Herbs and Aromas

Written by Leanna Serras

Herbs have been an integral part of the lives of human beings since the dawn of civilization. They have been used in areas such as medicine, flavoring of food, perfumes, and even disinfectants. Although it cannot be ascertained what exact purposes specific herbs served during the times of the earliest civilizations, it is believed that ancient people might have used herbs for medicinal purpose and magic.

The earliest evidence of herbs can be traced back to a burial site in Iraq about 60,000 years ago. The site revealed that the people of that time had knowledge of eight types of medicinal herbs. The supernatural qualities associated with herbs remained until the time of the Egyptians in 3500 BC, but the belief gradually waned with the advent of the Chinese civilization in 500 BC. The Chinese started to use herbs for scientific purposes rather than supernatural purposes. Hippocrates (460 - 377 B.C.), the Greek physician, also used herbs to cure his patients. The Middle Ages witnessed a renewed association of herbs with the supernatural again, but with the arrival of the Renaissance in the 16 th century, the study of herbs and aromas was taken to a new height.

Usual forms of medicinal remedies:

1) Infusions

In the infusion process, the active ingredients of herbs are extracted with the help of hot water, which is similar to the way tea is prepared. The green aerial sections of flowers and leaves that contain the active principles are mostly volatile, and this process allows easy extraction of these principles. Infusion may sometimes use a combination of herbs, and other times, it uses only one herb. It is meant to be drunk hot or cold, and it is drunk for pleasure and health. Infusion is also the most prevalent and the cheapest method of extracting herbs.

2) Decoctions

The fruits, roots, and barks of a plant also contain active ingredients of herbs, but they cannot be extracted by infusion. So, a process called decoction is used. The process involves cutting the roots or fruits in small pieces and simmering them in boiling water. A lid is also placed over the pan to prevent the active ingredients and perfumes from escaping. After the pan cools down, the pieces are separated from the liquid, and the liquid is taken hot or cold. Other than herbalism, decoction is used in many breweries for making beer.

3) Tinctures

Immersing the herbs in alcohol creates a solution that contains a rich amount of active principles, since alcohol absorbs a major portion of the medicinal plant components. This solution is called tincture. Ethyl alcohol is ideally used for making tincture. It is used for medicinal purposes, such as Mercurochrome, as well as for making spirits and perfumes.

4) Syrups

When an infusion or a decoction is added with unrefined sugar or honey, it transforms into syrup. Syrups help to make certain infusions and decoctions with medicinal properties more palatable, especially for children. They are predominantly used for curing sore throats and coughs.

5) Infused Oils

When infusion is carried out with the use of pure vegetable oils instead of water, the resultant solutions are called infused oils. Almond, sunflower, and olive oil are three of the vegetable oils that are commonly used. As such, vegetable oils have a property of absorbing the active ingredients of medicinal herbs. The infused oil can easily be made into ointments and creams, to be used for medicinal purpose.

6) Essential Oils

The oily segments of aromatic trees, plants, and grasses are called the essential oils. Eucalyptus leaves and sandalwood are two examples of aromatic plants that contain essential oil. There are four primary methods for extracting these oils, and they are effleurage, steam distillation, solvent extraction, and expression. Essential oils are mainly used in the perfumery and cosmetic industry to make perfumes, and they are also utilized in certain therapies such as the aromatherapy.

7) Ointments

The preparation of ointments is similar to that of infused oils, but waxes, such as bees wax and paraffin wax, and fats are used instead of vegetable oils. After simmering the herbs in waxes or fats, a solid mixture is obtained. Ointments with perfumes are generally used for treating skin bruises or irritations. 

8) Creams

Creams are made by combining oils or fats and water. This makes the cream permeable, so that it will allow the skin to sweat and breathe. However, emulsifying agents are required to mix the oils with water, since oil and water don’t mix naturally. Occasionally, Glycerin, which aids in the hydration of the skin, is mixed with cream too.

Herbs and aromas are essential in the modern society, and they are frequently incorporated in a variety of modern medicines as well as perfumes, colognes, fragrances, and cosmetics.