Aromatic Plants — Cultivating The Scented Garden Within
It is legend that some twenty-five hundred years ago, a ruler of Babylon (or was it Nineveh?) commissioned a wondrous garden, terraced up from the flat plains between the rivers of the Fertile Crescent. Its levels were built of huge slabs of stone, elaborately carved and supported by high vaulted colonnades. Huge amounts of soil were transported to create hills and fields in this garden many, many feet above street level. Sundry species of trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs were brought in to plant its winding paths. Using giant corkscrew pumps, thousands of gallons of water were moved against gravity on a daily basis to keep the garden lush and green.
The ancient historians named it one of the Seven Wonders of the World and marveled at this oasis, high above the incessant bustle of the city, smoothed with endless marble and steeped in a deep, seductive fragrance from the constant bloom of aromatic plants.
It is also said that it was the queen, who longing for her homeland in the rich, flowering hills of the north, had pleaded with her husband for a retreat that could remind her of her younger days, of her family and of what brought her joy. Watching her languish in the hot, humid, noisy city at the heart of his kingdom, he met her request in grand style, and her Hanging Gardens have been the stuff of myth ever since.
But while some may wonder at the choice of such a garden to appease the restless spirit, it makes perfect sense: a retreat of roses and jasmine, lavender and linden is the perfect prescription not only for bringing a quiet respite in the middle of a hectic life, but also for re-inspiring and re-awakening the joy and creativity of childhood. The fact that this garden was literally floating above the day-to-day activity of the city serves as a fitting metaphor for the scented garden itself — a time apart, uplifted, serene.
Think of the last time you received a bouquet of flowers or brushed past a patch of mint in a field, or simply stood in the deep part of a forest and smelled — just smelled — the earth, the spruce, the moss. Chances are you experienced a moment where you lost track of your responsibilities, your desires, your plans and just existed in the fragrance. If even for just a second, you tapped into a very primeval state of being — childlike, flowing, and free. In such a state, it is difficult to be judgmental, anxious, rigid, sad, or angry, and this may be why we so often give gifts of scented flowers when we want to nurture an atmosphere of love, understanding, and joy.
This fact may also underlie the nearly universal practice of burning scented plants, resins, and oils to alter the energy of a room or space; it clears the mind, sets the stage for creative, spiritual work, and attunes us to the present moment. Cultural rituals have harnessed the power aromatic plants hold over us and have embedded their use into the peak times of our lives, such as at birth and death, during marriage celebrations, as a cornerstone of purification ceremonies, during the dark, wintry months when the light is low, and as part of meditative practices.
Perfumery and aromatherapy have long recognized the power scent has on the human spirit — even real estate marketing suggests that a home, when appropriately scented, may put prospective buyers in a relaxed, comfortable mindset. In the ancient world, a thousand years before the Hanging Gardens were built, priests in the old stone temples along the Nile were mixing kyphi, the sweet and spicy incense sacred to the pharaohs.
But the Egyptian ceremonies didn't only involve smoke and scent. Often, the priests leading the rituals would also ingest a good amount of kyphi, powdered and dissolved in wine, as a sort of primitive herbal extract. Here the truest power of scented herbs is revealed; when they are ingested, their action is magnified and lasts much longer. The smell may awaken us, bring us into the present moment, and help us flow through change more gracefully, but once the aromatic plants enter the body, their volatile constituents first relax the belly, then dissolve into the bloodstream and reach all the internal organs. If there is underactivity in an organ or tissue, fragrant plants can "wake it up" (think of ginger or peppermint). Conversely, if a tissue is overly tense, aromatic herbs "loosen the knot" (like fennel seeds after a huge meal, or lavender oil during a massage). The net result is a more balanced state of internal tension. Since forever, herbalists have called many of these plants “nervines,” loved the scented brews they yield, and prized them as stress-tamers and tonics for the nerves.
How Aromatics Heal
More modern research gives us two interesting pieces of information to help understand how this works. First, the chemicals in highly scented plants (specifically, their volatile oils) have the ability to alter the way smooth muscle contracts depending on its current state of tension. Smooth muscle is found in the lining of all our hollow organs — lungs, gut, bladder and uterus — as well as in the heart and blood vessels. Plants that affect smooth muscle can thereby affect how we perceive our internal state, and anyone who has experienced a spasmic, crampy belly knows what a dramatic impact this can have.
It is fascinating to note, however, that the place in the brain tasked with assessing this internal state is exactly the same place most affected by the perception of smell itself! The limbic system, a complex of brain structures known for the processing of emotion and its ability to guide executive function (our ability to flow through tasks efficiently and productively), is where all of this information is integrated. Aromatic plants thus have a dual effect: their smell immediately awakens and engages the limbic system, and if consumed, their chemistry helps adjust internal tension, removing the distractions that keep us from the present moment. When they are ingested, clinical research always shows the same results of more balanced mood, more restorative sleep, better attention, and an ability to move through challenging tasks more smoothly and joyfully.
If you are seeking respite from the demands of the modern world and the bustle of the city, the scented garden and incense-filled temple may well be the answer for you. But fragrant herbs are the way to take your garden with you, to refresh your own internal temple. Aromatic herbs are not strongly mind-altering, are safe and non-habit-forming, and quite easy to grow and use. They are part of a very old toolkit available to humans, and many animals before us, to enter more fully into the flow of life. When led by scent, we follow a path through a garden where intuition and emotion, more than analysis and control, dominate the landscape.
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, author, herbal educator, and garden steward specializing in holistic Western herbalism. He is a founding co-director of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, a non-profit herbal medicine clinic and school that provides comprehensive services focused on whole plants and whole foods. Guido is the author of The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants (Healing Arts Press, 2013) and teaches as a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. Visit www.vtherbcenter.org. Guido is presenting “The Wild Medicine Solution” workshop at the Natural Living Expo, November 15, 2014, 1-3pm in Marlboro, MA.