essential oils

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils–you may have heard of them, but what exactly are they? These oils are volatile, aromatic substances drawn from plants. From rituals to medicine, essential oils have been used for a variety of reasons throughout history.

Now, people typically use these oils for fragrance, flavoring and even health and beauty purposes.

Where Do Essential Oils Come From?

Essential oils are derived from aromatic plant material, usually by distillation. However, these oils can also be pressed from plant parts using a process known as expression. Some of them are unique because the plants used to make them have different chemical makeups. Additional factors such as location, soil and climate also affect aromatic properties.

These oils come from a variety of plants, including flowers, herbs and grasses. For example, the flowering tops of plants are used to make lavender oil, and tall grasses such as lemongrass are also used to make essential oils. Every part of plants—leaves, bark, stems and even seeds—can be used to produce them.

Some plants can yield different essential oils, depending on what part of the plant is processed. For example, orange essential oils can come from orange peels or orange blossoms, which are distilled flowers of the bitter orange tree.

Why Do Plants Produce Essential Oils?

Essential oils aren’t just useful for perfumes and flavoring. They have anti-viral, anti-fungal or bactericidal properties beneficial to plants.

The aromatic compounds in a plant may also attract or repel certain animals and insects. For example, some of these aromas attract insects that pollinate plants.

There are more than 300 kinds, including well-known ones such as lavender and tea tree.

Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office if you have any questions about uses for essential oils.

Adapted and excerpted from:

E. V. Pearlstine, “Distillation of Essential Oils” (WEC310), UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation (04/2011).

Photo Credits: iprogressman/iStock/Thinkstock