KERALA AGRICULTURAL UNIVERSITY
AROMATIC AND MEDICINAL PLANTS RESEARCH STATION, ODAKKALI
Aromatic plants possess odorous volatile substances which occur as essential oil, gum exudate, balsam and oleoresin in one or more parts, namely, root, wood, bark, stem, foliage, flower and fruit. The characteristic aroma is due to a variety of complex chemical compounds. The term essential oil is concomitant to fragrance or perfumes because these fragrances are oily in nature and they represent the essence or the active constituents of the plants. They are called volatile or ethereal oils as they evaporate when exposed to air at ordinary temperatures. Essential oils are highly concentrated, low volume, high value products.
The world of essential oils has since then come out from the narrow field of definition to a wide variety of applications in flavours, disinfectants, oral hygiene, tobacco, pharmaceuticals and in almost all spheres of human activity. In the world wide flavour and fragrance market, essential oils constitute about 17 per cent. The estimate of world production of essential oils varies from 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per annum. The demand for spice oils is placed at 2,000 tonnes per annum.
Out of a total of about 1500 species of aromatic plants which serve as a source of raw materials for the perfumery, information on the chemistry and properties of essential oils of only about 500 species is known in some detail at present. Of these, about 50 species find use as commercial source of essential oils and aroma chemicals, though the number of those having regular and large scale utilization hardly exceeds two dozens.
Essential oils and aroma chemicals constitute a major group of industrial products. These oils form indispensable ingredients of the necessities in many spheres of human activity. They are adjuncts of cosmetics, soaps, pharmaceuticals, perfumery, confectionery, ice‑creams, aerated waters disinfectants, tobacco, agarbathis and a host of related products. However, with the recent advances in organic chemistry, the synthetics have outnumbered the naturals in a ratio of about 200:1 due to limitations in the availability of the latter in sufficient quantities at a steady price over a period of time. Naturals are seen as good and safe. The concern for nature and the love for all things which are basic and natural has been spearheading to a green movement of everything natural and nature‑based consumer products all over the world. A future shock is awaiting the industry as the already dwindling world resources of coal and petroleum on one side and the philosophy of going back to the nature is gaining acceptance internationally on the other side. This will revert the dependence of the industry on the petrochemicals to the perennial source of naturals. Thus, because of a large spectrum of usage in the everyday life of man, the essential oil and aroma industry has a bright future.
In today's world of consumer boom, the role of essential oils has increased many folds. Apart from the hitherto known applications of essential oils, more and more areas are opening up which will benefit the industry. Use of essential oils in therapeutics is becoming popular in Japan and European countries. Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils and aromatics derived from plants to cure diseases. Some of the essential oils are reported to be in many ways better than antibiotics due to their safety and wide spectrum of activity. Synergistic activity of essential oils needs further probe. Application of essential oils in agriculture as antifeedants, repellents, botanical insecticides, natural herbicides and growth boosters are still open to fascinating realms of research. Production of secondary metabolites in bioreactors under controlled conditions using cell and tissue culture offers exciting frontiers of future research.
Hot humid tropics offers an invaluable array of plant species which yields essential oils of fragrance and flavours. Some are commercially cultivated while others have potential for large scale planting. For the sake of practical convenience the crops are classified under the following four broad groups.
a) Aromatic grasses:
Lemongrass, palmarosa, citronella, vetiver
For more details on the above plants see the following reference.
Joy, P.P., Thomas, J., Mathew, S., Jose, G. and Joseph, J. 2001. Aromatic plants. In Tropical Horticulture Vol. 2. (eds. Bose, T.K., Kabir, J., Das, P. and Joy, P.P.). Naya Prokash, Calcutta, pp. 633-733
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