Threatened Essential Oil Species
Updated: Sep 25
Inside a bottle of essential oil, we can capture an aromatic experience of plants spanning the world. From the comfort of our home, the scent can send our imagination far away from hiking deep in the forest, sunbathing on an exotic island, or traversing a spiritual pilgrimage.
In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the production and sales of essential oils, as more and more people realize the benefits of aromatherapy. Sadly, with growing consumption, some essential oil plants are in grave danger of ceasing to exist. Wild harvesting and natural habitat destruction have contributed to certain species becoming threatened or endangered.
What is wild harvesting?
Traditionally, many herbs would be gathered from their natural habitat to use or sell commercially. However, as demand has increased dramatically, some plants are seriously over-harvested, and fragile habitats destroyed. We must realize that each plant species is an integral part of a broader ecosystem that sustains a variety of plants and animals. To ensure the continued sustainability of the demand, commercial plantations, and farms that cultivate these precious plants need to increase worldwide.
List of Some Key Species of Concern
Included below are plants with species found on the IUCN Red List. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has a thorough assessment process to determine which species are threatened. Their categories include least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct. 1
Also significant is if a species is included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listing, which is an international agreement between countries to limit the trade of threatened plants and animals. 5
Also, the United Plant Savers is an American organization dedicated to the preservation of American medicinal plant species. 6
ENDANGERED PLANT SPECIES
Agarwood, also called Oud wood, includes dozens of different Aquilaria and Gyrinops species. Considered one of the most expensive woods in the world, it is created when a fungus infects the wood of these Asian trees. On the IUCN Red List, there are over 20 species. The two species most commonly used to make essential oil are Aquilaria crassna and Aquilaria malaccensis, which are both critically endangered. 1 Both species are also listed at CITES. 5
Cedarwood Atlas, Cedrus atlantica essential oil is derived from the wood of this endangered Moroccan tree. 1 Additional Cedrus, Juniperus, and Widdringtonia species also have lowering populations and include Cedrus deodara, Cedrus libani, Juniperus procera, Juniperus cedrus, Juniperus thurifera, and Widdringtonia whytei. 1
Guaiacum is a Caribbean tree whose resin is used to make essential oil. Guaiacum unijugum is critically endangered, Guaiacum officinale is endangered, Guaiacum sanctum is near threatened, and Guaiacum coulteri is vulnerable. 1 These species are also listed by CITES. 5
Rosewood includes dozens of endangered species over-harvested from the dwindling forests of Brazil and Madagascar. The most common species used to make essential oil is Aniba rosaeodora, which is endangered. 1 This tree is also listed by CITES. 5 Over a hundred more Ocotea and Dalbergia species are also endangered or critically endangered. 1
Sandalwood, Santalum album, once listed as endangered, is now vulnerable, but decreasing. 1 Other Santalum species are listed, including Santalum macgregorii, and Santalum freycinetianum which are endangered. 1 Similar species, Osyris lanceolata of Africa is listed as least concern and Pterocarpus santalinus of India is listed as near threatened. 1 In addition, multiple Hawaiian trees are listed as threatened by United Plant Savers, including Santalum album, Santalum ellipticum, Santalum freycinetianum, Santalum haleakalae, Santalum involutum, Santalum paniculatum, and Santalum salicifolium. 6
Spikenard essential oil is derived from the rhizomes of various Aralia and Nardostachys species out of India and Nepal. The most commonly used is Nardostachys jatamansi (aka Nardostachys grandiflora), which is critically endangered. 1 It is also listed by CITES. 5 A few dozen Aralia species are also threatened. 1 In addition, two American species; Aralia racemosa and Aralia californica are on the “To Watch” list of United Plant Savers. 6
CONCERN OF ENDANGERMENT
Copaiba is an Amazon tree whose resin is collected to make essential oil. Nearly 20 Copaifera species are listed on the IUCN Red List. 1 CITES also contains a few species. 5 The species used most frequently to make essential oil include Copaifera officinalis, Copaifera langsdorffii, and Copaifera reticulata. Currently, only Copaifera reticulata is listed on the IUCN Red List as being of least concern. 1 However, with the growing loss of the Amazon forest, sustainable harvesting is crucial.
Frankincense Boswellia trees grow in Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Ethiopia. The essential oil is from the tree’s resin. Multiple Boswellia species are on the IUCN Red List. The most commonly used essential oil species is Boswellia sacra, which is listed as near threatened. Other species on the list include but are not limited to Boswellia ameero, Boswellia bullata, Boswellia dioscoridis, Boswellia elongate, Boswellia nana, Boswellia popoviana, Boswellia socotrana, Boswellia ovalifoliolata, and Boswellia ogadensis. 1 Overharvesting of the resin is common and can kill a frankincense tree.
Myrrh is of the Commiphora genus, which includes close to 200 species of African trees and shrubs, nearly fifty of which are on the IUCN Red List as threatened. 1 The most common species used to make essential oil, Commiphora myrrha is not currently listed but is being increasingly overharvested. 7
Palo Santo belongs to the Bursera genus. Over 20 of the 100 trees in this genus are threatened or endangered. 1 The most commonly used essential oil species is Bursera graveolens, a sacred South American tree, that is not currently on the IUCN Red List.
What can we do as consumers? Buy Responsibly
As essential oil consumers, it is our responsibility to be aware of which species are of concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its Red List of threatened plants and animals provide a red flag when immediate conservation action is necessary to save a species. 1
Our purchasing decisions have the potential to either contribute to improving conservation efforts or grossly impacting a threatened species. When buying a bottle of essential, here are a few tips:
First, it is easy to go to the IUCN Red List website and look up a species to see if it is threatened. Just type the Latin name into the search box.
Secondly, purchase from a source you can trust. Ask the supplier how they source essential oils from plants that have been sustainably harvested.
Third, avoid the purchase of wild-harvested essential oils unless you can verify that habitats are not being destroyed in the process. Seek commercial plantations and farms for all threatened species.
With essential oils, less is more. It just takes a few drops of essential oil to have a therapeutic effect. Using too much can be both wasteful and unsafe. Respect the alchemy and potency of essential oils.
It takes a substantial amount of plant material to distill essential oil. For example, frankincense resin from Boswellia carterii has a 0.4% yield. 2 That means it would take an estimated eight pounds of resin to produce ½ ounce of essential oil. Rosewood, Aniba rosaeodora, has about a 1.0% yield. 3 That would require about 6.25 pounds of wood to extract one single ounce of essential oil.
It is also beneficial to understand which part of a plant the essential oil has been sourced from, such as the leaves, twigs, seeds, flowers, resin, wood, or roots. Thus, if an essential oil is extracted from the wood, such as with rosewood, the tree is chopped down. If the essential oil comes from the roots, such as with spikenard, the entire plant is pulled out of the soil.
Finally, it is recommended to choose very precious essential oils for common everyday uses. For example, we read an article last week suggesting palo santo essential oil be sprinkled in the laundry as a freshener. Surely, palo santo should be reserved for using just a very small amount for therapeutic or sacred occasions. There are several alternative and sustainable essential oils that could be used in a recipe to freshen the laundry, such as rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) or lemon (Citrus limon).
Examples of Alternatives to Consider
Instead of copaiba (Copaifera langsdorfii), blend equal amounts of cedarwood Virginia (Juniperus virginiana) and black pepper (Piper nigrum) essential oil to capture a grounding aroma as well as the key constituent of beta-caryophyllene.
Choose less scarce alternative cedars to Cedarwood Atlas (Cedrus atlantica). Options could include Juniperus virginiana or Juniperus mexicana. While neither are true cedars and have varying chemistry, both have a similar grounding and uplifting aroma.
Coriander Seed (Coriandrum sativum) could be an alternative to rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) as both are high in linalool with a sweet, woody scent.
Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens) is very high in limonene and alpha-terpineol. Thus, consider Mexican lime (Citrus x aurantifolia) as an alternative with the added benefit of not containing the toxic constituents of menthofuran and pulegone found in Palo Santo. 4
It is vital to choose sustainably produced essential oils from a trusted supplier.
For those special bottles of scarce and expensive oils, you may already have in your collection, treat them with the utmost respect by using them sparingly and for special occasions.
Consider alternative essential oils to purchase for everyday uses.
For therapeutic uses, choose oils (or blends of oils) with a similar chemistry. Or, there may be alternative essential oils with differing chemistry, but the same therapeutic effect.
Written by Co-authors: Shanti Dechen, CCAP, CAI, LMT & Kathy Sadowski, MS, RA, LMT
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (2019). Retrieved on 12/2/19. Retrieved from: https://www.iucnredlist.org/
Swan, Robert; Reavill, Gil (2009). Antarctica 2041: My Quest to Save the Earth's Last Wilderness. Broadway Books.
Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl. (2015). Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook. Extracting, Distilling, and Enjoying Plant Essences. Spikehorn Press. Pages 76, 86.
Fox, Stephen R. (1985). The American conservation movement: John Muir and his legacy. Univ of Wisconsin Press.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). (2019). Retrieved on 12/8/19. Retrieved from: https://www.speciesplus.net/species#/ and https://cites.org/eng/disc/what.php
United Plant Savers. (2019). Sandalwood - Santalum Spp. Retrieved on 12/8/2019. Retrieved from: https://unitedplantsavers.org/sandalwood-santalum-spp/ and https://unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk-list/
Alliance of International Aromatherapists. (2018). Essential Oil Therapy booklet. https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy-booklets
Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. Pages 337, 379