Our garden is thriving right now, plants basking in the sun and growing dramatically every day. The abundant summer sun is not only the fuel of photosynthesis, but the source of heat that drives our herbs and resinous plants to increase their production of their signature aroma compounds. These constituents of root, leaf, and flower flow through their sap, protecting them from hot days, drying winds, insect attack, and microbial assault. And even as they repel some bugs and animals, they draw others in for pollination and as defenders.
Terpenes, especially, are obvious in the air right now in the sharp clean forest scent of the firs, the soft sweetness of a breeze through the lavender and the grounding earthiness of thyme and oregano. All these scents are carried by volatile compounds that the plants make and release into the air, where they are light enough to be carried into the senses of any creature nearby, from the bees that follow the trail to find nectar to us, the humans collecting these plants for food and medicine.
These days, terpenes are most famous as an aspect of Cannabis’ medicine, an entourage of scents that moderates the effects of the cannabinoids. But of course, Cannabis is not the only, or even best, source of terpenes, and although they are important to the whole plant intelligence of this medicine, they are found in abundance in other plants as well.
Aromachemicals like terpenes are considered “secondary” metabolites since they don’t play a direct role in the structure and survival of the plant. Secondary compounds, which also includes healing substances such as alkaloids and polysaccharides, are created by the plant as an expression of its adaptive intelligence as it responds to the world around it. This is the Mercury level of being of the plant, its level of perception and reaction to the world around it and all the beings it encounters in its home.
Relationships with those beings are maintained through this level of being and with these chemicals, and in this way the plant orchestrates its environment, changing what goes on around it since it can’t get up and move somewhere else. These metabolites mediate interactions with bugs, animals, and other plants- attracting some, repelling others, supporting friends and even harming enemies.
Some of the most useful medicinal plants are high in terpenes, which are concentrated and magnified by our Spagyric processing. Working on all levels of being as we do in our lab, we create medicines that carry the physical chemistry of aromatic healing, but also the intelligence of communication and adaptation that the plant expresses through these constituents. When used intentionally, these Spagyrics support your health and adaptation in physical and energetic ways, connecting you to the communication of the plant on a powerful level.
The most abundant terpene in nature is Caryophyllene, which is probably most familiar as the sharp bite of black pepper. Cloves and cinnamon also get some spiciness from caryophyllene, and beyond the kitchen cupboard, its found in many healing plants.
Caryophyllene is a strong anti-inflammatory and painkiller, and also a good anti-microbial, which is the main role it plays in the life of the plant. Many of the most medical strains of Cannabis are high in this terpene, and recent research has found that it actually acts on the cannabinoid receptors, but in a non-intoxicating way. This has led to some scientists considering it a cannabinoid rather than a terpene, although it has aspects of both.
Rosemary has the widest array of terpenes of all the plants we process, and carries an entourage of them which is most like Cannabis. Rosemary is a very complex plant, diverse in its chemistry, intelligence, and effects as I wrote about in this post.
Its content of caryophyllene gives it excellent anti-inflammatory properties which are useful in the digestive system, as we might expect from a culinary herb. And, as we will discover below, Rosemary carries this inflammation-calming effect to the brain and nervous system, too.
Also high in caryophyllene is the sacred Ayurvedic plant, Tulsi, or Holy Basil. This is one of my favourite plants in our work, as it is so easy to grow, love, and make into medicine. It is generous with its scent, emanating a spicy-sweetness with the slightest breeze, clearing the air wherever it is planted.
In India, Tulsi is planted around temples and homes, as it is said to block negativity and protect the higher energy of the space. Using our Tulsi Spiritualized Essence carries that feeling to your own personal space and aura, creating a feeling of unshakable positivity.
The spicy notes of Tulsi are from its content of caryophyllene, as well as eugenol (as in cloves). Uplifting cineole and calming linalool (more on those in a moment) bring in joy and peacefulness, working as a sort of emotional adaptogen with balancing actions to heal depression, anxiety, and other issues.
These other synergistic compounds direct Tulsi’s healing qualities to the respiratory system, where it is supportive to full, open breathing for Yoga or Pranayama, and also healing to respiratory infections and inflammation. Just as it rides on the breeze to clear the air of the temple, its Mercurial energy rides the air into your lungs, bringing Prana and positive energy to your inner sanctum.
Yarrow is another plant high in caryophyllene, and combined with its aspirin-like compounds, it’s the most painkilling and anti-inflammatory herb in this group. I’ve used Yarrow leaves topically for bug bites and injuries, especially when out in the woods, as I wrote in this post. To me, the scent of yarrow is the smell of camping- woodsy, fresh, a little bitter but bracing and part of many happy memories.
Yarrow’s spicy note from caryophyllene and other aromatics make it an effective diaphoretic, and with its aspirin effects and anti-microbial power, it is a classic remedy for the beginning of an infection to bring down fever, reduce pain and inflammation, and fight the pathogen directly. This applies to respiratory infections as well as digestive ones, as indicated by Yarrow’s bitter taste, accentuated by the processing of our Yarrow Essence.
Our next terpene, humulene, is an isomer of caryophyllene, meaning it has the same molecular parts, but rearranged into a different chemical. Nature is efficient in this way, teaching her plants to rearrange chemistry to adjust responses rather than making new constituents from scratch, and the overlap in makeup can also indicate an overlap in effects.
Humulene was named after Hops, Humulus lupulus, as it was first discovered there. The smell of humulene can be best described as “hoppy”- funky, earthy, herbaceous, with a little sharp spiciness. In hops, it gives a complex taste to beer, and combined with hops’ sedative properties, it can increase intoxication.
Humulene itself is not sedative, but it seems to be more present in calming herbs, as opposed to caryophyllene’s stimulating entourage. The anti-microbial, painkiller and anti-inflammatory effects common to both chemicals seem to be more relaxing, antispasmodic, and sedating in plants that are high in humulene, and they also often have a bitter component to them.
Hops is a great example of this combination, which is very useful for infective, inflamed, or irritated conditions of the digestive system. The bitters vitalize the digestive function and move energy along, while the relaxants calm spasms and cramps in the gut.
Emotionally, Hops is calming to sedative, depending on dose, and so any digestive or other tight conditions that are aggravated by stress can be eased with this herb, especially if hormone-related, as hops also contains estrogenic compounds. Our Hops Essence is a well-rounded expression of all these effects, and it’s a great night time tonic for anyone kept awake by such imbalances.
This combination of effects can also be found in Chamomile, another humulene-rich plant. Famous as a calmative to agitated minds and guts, Chamomile is also a more gentle, easily-tolerated herb for children and animals, who usually enjoy its sweeter aromatics and less prominent bitter note, as I wrote here.
Its relaxing effects are more cheering and sunny, versus Hops’ Lunar watery relaxation, and so Chamomile’s lifting of the spirits can help untangle the emotional-physical distress spiral that kids and animals are prone to.
Speaking of relaxing, our next terpene typifies the gentle, sweet state of peace that aromatics can bring us. Linalool is most prominent in Lavender, but its soft fruity-floral note can be found in many plants. Like most other terpenes, Linalool is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, but to me, its real gift is on the subtle levels of emotion and spirit.
Along with Lavender, Melissa and Bee Balm are also high in Linalool, and this group has in common a very balanced, intelligent energy for supporting our subtle levels of being.
As I wrote when it was a new Spagyric, Bee Balm has both cooling and warming properties, depending on need and how its used. It can warm the core of the body and induce sweating, useful to break fevers, and in ritual sweat, as the Oswego people used it.
Its spiritual uses are many, and here it also shows the bi-directional effect that I feel typifies Linalool’s energy. It is cooling to hot states like fresh grief or anger which fills the heart and gut with fiery tension. At the same time, it can be used for long-standing, cold and stagnant versions of these same energies, that quality of heaviness in the heart that can linger long after a trauma.
The multifaceted nature of Linalool-rich herbs reflects the energy of Mercury, the sphere of dynamic balance and movement. And this, too, is expressed in our Bee Balm Spiritualized Essence in its regulation of spiritual energy flow. It acts as a gatekeeper of spiritual information, change, and insights, whether it is used in ritual as in a sweat lodge, or within any other practice with the goal of revelation and growth without overwhelm.
In Melissa, also known as Lemon Balm, this energy is more directed towards uplifting, expansive and joyous energies, and we work with our Melissa Spiritualized Essence under Jupiter’s rulership to enhance its jovial nature. But even here, the multifaceted nature of Linalool and its Mercurial balance can be felt. Melissa is one of only two herbs (with Rosemary) which we process at all three levels of Spagyric, since its gifts are different depending on what level it is extracted at.
As a Spiritualized Essence, Melissa is both cheering and calming, antidepressant and anti-anxiety, depending on what is needed from person to person, or moment to moment. As I discussed here, Melissa was Paracelsus’ favourite herb, and I feel its versatility and adaptive flexibility is much of the reason why.
Finally our terpene sampler arrives at cineole, which I mentioned earlier in Tulsi, and hinted at in Rosemary’s story. Cineole is anti-inflammatory, especially to the lungs, and it is the bracing, pungent coolness of oil-rich herbs like Eucalyptus, plants that make you breathe deeply as soon as you smell them. A deep breath goes a long way in bringing the mind out of dark states, and both Tulsi and Rosemary brighten the mood with their penetrating scents.
In the brain, Tulsi’s expression of cineole leans most towards anti-depressant action, and I find it acts by filling the energy body with positivity, leaving no room for sadness, despair, or gloom.
Rosemary also carries this mind-brightening effect, starting with the deep oxygenating breath and then traveling through the invigorated blood, its cineole carrying the protective properties of Rosemary deep into the brain and nervous tissue, awakening the senses and their functioning. Ancient peoples understood these properties intuitively, calling Rosemary the “herb of remembrance” for its power of helping the brain hold on to memories and healthy functioning.
Our final aromatic herb is not as dramatically scented as some of these others, but it still has great healing power tied to the compounds it shares with them. Ginger root is a beloved spicy food-medicine, enlivening the traditional cooking of much of Asia. As with most culinary plants, it is a very complex one, and has some of the terpenes we’ve already discussed, and more we haven’t covered.
Cineole is high in Ginger, and gives it anti-inflammatory action that acts throughout the body. It can be of benefit in the inflammatory immune response of seasonal allergies, as well as calming the chronic systemic inflammation that can lead to so many diseases, from heart disease to cancer to arthritis.
Its most known as a digestive tonic/stimulant, useful for indigestion after a heavy meal, or for all kinds of nausea, such as in morning sickness or during cancer treatment. In the gut, its anti-microbial power can drive out even the most pernicious infections, and has significant anti-parasitic activity, especially against those found in fish, which is the wisdom behind eating pickled Ginger with your sushi.
Our Ginger Essence is quite spicy and warming, and we have seen it restore balance and peacefulness to so many cases of “festival gut”- the indigestion that can come from eating strange, bad, or too much food during fairs and festivals. It combines well with Hops for this use if cramping is present, and with Rosemary or Melissa if there is bloating.
I hope this post has you thinking about these plants in a new way, as well as the plants around you as they offer up their aromatic healing gifts!