Corsican Helichrysum Essential Oil
Corsican Helichrysum Essential Oil
The Helichrysum has been revered by cultures old and new for its notorious therapeutic abilities and vast array of uses in both the cultural and medicinal realms. Helichrysum essential oil is a necessity in the medicine cabinet as its myriad of therapeutic uses includes soothing burns, chapped skin, swelling, muscle aches, sprains, strains, bruises; aiding in scar tissue formation; and regenerating skin and nerves. Helichrysum essential oil, or more often, Immortelle absolute, has also been prized in the perfume industry for ages, with a fragrance described at once as being warm, herbal, woody, sweet, earthy, green, floral, honey or caramel-like, rich, and buttery.
The notoriety of helichrysum is well-deserved, and its reputation as an almost magical, healing oil have earned it a rightful spot as a go-to oil for many centuries. Modern science is just now beginning to unravel the secrets of helichrysum’s extensive therapeutic uses that traditional medicine has known for decades. Its everlasting nature only adds to the mysticism of this wondrous plant.
THE HELICHRYSUM PLANT
Until recently, though, its incredible worth in the essential oil industry, as well as the medicinal, cosmetic, and cultural realms, has often been overlooked. Now, coupled with the relative ease in growing helichrysum, the notoriety of the plant has caused it to expand considerably across the globe, now growing wild on every continent except Antarctica. The helichrysum plant is primarily farmed, harvested, (what we do…) and distilled in the Mediterranean basin and the African continent, where is grows naturally. In this area of the world and others, the helichrysum plant is truly appreciated for its wide range of beneficial applications and stunning fragrance.
The plant’s moniker comes from the Greek words helios (meaning “sun”) and chrysos (meaning "gold"). The Greeks have long lauded helichrysum as a medicinal herb, with first mentions of the plant being used as a treatment ranging from burns to insect bites appearing in the Historia Plantarum that dates back to the 2nd or even 3rd century B.C.
Even among confirmed species, however, there can be a wide variance in appearance, chemical content, and medicinal benefit. This diversity is so broad that different species can be classified as annuals, herbaceous perennials, or shrubs. On the other hand, while there are great differences across the genus, some of the species and subspecies of helichrysum are so similar botanically that it has caused great confusion when examining historical records of medicinal uses. For a complete, up-to-date list of currently accepted helichrysum species.
Most helichrysum species, true to their name, contain small, bright yellow, dense clusters of blossoms on top of tall, slender stalks. Interestingly, these plants have in common that their ‘flowers’ do not actually contain petals. Rather, the flower is composed of a single seed head with “shiny, translucent, dry bracts” that extend beyond and provide the appearance of flower petals. This characteristic is what allows the ‘flowers’ to remain everlasting, without fading or losing their golden luster over time, as the blossoms retain their bright hue and distinctive, daisy-like shape well after blooming subsides. While a majority of helichrysum species produce the characteristic clusters of yellow flowers, a small number (estimated at approximately 7% of all plants) exhibit a slightly orange, pink, white, or even brownish tone. . In addition, some species produce single blossoms perched on top of the tall stalks, in contrast to the clusters of seven to ten flowers more commonly associated with helichrysum. This diversity has culminated in the genus being subdivided into 30 morphological groups based on features such as the shape and size of the flower head.
Helichrysum plants are both ‘heliophilous’ and ‘thermophilic’ – sun-loving and heat-loving. They thrive in arid, rocky conditions with little in the way of necessary care and maintenance. Thus, the plant is classified as a xeriphyte, a plant that has adapted to tolerate drought well. Part of the drought tolerability of helichrysum is due to the white or silvery hairs that thickly line the plant’s stalks and narrow, alternating leaves. The wooly covering of hair and small surface area of the leaves allows for limited transpiration, while the shimmer produced by the hairs reflects much of the sunlight that reaches the plant. this reason, helichrysum is a great addition to xeriscaped gardens, where it provides a lively pop of color and permeating fragrance amid the cactuses.
Helichrysum can be planted as seeds and is incredibly fast growing. When planted in clusters, it can take the space of slower growing plants and shrubs and will typically die out by the time the slower growing plants have matured, as the average helichrysum plant’s typical lifespan is four to five years. The plant requires only a yearly trim after flowering to maintain its shape and doesn’t require mulching, as mulch often provides the service of retaining water in times of drought, which drought-tolerant helichrysum does not require. In fact, if too heavily watered helichrysum is susceptible to fungus and powdery mildew. The plant grows well even in poor soil; it has been said that if there is an area of the garden where little else will grow, hardy helichrysum will thrive when planted there. The plant will not require much attention for many years, and can often overtake a large swath of space if left to its own devices. It will become less productive after a few years, producing fewer blossoms over time. Interestingly, helichrysum is sometimes planted as an effective cat repellant, as felines reportedly cannot tolerate the fragrance. Most bugs also avoid the pungent plant, as well as deer and other garden critters.
Helichrysum is thought to be native to Africa, with more than 250 species found growing wild in South Africa alone. In addition, the Mediterranean basin boasts at least 25 wild-growing species, including the revered Helichrysum italicum and its subspecies. Because of the relative ease in growing helichrysum, the plant has expanded considerably across the globe, now growing wild across most of the world on the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America. ((2012). Helichrysum. In Allaby, M.(Ed.), A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. Oxford University Press) The plant is easily pollinated by insects, which aided its spread to nearly any temperate climate from sea level to 2200 meters, with the official growing region labeled as the “lower-meso-Mediterranean to the lower-sub-humid bioclimatic environments.”
Of the many species of helichrysum, there is one that is of primary importance to essential oil purveyors: Helichyrsum italicum or, as it is better known to many of its ardent followers, Everlasting or Immortelle. This trait also gives rise to the nickname ‘Perpétuas-de-Itália.’ Also simply known as the Curry Plant, the leaves of Helichrysum italicum do not actually resemble either the flavor of the curry spice blend or the appearance of the curry tree (Murraya koenigii). Rather, the name comes from the pungent, turmeric-like aroma that Helichrysum italicum’s leaves produce when crushed. The species has an altogether complex fragrance, at once sweet and spicy, with a floral note. Interestingly, a minority of observers describe the smell of the plant as being more of a sweet, maple syrup rather than the curry-like fragrance.
This well-known species of helichrysum is a small, aromatic, shrubby herb with woody stems 30-90 centimeters high that produces dense clusters of small, straw like, ball-shaped, yellow flowers that bloom from early summer through early fall. The appearance of Helichrysum italicum has been described as a cross between lavender and rosemary, with its soft, elongated, greyish-green foliage covered in silvery hairs running the length of the stems. The similarity of appearance disappears, however, when the plant is in bloom with its bright yellow flowers.
Helichrysum italicum can be grown by propagating either seeds or cuttings, the latter being favoured by mass cultivators as it produces a mature plant more quickly. It will tolerate nearly any soil, although sandy, loamy, well-drained soil with a neural pH will promote growth to the fullest capacity. It enjoys full sun and temperate climates, thus it is only hardy to Zone 7 or 8 and is not able to tolerate a hard frost. Because of these growing conditions, Helichrysum italicum is labeled a ‘tender perennial.’ In addition to the large number of species in the Helichrysum genus, a fair number of these species have their own subspecies or varieties. Helichrysum italicum is one such species, with five accepted subspecies:
Helichrysum italicum subsp. italicum
This subspecies is classified as a dwarf aromatic shrub, colloquially referred to as the curry plant. It typically grows 40-50 cm high, but can reach up to 70 cm, and is thought to be native to the Mediterranean basin where it now grows prolifically in almost any dry habitat up to 2200 meters. The plant has the characteristic helichrysum appearance with bright yellow clusters of blossoms atop long stalks filled with white hairs. The flowering period is from May to September.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. microphyllum
Also commonly known as the dwarf curry plant, this strongly aromatic subspecies is often found growing wild as well as for cultivation on the island communities of Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, and the Balearic Islands. It is thought to be native to the Mediterranean basin. This subspecies has two chemotypes, one containing the all-important neryl acetate, and the other containing the sesquiterpene, rosifoliol. Likely because of the two chemotypes, there can be a significant variability in appearance from one Helichrysum microphyllum plant to the next. For example, on the island of Majorca in the Baleares, plants are greenish with very short leaves, and tend to have compact growing habits. However, on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, the plant is even smaller, reaching only 30-40 cm high and is distinct in that it has white hairs covering the stems. It has been said that one can tell the geographic origin of these two subspecies after a cursory glance due to their distinct appearances. As a dwarf shrub, a general rule is that the plant will be smaller than other Helichrysum species found growing nearby. This subspecies does have the characteristic yellow inflorescences clustered in small heads. The flowering period is from June to September, in the height of summer.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. picardii
Also known as ‘Perpétuas-de-areais’, this subspecies of Helichrysum italicum is a perennial woody shrub that grows approximately 25-50 cm tall. It is typically found in the Mediterranean, specifically in France, Italy, an area of southern Spain known as Andalucía, and Portugal. This variety is hardier than other Helichrysum species, growing farther north along the sandy coast of Portugal where the weather can be less favorable. The flowering season is also slightly later to accommodate, with the appearance of the small yellow flowers typically peaking in July-September.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. serotinum
This species is also referred to as dwarf curry plant, similar to its cousin Helichrysum italicum subsp. microphyllum, with the accepted synonym Helichrysum libanotis Jord. & Fourr. An evergreen variety with dark yellow flowers, this shrub grows, on average, 40 cm tall by 75 cm wide. This hardy species is thought to be native to the Iberian Peninsula, incorporating both Spain and Portugal and is often found growing wild and for cultivation there.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. siculum
This plant has a similar appearance to Helichrysum italicum subsp. italicum, but has noticeably shorter leaves. It typically flowers from May to September. Helichrysum italicum subsp. siculum plants grow up to 40 cm high and will thrive on nearly any terrain. Because of its ease of growth, this plant will be one of the first found growing in newly opened land. This subspecies is found primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily, but has also been found on Sardinia and Corsica up to 1300 meters’ altitude. . A taxonomic revision of Helichrysum sect. Stoechadina.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. pseudolitoreum
This plant is a controversial addition to the list of Helichrysum italicum subspecies, as reputable sites list the plant’s status as a verified subspecies as ‘unresolved’ . While Helichrysum italicum is often favored by essential oil connoisseurs, there are a number of other helichrysum species that are used to produce the prized essential oil and absolute, including Helichrysum odoratissimum, Helichrysum gymnocephalum, and Helichrysum stoechas. Many of the oils becoming more prevalent in the helichrysum oil industry are hailing from Africa’s plethora of species, and tend to contain a higher content of the chemical component 1,8-cineole than their Mediterranean counterparts. Because of this, these oils are better suited for treating wounds, allergies, congestion, colds, and other respiratory infections. Many of these oils are produced in limited quantities, and thus can be rare find as a single essential oil and are found more commonly in helichrysum blends.
As implied by the name, the fragrance emitted from this species is stronger than other helichrysum species. As such, it is often used as the go-to oil in the fragrance industry. This small, semi-woody shrub grows up to 50 cm high, with smaller yellow flower heads bunched together. This species of helichrysum is typically found in South Africa and is often referred to as imphepho (although this name is shared by a number of Helichrysum species in Africa). Because of its location, Helichrysum odoratissimum is often in flowering stage throughout the year.
Believed to be native to the island of Madagascar and South Africa, where it is commonly referred to as Rambiazina. It grows in Madagascar in the highlands areas.
Helichrysum arenarium is a perennial with white-haired stems that grow up to 50 cm in height. This species is often found growing wild in dry forests and meadows, typically in the cooler areas of southeastern Lithuania and Poland. This is the only known helichrysum species hardy enough to grow wild in this cooler area of the world.
Also known by the synonym Rambiazinza vavy, this species of Helichrysum is often found on the African continent, primarily in Madagascar and South Africa. Like most African species of helichrysum, the oil has high levels of 1,8-cineole, providing the plant with a camphor-like smell similar to eucalyptus. However, because of its considerably higher level of 1,8-cineole than most varieties of helichrysum, the oil obtained from this species needs to be used with care in infants and young children as the chemical has been shown to produce breathing problems and other central nervous system infarctions when inhaled or applied topically to the face.
This species is said to have the most variability in appearance and growing habitat of any of the Mediterranean Helichrysum species. The plants are described as being shrubby to sub-shrubby perennials growing approximately 50 cm high. Some of the subspecies do not even have the typical curry smell attributed to helichrysum. However, most have grey-green foliage, wooly stems covered in white hairs, and bright yellow flowers that bloom in March, with flowers present for much of the year. It is commonly cultivated in Spain, up to 1800 meters altitude.
The moniker ‘splendidum’ comes from the Latin for splendid, a name which clearly shows the adoration given to this unique plant. It is also often referred to as Cape Gold or Peta, as it is found growing wild on the Cape of Africa in the south and east portion of the country. This evergreen species of helichrysum bears the traditional appearance of the genus, with a compact, shrubby appearance. Helichrysum splendidum grows rather quickly, reaching more than a meter round in a two year time span. Its slender, pointed leaves are coated in silvery hairs and have the characteristic camphor-like odor found in African helichrysum species when crushed. The bright yellow flowers have a slightly darker center that exposes itself over the course of a few weeks during the summer blooming period. Helichrysum splendium is hardier than most species and can tolerate a light frost.
CULTIVATION/HORTICULTURE FOR ESSENTIAL OIL PRODUCTION
When starting a new plot of Helichrysum italicum, which is the variety most often grown for its prized essential oil, the plant is typically started as a cutting during flowering season from a mature plant’s semi-woody, non-flowering shoots. When taking cuttings from any established helichrysum plant, growers must ensure that a root ball, or heel, is grafted with the half-ripe wood. Cuttings taken in this manner will root within a month, and have a high likelihood of taking. Older shoots will begin to take on a grayer, thicker, woody appearance, while new growth will be slightly greener.
Alternatively, new helichrysum plants can be grown as a seedling in early spring (in a greenhouse in locations where temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius during winter months). The seedlings will germinate within a few weeks, and are then transplanted to larger pots. Due to the lack of hardiness of helichrysum plants, these seedlings will often remain in the greenhouse through to the following summer, at which point they will be transplanted outside during the early summer months.
The plants must be stalked when either planted in a windy location or allowed to grow too tall, especially when they haven’t yet reached maturity. A newly planted farm typically takes approximately three years to reach a maturity conducive to harvesting the plant for essential oil.
While helichrysum oil is a remarkable healing oil regardless of its country of origin, Corsica is well known to produce a superior oil in terms of its healing properties. The island is covered in fragrant scrubland, termed the Maquis, also known as the ‘Garden of Corsica.’ . The high levels of neryl acetate found in Corsican Helichrysum italicum have been attributed to a number of factors unique to the island, including the specific subspecies, the growing conditions of the island (sun exposure and the unique terroir), as well as the local knowledge of the plant passed on to cultivators and distillers over generations in an effort to coax out the most beneficial components of this magical plant.
There are currently eight distillers of Immortelle oil on Corsica alone, where the prized Helichrysum italicum species is grown, particularly the subspecies Helichrysum italicum subsp. italicum and Helichrysum italicum subsp. serotinum. Prior to the plantations on Corsica, distillers were granted contracts from the government to harvest wild growing Helichrysum italicum in specified tracts of land. Due to the increasing demands for Immortelle oil, plantations began to surface.. Five of the seven plantations on Corsica are located on the eastern coast of Corsica, with the other two found in the Balagne region.
Helichrysum harvests typically take place during the height of summer (June-August) when the plant is in its most active flowering phase. On smaller plantations, fresh flowering tops are harvested by hand using a sickle early in the morning at peak flower freshness. The prized essential oil is located primarily in these flower petals, sepals, and bracts, with some oil also located along the stem leaves. When harvesting, workers take care to remove only the higher parts of the plant in order to retain its growing ability in future years. The collected plant material is then placed into jute-bags to be distributed to the distiller where they are optimally distilled on the same day they are harvested. Wild helichrysum must be carried out of the mountainous regions where it is often harvested. If a delay is expected between harvesting and processing, helichrysum blossoms can be left to dry in the sun to speed the process.
A comprehensive study was recently done to examine the difference in both yield and chemical composition depending on harvesting times of Helichrysum italicum subsp. microphyllum: before flowering (early June), during flowering (the height of July), and after flowering (early September). The three harvests varied greatly from one time to the next, with the proportion of flowers to stems being 1/1, 2/1, and 3/1, respectively, coinciding with the increasing yield of oil obtained (.11%, .13%, and .18%). The true difference between the three harvesting periods was the significantly higher amount of nerol and its esters, linalool and limonene, when harvested during the peak flowering time of July. The authors of the study also suggest that due to the largely similar chemical compositions of the oils taken from both flowers and stems, the oils can reasonably be combined without a loss of quality, but an increase in yield.
Similarly, another study set out to decipher what differences might arise when utilizing variable drying methods on the flowers. The authors compared fresh, air-dried, sun-dried, and oven-dried flowers obtained from Helichrysum odoratissimum. Not only were yields different depending on the method used (0.28%, 0.46%, 0.33%, and 0.36%, respectively), but notably, the chemical composition was altered such that the components pulegone and menthone, recognized as potentially harmful compounds, were drastically reduced in all the dried states but not the fresh flower state.
When word spread of the incredible medicinal benefits of this plant, widespread foraging of helichrysum took place in order to create the newly prized essential oil so in demand in the beauty care industry. In effect, this turned a once-prolific, wild-growing plant into an endangered species in some areas. Due to these mass cultivation efforts by essential oil purveyors, most species are no longer threatened. However, there are still a handful of helichrysum species that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as being vulnerable or even critically endangered.
HELICHRYSUM OIL PRODUCTION AND WORLDWIDE TRADE
Helichrysum oils are a fairly expensive oil to produce (and thus purchase), as one ton of hand-harvested flowering tops distills into only two kilograms of essential oil and 40 gallons of hydrosol. Thus, typical yields of essential oil are approximately 0.2-0.3%, although this number is an average. One study found that the yield from Helichrysum italicum ssp. microphyllum was lower in both the flowering tops and stems, at 0.18% and 0.04%, respectively. DOI: 10.1080/14786419.2015.1009458.) In comparison, yields from lavender plants are around 0.5-1.0%, while from the peppermint plant it is even higher at 1.0-2.5%. However, yields from absolutes derived from helichrysum do tend to be a bit higher.
When observing a mature helichrysum plant, it is not difficult to see why essential oil yields are so low from the plant also known as ‘strawflower’: there is very little liquid content present in the plant. It is for this same reason that helichrysum maintains its long-lasting golden hue and shape, as there is little water to evaporate and alter its form. Finally, low water content allows helichrysum to remain tolerant of droughts and maintain its luster when other plants are failing.
Currently, the average price for five mLs of organic Helichrysum italicum essential oil is high. Naturally, as the Corsican variety of Helichrysum italicum is the most prized, this oil also tends to have a higher price tag attached, sometimes by a magnitude of 3-5 times. The United States has recently begun producing helichrysum essential oil, and this oil tends to be sold at a lower price point than its European counterparts; however, according to the manufacturers the oils reputably maintain the high levels of therapeutic compounds typically found overseas.
Luckily, while helichrysum may have a rather high price tag, the oil is highly efficient is small doses due to its potency. In addition, the oil tends to be relatively stable, with a shelf life of up to five years when kept in a proper, darker bottle in a moderately temperate environment. Thus, one small bottle of this essential oil will go far and last long in the medicine cabinet.
In addition, one can purchase a hydrosol of helichrysum, which is considerably cheaper due to the less concentrated nature of the medicinal components found, and the fact that it is technically a byproduct of the essential oil processing.
Of the more than 300 confirmed helichrysum species, there are only a select few that are designated to be worthy of transforming into the revered healing essential oil. While Helichrysum italicum is perhaps the most commonly used species, including all of its subspecies, a number of others are also distilled to create essential oils, absolutes, and/or hydrosols. The chemical compositions of different helichrysum essential oils can differ based on a number of characteristics, including species and subspecies used, country of origin, and environmental conditions (temperature, soil, moisture, altitude, etc.). However, a study done on the topic suggests that of all these contributing factors, it may be altitude that has the greatest effect on different oil profiles. It has been suggested that plants grown at higher altitude tend to be more concentrated in the oil they produce
While these variations may seem minor, they can contribute to the creation of a vastly different oil profile leading to varying odors, appearances, and even healing benefits. Thus, when purchasing an essential oil from a distiller or distributor, it is paramount that one obtains the gas chromatography/microspectroscopy data sheet listing the components and their percentages present in the specific oil, especially when planning to use the oil for a specific medicinal benefit.
One of the most pronounced differences in oil content is between the Mediterranean species (e.g. Helichrysum italicum), and the African species (e.g. Helichrysum gymnocephalum). The Mediterranean variety is more likely to contain di-ketones and higher levels of neryl acetate, while African helichrysum species are well-known for their high 1,8-cineole content. The former is prized for anti-inflammatory and regenerative abilities, while the latter is traditionally used to treat infections and other respiratory illnesses, similar to eucalyptus, another oil with high 1,8-cineole content.
A detailed account of each oil can be found below, however a generic breakdown of the Mediterranean area’s species have these main chemical components in common:
Mediterranean helichrysum species:
The prized essential oil is located primarily in helichrysum’s flower petals, sepals, and bracts, with some oil also located along the stem leaves. Thus, steam distillation is effective in extracting the essential oil, and remains the most common method used by commercial distillers.
Methods of Extraction
The most common method of obtaining helichrysum essential oil, regardless of the species, is by steam distilling the fresh flowering tops and occasionally, pieces of the stem. The plant material is loaded into a still and distilled for approximately two hours per ton using a ‘Clevenger-type’ apparatus. In the past, copper has primarily been used as the metal of choice; however, the ions in copper has been shown to affect the chemical constituents of the plant. For this reason, in recent years stainless steal has become the mainstay when distilling helichrysum.
After obtaining all the essential oil possible from the helichrysum blossoms during steam distillation, the remaining water in the still is collected and used as a hydrosol. On occasion, the water that has been separated from the resulting essential oil is then reintroduced into the still. This process, called cohobation, allows for a more concentrated hydrosol as the water is re-infused with the plant material multiple times. Helichrysum hydrosols are reported to contain similar healing properties to their essential oil cousins, with perhaps a more subdued effect. Often, the hydrosol will be added to skin care blends in place of water in the recipe to impart a small amount of helichrysum’s benefits, adding a mild anti-inflammatory, anti-hematomol, and other skin regenerative effects.
Absolute via Solvent Extraction
Another method of obtaining the beneficial components from helichrysum is to solvent extract the precious oil from the flowers, creating Immortelle absolute, or Everlast. In solvent extraction, hexane tends to be the alcohol-based method of choice. However, when creating an organic, all-natural extract and thus similar extraction methods are desired, vegetable glycerin or sweet almond oil can be used as the solvent.
A two-step chemical process is typically employed to create the absolute. A simplified explanation of the process is described by Fakhry and Co.: “A conventional concrete is produced by solvent extraction using hexane; the absolute is displaced from the concrete using ethanol, and the by-product of concrete is wax.”
In the first stage, a concrete is created using a solvent such as hexane. The aroma emanating from the concrete will be different from that obtained by essential oil: aside from the remaining solvent odor, the concrete will impart an almost licorice-like fragrance to the usual herbaceous, floral, woody fragrance. Depending on the extraction solvent, the color of the absolute can range from olive green to almost brown. Regardless, almost all will have the waxy consistency typical of a concrete.
The second step of creating an absolute involves a second solvent extraction of the newly created concrete that results in the more refined absolute. Helichrysum absolute is a highly viscous (almost semi-solid), green or brown oil that has an odor similar to the waxy concrete but heavier in the floral, wood-like, herbaceousness with less of a residual waxy solvent.
The yield produced from absolute is often quite a bit higher than that of helichrysum essential oil. In addition, when the extraction of all the beneficial components of helichrysum is complete, the remaining spent plant material can be reused as a fertilizer for the next year’s crop, which has been asserted to increase yields of the subsequent harvest by up to 30%.
However, higher yields do not translate into more medicinal benefits. Helichrusym absolute is typically lacking the high levels of di-ketones, neryl acetate, curcumenes, and other beneficial components often present. Thus, it is used more often for its tenacious fragrance in perfumery than as a medicinal oil. Another caveat when working with helichrysum absolute is that high amounts of tannins tend to be present in the final product. This can have an effect on the color produced when mixing helichrysum absolute with other oils that tend to have trace amounts of metals present, giving the resulting oil a dark, blackish hue.
Supercritical Fluid Extraction
While not routinely employed as an extraction method to obtain essential oil due to the prohibitive cost, supercritical fluid extraction is a solvent-free method that uses pressurized carbon dioxide at lower temperatures than those used in steam distillation, thereby introducing less degradation of the volatile chemicals. However, supercritical fluid extraction can produce oils with sometimes drastically different chemical profiles and yields, as evidenced by a recent study conducted by Costa et al.
ADULTERATION OF HELICHRYSUM ESSENTIAL OIL
Unfortunately, as is common with an expensive, high-demand oil, it is not uncommon to find helichrysum essential oil adulterated. The most common ways in which one may find an impure oil is to purchase the highly sought after Corsican Helichrysum italicum and find it diluted with oil made from less superior helichrysum species, or even Helichrysum italicum grown in areas other than Corsica. In audacious cases, the less-desired helichrysum oil may be sold directly as Corsican Helichrysum italicum essential oil.
Most incidences of adulteration of helichrysum oil are not so flagrant; in fact, unintentional adulteration of helichrysum oil may be even more common. Many cultivators of helichrysum grow more than one variety of the plant. Occasionally, these plants are harvested and distilled together, producing an essential oil that contains more than one subspecies. Officially, this oil should be labeled a helichrysum blend, but that is not always the case.
The only way to establish the authenticity of any helichrysum oil is to have the essential oil commercially tested using gas chromatography or mass spectroscopy, or to be provided a specifications sheet by the distiller producing the oil.
USES OF HELICHRYSUM OIL/ ABSOLUTE
Helichrysum has been compared to lavender in that the two are panaceas: they have an incredibly vast array of uses in the cultural, cosmetic, therapeutic, and medicinal realms, and have been widely revered in the perfume industry for ages. Helichrysum has been used since ancient times in Greece as an herbal medicine, and is still prized in traditional medicine in the Mediterranean, Africa, and other areas of the world. While helichrysum has been a go-to in the medicine cabinet for centuries, the essential oil distilled from Helichrysum italicum was not used widely in aromatherapy until recently, although the inclusion of Immortelle oil in aromatherapy is well-deserved. Finally, helichrysum, also known as the curry plant, also holds a place in many Mediterranean kitchens as a culinary herb.
Helichrysum has been compared to lavender in that the two are panaceas: they have an incredibly vast array of uses in both the cultural and medicinal realms. Helichrysum has been used since ancient times in Greece as an herbal medicine, where author Pedanius Dioscorides describes the petals of the flower being macerated in a goblet of wine and drunk to cure ailments such as hernias and snake bites. However, the notoriety of helichrysum, likely the species Helichrysum italicum, extends much farther in history, making an appearance in Homer’s The Odyssey as an ‘elixir of youth.’ In addition, the flowers were braided in decorative crowns worn to celebrate the Greek god Apollo, who was tasked with arching the sun across the sky in his gilded chariot. It has also been used by east and west African cultures, and is particularly wide-spread in its use in traditional southern African tribal medicine. The Xhosa tribe uses it to treat wounds topically, and the Zulu and Xhosa burn the leaves of the plant as incense for ceremonial rituals to act as a protective cleanser. Traditional African medicine also hails the herb as a tonic for treating respiratory tract infections and digestive issues such as diarrhea. Helichrysum is also still used widely in traditional medicine in the Mediterranean areas of Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In addition to the widespread traditional use of helichrysum as a healing herb, the plant also enjoys popularity as a fixture in dried flower arrangements due to its notoriety at retaining its ‘everlasting’ yellow hue and intense fragrance. For centuries helichrysum has been included in potpourri, decorative wreaths, and braided crowns. Common African folklore insists that the flower heads of helichrysum last for seven years without losing any of their luster, which provides the Afrikaans name for many species of helichrysum: sewejaartjie (seven years).
While the historical writings, folklore, and anecdotes describe the use of helichrysum in detail for the treatment of a vast array of disorders, it is not always clear what species is being referred to in each instance. Some of the species of helichrysum are indeed very similar to each other in both appearance and chemical makeup.
While helichrysum has been a go-to in the traditional medicine cabinet for centuries, the essential oil distilled from Helichrysum italicum was not used widely in aromatherapy until the 1980’s. It is said that Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt is primarily responsible for this sea change, saying,
“The story of the essential oil of Helichrysum italicum is a perfect example of how a few individuals acting decisively can make a difference in the world. Essential oil catalogs prior to the early 1980’s do not list Helichrysum italicum. Today, helichrysum essential oil is offered on virtually every ambitious aromatherapy list.” Schanubelt (1999).
While still only approximately 69% of aromatherapists report using helichrysum in their practice (which is a small amount when compared to the 97% that report using lavender essential oil), the volume of Immortelle used is one of the highest when compared with other oils, at the third highest ranking according to a recent report.
Helichrysum’s inclusion in aromatherapy is well-deserved. The aroma has been described as having a “strong psychological effect,” in that it is highly effective at grounding its user who may be feeling a bit too heady and detached. Helichrysum is also said to be clarifying and stimulating, perfect for activities that require such qualities like studying and working, as the renowned Valerie Wormwood describes Immortelle as being linked to increased performance
In addition to its astounding ability to remove physical blockages in the body such as old tissue knots, the di-ketones, specifically the italidones, are also adept at removing old emotional blocks: "Those (emotions) that are most indicated are enduring resentment, half-conscious anger, bitterness of spirit, and a stubbornly negative attitude," says Mojay’s Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. It is thought that there is a direct connection between the nature of these ailments, as they both represent an old, lingering block to healing. Helichrysum is thought to work to stop confusion, emotional burnout, and difficulty in expressing grief, all barriers to experiencing relief from emotional pain. The suggestion is to massage Helichrysum italicum oil over the heart chakra to aid healing of old emotional wounds. In addition, the use of Immortelle essential oil in treating drug and alcohol addiction is thought to be worthwhile due to the release of emotional trauma associated with the negative thought patterns driving the behavior. (Wormwood, V. A. (1996). The Fragrant Mind. California: New World Library)
Carrier oils are often used in conjunction with essential oils in order to aid their absorption into the skin and speed healing. This is especially true of helichrysum, which can actually be potentiated when mixed with certain carrier oils. Rosehip seed oil, which contains Vitamin A, is perhaps one of the most commonly used carrier oils in association with helichrysum. This combo is specifically directed for scar tissue as indicated by Dr. Kurt Schaubelt, who says, "The triple unsaturated fatty acids (of rosehip seed oil) strengthen the cell membranes and, combined with the regenerative qualities of Everlasting oil (Helichrysum), heal wounds with minimal or no scarring." Another carrier oil that pairs well with helichrysum is hazelnut oil, which on its own contains small amounts of the same healing properties of helichrysum, as well as being a natural astringent. Taken together, the two have an additive effect that promotes healing. Jojoba oil is another that is often used in conjunction with helichrysum.
Helichrysum is a worthy addition to many aromatherapuetic blends, as it mixes well with a wide variety of oils to produce synergistic effects. Helichrysum has been noted to blend well with bergamot, black pepper, chamomile, cedarwood, citrus oils, clary sage, clove bud, cypress, frankincense, geranium, juniper, lavender, lemon, myrrh, neroli, oakmoss, oregano, palmarosa, patchouli, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, sea buckthorn, tea tree, thyme, vetiver, and ylang ylang.
Helichrysum italicum is used widely in the cosmetic industry due to its high level of nerol, neryl acetate, linalool and limonene, which are widely reported to enhance the skin’s ability to regenerate itself. Known in France as the ‘Fountain of Youth in a bottle’ for its regenerative, anti-aging properties, it is thought that Immortelle increases the skin’s natural collagen amounts, which in turn, reduces wrinkles and improves the appearance of the skin.
It is generally considered to be a safe, non-toxic, non-irritating oil that is often applied neat or diluted and is actually the preferred method of administration when using the essential oil to treat conditions such as muscle aches and bruises. When helichrysum is used at any concentration above 20%, the effects are nearly instantaneous. For this reason, helichrysum oil is in wide favor with massage therapists who use the oil to treat lingering muscle injuries. Perhaps the key to Immortelle oil’s popularity in use for treating injuries is that it is fast-acting, but also long lasting.
Care should be taken when applying helichrysum undiluted to the skin for the first time, as mild reactions have been known to occur in those with sensitivities to fragrances. Some research has shown helichrysum to be a non-irritant, however, Tisserand notes in his widely respected manual Essential Oil Safety that helichrysum has the potential to be a moderate skin irritant to those with fragrance sensitivities. Thus, as with any new preparation being applied to the skin, one should start applying the oil in a diluted state (a concentration of helichrysum at 0.5% was not found to be irritating to even the fragrance-sensitive volunteers) and work towards applying the oil undiluted over time if no adverse reaction is experienced. (Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety. New York, NY: Elsevier)
There are no known contraindications when using helichrysum as an adjunct to other medications, natural or otherwise, and is “Generally Recommended as Safe” by the United States Federal Drug Administration. (Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety. New York, NY: Elsevier.) Helichrysum has not been found to increase photosensitivity, and has even been suggested as a beneficial addition to sunscreens. Helichrysum is noted as being contraindicated during pregnancy and lactation.
Helichrysum essential oil, or more often, Immortelle absolute, has been prized in the perfume industry for ages. Its most common use is as as a fixative, providing the base/middle note to a perfume that needs rounding-out, providing “life and natural-ness.
The scent of Immortelle absolute is incredibly complex. The fragrance begins in the top note as a warm, spicy, tobacco-like honey and changes during the dry-out to a more delicate, fruity floral aroma. It has been said that perfume blenders must have considerable experience and skill when using helichrysum in their mixtures because the fragrance can be so tenacious and ever-changing. The fragrance of helichrysum has been described at once as being warm, herbal, woody, sweet, earthy, green, floral, honey or caramel-like, rich, and buttery.
Typical perfume blends that utilize rich helichrysum include amber, boronia, chamomile, chypre, citrus oils, clary sage, clove bud, coumarin, flouve, labdanum, lavender, lavendin, lily, mimosa, muguet, oak moss, and rose.
Helichrysum italicum is often used in Italian kitchens as a culinary herb, one that is completely edible, as well as providing color to the windowsill herb garden. While the flavour imparted by the Curry Plant is not nearly as pungent as its aroma would suggest, the subtle fragrances imparted when adding the leaves or young shoots of the plant add a flavor reminiscent of sage or rosemary to dishes. While typically the leaves and shoots are removed before consuming, the leaves can also be chopped finely and wonderfully complement dishes such as meats, eggs, and other dairy-heavy dishes. In addition, one can create an infused olive oil by simply placing the aromatic leaves in a small vat of olive oil and allowing the flavours to infuse the oil to be used for cooking. Finally, adding a small sprig of helichrysum to the side of a dish can make a very appealing garnish!
Helichrysum is also used occasionally as a flavoring agent in tobacco, blending well with the rose flavors which are also often present. (Arctander, S. (1960) Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Artander).
SCIENTIFIC/MEDICAL RESEARCH & USES
“Helichrysum is one of the most important aromatic medicines of our time. It is safe, gentle and yet amazingly effective for practically all skin issues including wounds, cuts, abrasions, bruises, scars, insect bites as well as strains, sprains and inflammatory injuries.” Perfect Essence website
Helichrysum is widely touted as one of the essential oils that is necessary for the medicine cabinet when treating mild trauma, as its myriad of uses includes soothing burns, chapped skin, swelling, muscle aches, sprains, strains, bruises; aiding in scar tissue formation; and regenerating skin and nerves. However, helichrysum is most widely used as an anti-inflammatory (thought to be due to the high content of alpha, beta, and gamma-curcumenes present in the oil). Injuries cause a constriction of blood supply to the affected area, which in turn obstructs oxygen and nutrients from traveling between cells, traps waste, and produces free radicals. (http://www.floracopeia.com/Shop/organic-helichrysum-oil-italicum-albania.html) Helichrysum has the incredible ability to halt these processes, allowing for more immediate healing.
While Helichrysum may have unquestionable healing powers to many of its widespread users, much of the research data on the herb and its potent oil has been scant until recently. One pioneering author, Leonardo Santini, wrote about the promising effects of Helichrysum italicum in treating psoriasis in the 1940s-1950s; however, his research was not given much attention as it was published in less popular journals of the time. Thus, it was not until the 1990s that medical research surrounding helichrysum and its therapeutic uses became more abundant.
Helichrysum italicum is perhaps the species with the most longstanding and widely used herbs in traditional medicine. However, research on the Helichrysum genus has also focused on a few other species with documented medicinal effects, including Helichrysum arenarium (Czinner et al., 2000), Helichrysum stoechas (Carini et al., 2001), and Helichrysum graveolens (Aslan et al., 2007). It appears that different areas of the world gravitate toward the species of helichrysum that are available to them, and quickly determine the medicinal benefits present. For example, cultures in Central Europe have long used Helichrysum arenarium for its antiseptic, coloretic, and antispasmatic properties. Spanish folk healers, on the other hand, look to Helichrysum stoechas for its reputable ability to heal diverse ailments from toothaches to digestive disorders. In addition to the well-known skin care applications and other conditions mentioned above, the Turks find Helichrysum graveolens to be effective at combating diabetes mellitus. Of these various species of helichrysum, it appears that Helichrysum stoechas, a close cousin to Helichrysum italicum, has the most scientific evidence backing its use as a healing medicinal plant. The table below succinctly lists the studied effects of species of helichrysum other than Helichrysum italicum:
The pain-relieving aspect of Helichrysum can likely be traced to the curcumenes present in the oil. Is is often mixed with peppermint to aid the analgesic properties.
Many studies have been done that demonstrate the antibacterial properties of a number of different helichrysum species. Helichrysum aureonitens, for example, has been demonstrated to be effective at killing both Staphylococcus aureus, Micrococcus luteus, Penicillium and Escherichia coli bacteria, among others. (Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Antibacterial activity of Helichrysum aureonitens (Asteraceae). J.J. M. Meyer & A. J. Afolayan. Botany Department, University of Pretoria, Pretoria 0002, South Africa. Volume 47, Issue 2, 7 July 1995, Pages 109-111 (doi:10.1016/0378-8741(95)01261-B) [PMID: 7500636].) The antibacterial effect has been shown in both the essential oil and diethyl ether extracts of Helichrysum italicum, likely due to the flavonoids and terpenes found therein.
As an adjunct to helichrysum’s inherent antibacterial properties, Helichrysum italicum essential oil has been found to increase the effects of antibacterial drugs such as penicillin when fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is thought this effect may be due to geraniol, a compound found in many helichrysum species. In a society where the overuse of antibiotics is causing widespread resistance, it is beneficial to examine other avenues to increase their effectiveness. Authors of these many studies speculate that the antibacterial effect of helichrysum is likely due to its pro-inflammatory enzyme inhibition and free radical scavenging abilities.
Helichrysum acts as an expectorant, reducing inflammation in the nose and throat. In this manner it is directed to help with various chest complaints, coughs, respiratory infections, asthma, etc. This effect is especially attributed to the African varieties of helichrysum that contain high levels of 1,8-cineole.
Helichrysum is especially adept at aiding in scar tissue formation, with the effects potentiated when added in a base of rose hip seed oil. The effect likely works by bringing blood, and hence, oxygen, into the injured tissue.
Helichrysum, specifically Helichrysum italicum, contains trace amounts of nerol, which is indicated in healing fungal infections and treating infected skin. (http://www.aromahead.com/blog/2008/06/27/helichrysum-species/) In addition, Helichrysum italicum’s acetophenones, phloroglucinols, and terpenoids displayed antifungal action against Candida albicans, an organism that can cause widespread disorder in immunocompromised patients. Tea tree oil is an additive that can potentiate the anti-fungal effects of helichrysum.
Helichrysum italicum was found to be anti-genotoxic, inhibiting genetic material mutations in fruit flies. (Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety. New York, NY: Elsevier) This is important when considering that tumors are the result of unchecked cell duplication.
Helichrysum is well renowned for its ability to reduce the formation of blood clots, leading to reduced swelling and appearance of bruises.
The Europeans were possibly first to use helichrysum as an anti-inflammatory . One study from the Department of Botany at the University of Natal Pietermaritzburg found that it was useful for the treatment of headache and inflammatory diseases, due to its high inhibitory activity. (DOI: 10.1007/s11101-004-5570-7). Helichrysum is also very helpful in the relief of joint pain, especially pain associated with arthritis and Rheumatoid arthritis. In these instances, helichrysum oil is often mixed with birch, German chamomile, ginger, turmeric, and/or wintergreen oils. For the relief of tinnitus, a drop of Immortelle oil can be placed behind the ear at night. Other inflammatory disorders such as tendonitis and gingivitis (and many of the other ‘itis’ issues) can be effectively treated with helichrysum.
It appears that a component of Helichrysum italicum, arzanol, may be responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects, as its been shown to have an inhibitory effect on cytokines and other inflammatory markers such as IL-1β, TNFα, IL-6, and IL-8. Additional mechanisms of helichrysum’s anti-inflammatory actions are likely due to a three-fold medicinal effect of its chemical components: free-radical scavenging, inflammatory enzyme-inhibition, and corticoid-like activity.
A series of studies by Rios et al. discovered a number of the compounds found in Helichrysum stoechas to be primarily anti-microbial. Among these compounds, italipyrone, plicatipyrone, 4-hydroxy-3(isopentyn-2-yl)-acetophenone, and β-Sitosterol- β-O-glucosides were found to be particularly effective.
Three species of helichrysum (Helichrysum stoechas, Helichrysum arenarium, and Helichrysum italicum) were found to demonstrate anti-oxidant activity from a preparation obtained from the flowers of these species. (Lourens, A. C. U., Viljoen, A. M., Van Heerden, F. R. (2008). South African Helichrysum species: A review of the traditional uses, biological activity and phytochemistry. Journal of Ethnopharamcology, 199, 630.652.)
Anti-spasmolytic & muscle-relaxing
As an effective anti-spasmodic, helichrysum has been shown effective at reducing muscle spasms related to headaches, asthma, muscle tightness, and inflammatory bowel disorders. A Helichrysum italicum extract was shown to be effective at reducing gut motility, effectively reducing symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and associated Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Interestingly, the preparation was only effective in mice with disrupted motility, without altering healthy controls. (Rigano, D., Formisano, C., Senatore, F., Piacente, S., Pagano, E., et al. (2013). Intestinal antispasmodic effects of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) Don ssp. italicum and chemical identification of the active ingredients. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 150(3), 901-906)
Helichrysum’s flavonoids and phloroglucinols inhibited herpes simplex virus (HSV) and HIV, respectively. (The Department of Botany, University of Pretoria in South Africa found that Helichrysum aureonitens demonstrates antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) in vitro. [PMID: 8733118]). Another study found that a diethyl ether extract from the flowering tops of Helichrysum italicum, specifically, was successful in warding off the HSV-1 virus. As HSV is notoriously unresponsive to classic antiviral drugs, the effectiveness shown by a simple preparation of helichrysum is worth further exploration.
Helichrysum is effective in treating heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, and risk of stroke, increasing general circulatory function, and reducing cholesterol. It is also effective at treating cases of high blood pressure, and is especially successful in this regard when combined with ylang ylang.
Helichrysum has the ability to remove heavy metals from the body. In this case, the oil is typically diluted to 5% in a carrier oil and added to the bottom of the feet to promote toxin removal. This process is best completed during the day so gravity can aid the process and pull toxins down and out.
Digestive issues (choloretic, anti-spasmodic)
Certain species of helichrysum have the ability to increase the production of gastric juices in the stomach, thus reducing the incidence of disorders of the intestines such as gall bladder inflammation. In this manner, helichrysum flowers are typically consumed as a tea or syrup to impart the medicinal components of the flower with rapid speed. (Rigano, D., Formisano, C., Senatore, F., Piacente, S., Pagano, E., et al. (2013). Intestinal antispasmodic effects of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) Don ssp. italicum and chemical identification of the active ingredients. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 150(3), 901-906.) The ingestion of helichrysum oil promotes proper digestion and allows for optimal absorption of nutrients in the intestines.
When ingesting helichrysum is medically advised, a tincture can be made by placing various components of the plant (leaves, flowering tops, stems, etc.) into an alcohol base and allowing the healing properties to seep into the alcohol over a period of a few weeks. Tincture dosing will depend on the ailment in question as well as its severity, as they tend to be a stronger method of application that teas, inhalation, or topical absorption.
Helichrysum stimulates liver cell activity, increases detoxification, and supporting the lymphatic system.
Helichrysum italicum appears to be an effective addition to a homemade insect repellant. One study showed that the essential oil was successfully able to repel approximately 30% of Aedes aegypti, one of the vectors known to carry diseases such as dengue fever and yellow fever. Helichrysum italicum essential oil was also exceptionally toxic to Aedes albopictus larvae. In addition, helichrysum has been touted as a flea repellant for use on animals. In Turkey, dried Helichrysum arenarium plants are hung around the house to repel omnipresent brown house moths. Finally, in Africa Helichrysum odoratissimum is burned to fumigate homes
Helichrysum has been shown effective in treating various skin conditions, including acne, dry skin, eczema, rosacea, dermatitis, psoriasis, and burns, including sunburn. This is partially due to helichrysum’s ability to act as an astringent.
“Its effects are so convincing that it has never met with any kind of criticism despite the absence of data on its effectiveness. Helichrysum oil demonstrates that anecdotal evidence can create a reality without the help of industrially sponsored science. Helichrysum is more predictable in its action than almost any other oil and is produced and sold by small enterprises that understand the needs of the aromatherapy market.” (Kurt Schnaubelt, PhD)
Anecdotal evidence abounds regarding the effects of helichrysum on inflammation, scars, and wound healing. And while plenty of scientific research has been conducted in vitro, unfortunately, there is still a lack of human trial data surrounding the use of helichrysum. In addition, studies are not often forthcoming about the species used in studies, or the preparation of the extract, whether it be of the flowering tops of the Helichrysum plant, the leaves, the roots, or otherwise. Similarly, the highly prevalent anecdotal evidence fails to mention these key details. It is likely that studies looking at a preparation including all or nearly all of the helichrysum plant will show more promising results, as the synergistic effects have been proposed to be more potent with less side-effects