garden rich in different scents with just a few kinds of plants, such as roses, geraniums or thyme.

I plant herbs in my garden as much for their fragrance and beauty as for their usefulness in cooking. Chamomile has long been admired for its beauty as well as its fragrance, and a soothing tea is made from the lovely flowers. Sage of all kinds is one of my favourite herbs: it is a graceful plant, has a soothing smell, and is used in the kitchen to flavour the best dishes. Another favourite is mint. My grandmother used to say, “Mint in all of its forms will heal whatever ails you”. Mint is widely used in salads and many Mediterranean dishes and beverages, but it can be invasive, so it is best to plant it in a pot to ensure that it stays put and doesn’t interfere with the subtle scents of other herbs and flowers in the garden.

I plant many of my scented plants in pots so they easy to move around. This way, I can place the plants where I want - especially under windows or around seating places – and I can bring different fragrances into different rooms. I can fill one room with the perfume of honeysuckle, and another with the scent of gardenias – wondrous smells, beautiful plants, and all of this natural aromatherapy can be easily enjoyed in your garden or home.The average person who enjoys gardening can take a course or learn more about the affects of aromatherapy and begin to create his or her own aromatherapy treatment area.

Modern Aromatherapy

In the early 1900's the word Aromatherapy was coined by a French doctor by the name of Gattefosse. During World War 1, he was experimenting with distilled oil from plants in a search for readily available medicines that could be used in the trenches during the war.While experimenting, he burnt his hand badly and plunged it into the closest liquid at hand, which was a vat of pure Lavender oil.To his surprise, he noticed that the oil not only took the sting out of the burn, but that the burn healed more quickly and with less scarring than would have been the case if he had treated the burn with cold water.This event marked the birth of modern Aromatherapy as a formal therapy.

Since then, Aromatherapy has developed into an established complementary therapy to traditional medicine. It is not meant to replace modern medicine, but as more people seek more natural ways of dealing with illness, daily stresses and long-term complaints, and we learn to appreciate the role of mental well being in preventing illness, aromatherapy has gained prestige and respectability, and is now used in some hospitals as a valuable adjunct to traditional medical treatment.

How Scent Works

Because our sense of smell is directly linked to the part of our brain associated with emotions, smell is the most enduring of our senses. It has the power to transform our emotions and heal our bodies. It can take us to another place and time.

Aromatic plants and the essential oils made from them have an immediate impact on our sense of smell. When we inhale the tiny particles of essential oils that are dispersed into the air, olfactory receptor cells are stimulated in a process known as "olfaction". The impulse is transmitted to the emotional centre of the brain, or "limbic system".

The limbic system is connected to areas of the brain linked to memory, breathing, and blood circulation, as well as the endocrine glands which regulate hormone levels in the body. The properties of the oil, the fragrance, and its effects, determine stimulation of these systems.

Because smell is so closely associated with memory, the sense of smell and the physiological processes involved can trigger memories associated with a particular scent, and recall the emotions we felt at that time. This can energize our spirits or bring back a mood of being happy and loved.Anisette works like this for me: the fragrance reminds me of warm anise cookies baking in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Essential Oils

For many people, Aromatherapy is simply the use of aromatic oils, usually in an oil burner, for the relief of general complaints such as stress and insomnia.However, aromatherapy can be much more: through the proper use of massage and essential oils, a trained Aromatherapist can provide relief and treatment for a wide range of specific ailments, as well as treatment for balancing and restoring emotional well being. Essential oils work in a much more subtle way than many synthetic products, and are generally more suitable for preventative treatment.

While we can enjoy the benefits of aromatic oils just by walking through the garden, where tiny droplets of the oil fill the air and can be released by brushing against the plant or crushing a leaf as we stroll, Aromatherapy also uses these oils in concentrated form. Aromatic oils of different intensities can be distilled from suitable plants, and are used to promote healing of the body and the mind. When these aromatic oils are highly concentrated, they are called essential oils, which are the backbone of Aromatherapy. To be effective, these oils must be of good quality and used safely and correctly.

It is also important to use the correct variant of plant, as different varieties of the same plant may have different therapeutic properties. Take thyme, for instance. Sweet Thyme, Thymus vulgaris geraniol, is a relatively safe oil that can be used for colds and congestion.Red Thyme, Thymus vulgaris thymol, is a very powerful herb and should only be used under the guidance of a trained Aromatherapist.

Lavender is a very popular essential oil, but there are several different types of plant known as Lavender, and several of them are used to produce lavender oil. Oil distilled from True Lavender, or Lavandula angustifolia, is the highest quality lavender oil.However, lavender can also be distilled from Lavandula x intermedia and Lavandula latifolia. All three smell very similar, and can confuse an experienced aromatherapist, but the chemical composition of Lavandula angustifolia is far superior to that of Lavandula x intermedia and Lavandula latifolia and is a much better therapeutic oil.

Unfortunately, many suppliers sell the oil under generic names, just Thyme or Lavender or Rose, so you do not really know what you are getting. A reputable supplier will differentiate between the types in both the common name and the botanical name listed on the bottle, using, for instance, Lavender for Lavandula angustifolia, Lavandin for Lavandula x intermedia and Spike Lavender for Lavandula latifolia.While labelling all forms of lavender oil as lavender is not necessarily dishonest, it is inaccurate.Unless you are able to identify the oil by the botanical name, which should always be listed on the label, you can't be sure of what you are buying.

Another factor to consider when selecting essential oils is that while they have different properties and can be used to treat different problems, several different plants may be used to treat the same problems. For instance, Lavender, Roman Chamomile, Ylang Ylang, and Sandalwood are all excellent essential oils for insomnia.So how does one select which oil to use? It can sometimes be a case of "the nose knows".

Aromatherapists believe that an individual will often be drawn to the oil which will best suit them.Most Aromatherapists attribute different likes and dislikes regarding aromas to different psychological or physiological needs of different individuals. Take a case where one person finds the smell of ylang ylang enchanting while another finds it repulsive. While ylang ylang is good for a number of nervous complaints, such as anxiety and insomnia, it has very little value for physical complaints.Sandalwood, on the other hand, is physically and mentally relaxing, and ideal for muscle pain as well as insomnia.Therefore, it can be deduced that the person attracted to ylang ylang may be suffering insomnia from mental strain, while the one attracted to sandalwood may be suffering from mental and physical strain.

Application of essential oils

Aromatherapy basically depends on one or a combination of two main application methods: inhalation and absorption.

Inhalation – breathing in the scent particles in the air – is the central element of therapy using scented plants. Sometimes, this is all that is needed, and we can experience the benefits daily just by having these wonderful fragrances growing around you in the garden, or by dispersing the perfumes into the air with heat or steam from a bath or an oil burner. There are many synthetic oils on the market that can be used in oil burners, but for therapeutic effects, use essential oils. They work in a much more subtle way than many commercially prepared products and in many situations are more suitable for preventative treatment rather than cure

Absorption is used to bring the benefits of essential oils to specific parts of the body, such as muscle, the head, the skin etc. Essential oils can enter the body through the skin, as the oil molecules are often small enough to enter the outer layer of skin through sweat glands and hair follicles.Once beyond the outer layer, the molecules reach the dermis, a fat layer. Since essential oils are fat soluble, or able to dissolve in fat, they are further broken down in the dermis, and absorbed into the blood steam.

Carrier Oils

Many people believe that putting the oil directly on the skin will be the best way of achieving the effects desired.But what really happens is that the essential oil, when used without a carrier, will generally lie on the skin where it can cause irritation, from, for instance, photosensitivity. Essential oils should never be taken internally or used on mucous membranes.

In general, essential oils are not applied directly onto the skin.However, sometimes a few drops of the essential oil are applied to areas of the body. Some examples are lightly massaging a drop of lavender onto the temples to relieve headache; applying lavender oil to relieve a burn (a maximum of 2 drops for children between three to twelve years of age, and 4 drops for adults); and the use of Tea Tree oil on cold sores (a single drop may be applied to the centre of the cold sore three or four times each day).

Mostly, essential oils are mixed with carrier oils, which ensures that the essential oil is applied evenly and not concentrated in one spot.They also allow application in a thin layer rather than in droplets on the skin, which is more effective.Combining essential oil with a carrier will also ensure faster results, as this helps expedite absorption into the skin.

Carrier oils, creams and lotions are ideal carriers for essential oils.They can be used for massage, as hand creams and body lotions and can be applied daily, or when needed, without having to create a blend for each individual use. Vegetable oil carriers (such as sweet almond, apricot, grapeseed, wheatgerm) are preferable to animal oil or mineral oil products, which are not easily absorbed. Different kinds of oil have different properties, and the right carrier oil can add to the benefits of the treatment.

Blending – In aromatherapy, a treatment using a blend can be far more beneficial than using one oil exclusively.Lavender, for instance, is renowned for relaxing and reducing insomnia.However, lavender can treat the symptoms without treating the cause.If a person is having trouble relaxing due to anxiety or tension, then a blend of Clary Sage (balancing) Sweet Marjoram (relaxes muscle tension) and lavender (calming) would, on the whole, be more beneficial than lavender alone.The relaxation may more be a result of depression, in which case Sandalwood (grounding and relaxing) peppermint (mental fatigue) and lavender would be needed.

Aromatherapy favourites

Most of these heavenly aromas can be very easily grown in your garden for their therapeutic, and are widely used by professional Aromatherapists.Eucalyptus is helpful in treating respiratory problems, such as coughs, colds, and asthma, and it also helps to boost the immune system, and relieve muscle tension.

Geranium in all of its forms helps to balance hormones in women and is good for balancing the skin. This plant and its aroma can be both relaxing and uplifting, as well as antidepressant.Just cut a couple of the flowers and put them in a vase to uplift your mood. Geranium's rich, gay, sunny bouquet has a beautifully balancing aroma bursting with refreshing, rosy and uplifting tones.

The euphoric scent of Clary Sage calms, soothes and eases the tension of uncertain times.It is also good for helping clear the mind when you are engaged in a mentally demanding activity. The plant produces a truly spectacular flower that is as beautiful to look at as to smell.

Sunny mountain Spearmint's dynamic, zesty scent excites the digestive juices.Mint invigorates and refreshes body and mind, and helps clear oily skin. The mint family is a wonderful way to begin with aromatherapy.Just crush the leaves in your fingers and see what the smell does to you.

With all the wonderful perfumed plants to choose from, anyone can plant a scented garden, or distribute different scented plants where you can brush up against them or crush their leaves to release their perfume, or sit and enjoy the scents. Every time you breathe in those aromas, you experience psychological and physiological benefits as well as an increased appreciation of your garden as a place of refuge, contentment, wellbeing and beauty.

Learning More

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Article by John Mason
John is a well known gardening writer and educator, with over 35 years of experience in the horticulture industry. A graduate of Burnley (Melbourne), and fellow of the Institute of Horticulture (UK) he is principal of ACS Distance Education (, offering over 120 horticulture courses, with around 4000 students spread over more than 60 countries.
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