Essential oils can go by many names. And arguably the most important name for an essential oil is its botanical name.
You may or may not know that essential oils have botanical names. Often they are sold with just a common name, such as lavender or lemon or eucalyptus.
However the botanical name for an essential oil is important as it helps you to make sure that you are using the correct oil. It defines the essential oil more specifically than a common name can do.
Botanical names are specific to each species of plant from which we obtain an essential oil. And are especially important where there are several plants, often sharing a common name, which are actually different species.
Botanical names are derived from Latin and are bestowed on plants to reflect a variety of properties or other features of the plant.
They may refer to usage, (eg “officinalis” refers to something used for pharmacological purposes, “Lavandula” means to wash). They may refer to appearance (eg “angustifolia” mean narrow-leaved, “album” or “alba” means white). They may indicate where the plants come from (eg “sinensis” meaning from China.) Or the names may reflect the plant’s properties (eg “salvia” meaning saving, helping or healing).
I know many people get a bit scared of using or learning botanical names. After all they are in Latin and let’s face who really learns Latin these days? (There is a reason it is known as a “dead” language!)
But using the botanical names for essential oils is important to make sure that you choose, and use, the correct oil, both for its properties and to avoid any unexpected dangers. Just because 2 essential oils share the same common names does not mean they will have the same properties. Even 2 essential oils that are related will not necessarily have all the same properties, even if they share some qualities in common. At the same time, the, often subtle, differences between essential oils can raise issues of safety if the wrong essential oil is used.
Back when I was first learning about essential oils, I will admit that I found learning some botanical names difficult. It was like learning another language! Well in fact, you ARE in effect learning another language. But it is one that can be learned like any other language. And, I think, is essential if you are going to learn about and get the most out of your essential oils.
The botanical name for an essential oil is made up of 2 parts – which refer to the genus and the species. (Sometimes you will also get sub species – but that is a topic for another day!)
Sometimes you may have oils that belong to the same genus, but to different species. For example, Mentha piperita (Peppermint) and Mentha spicata (Spearmint). Sharing the same genus, they are of course related and are also similar in many respects. But they are definitely not the same as will be apparent if you simply smell the 2 oils . They will have different uses and different properties. Each may at times be referred to as “Mint” although they are clearly not the same thing.
Common names frequently change from place to place as well as over time. A plant occurring in multiple places, may evolve multiple common name simply through everyday usage. However the “official” Botanical Name will generally stay the same. (Although a disclaimer here - sometimes even botanical names may change over time, especially if we learn more about different plants and how they are related to others.) Even different “brands” may name their oils differently although the Botanical names they also use stay the same.
Much confusion is caused by only using common names on their own for essential oils, such as –
Mint – could be Peppermint (Mentha piperita) or Spearmint (Mentha spicata) as outlined above.
Sage – could be common Sage (Salvia officinalis) or Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
Eucalyptus – could be one of many species including eucalyptus radiata, eucalyptus globulus, eucalyptus polybracta, eucalyptus smithii, eucalyptus dives etc
Orange – could be Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) or Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium). Essential oils are also produced from the leaves and flowers of the Bitter Orange. “Orange” could mean any of these.
Knowing the botanical names of essential oils helps you to identify them more easily both when purchasing them as well as when reading recipes or other information in books or online. The best aromatherapy books will include botanical names rather than just common names as will the best online resources. The Botanical Names for Essential Oils are important to ensure that you get the effect you are looking for and also that you are not exposing yourself or those around you to unexpected risks.
Knowing the Botanical Name for an Essential Oil is important and it is a useful (and fun) skill to learn for anyone interested in essential oils.
If you want to know more about other factors to consider when purchasing essential oils, read my earlier blog posts - What to Look for when Buying Essential Oils and What to Look for when Shopping Online for Essential Oils.