Occassionaly sold under the enchanting Chinese name of May chang, this essential oil is more commonly marketed under its botanical name of Litsea cubeba, and this is how we offer it at Quinessence. It is also occasionally referred to as Exotic Verbena or Tropical Verbena, although despite the references to verbena the plant is not related in any way to true verbena (Lippia citriodora). The association to this name would appear to be due to the similarity in fragrance.
In fact, it is not uncommon for litsea cubeba to be supplied as ‘verbena’ oil to an unsuspecting or inexperienced buyer. Litsea cubeba essential oil is also used as a starting material for the extraction of natural citral, and it is even known to be used to adulterate true Melissa oil – although such clumsy adulteration is quite easy for an expert to spot.
Fragrant all over
From the Lauraceae family, Litsea cubeba is a small deciduous tree that grows to a height of 5 to 8 metres (16-26 feet), with a smooth trunk measuring 6-20 centimetres (2.5 to 8 inches) in diameter. Sometimes known as the Mountain Spice Tree and Chinese Pepper, the tree bears white or pale yellow, lemon-scented flowers, and small fruits which are similar in shape to small peppers, from which the word ‘cubeb’ is derived.
Measuring between 4 to 6 millimetres in diameter, the aromatic fruits are almost spherical in shape and green in colour, turning red then dark brown upon ripening. When dried, these small fruits look like large, dried black peppers and provide the source of the essential oil, although oil can be extracted from the flowers, branches, bark, roots and leaves too. The oil derived from these parts of the plant do not have the same odour as the fruits.
The plant has a long history of use in Chinese herbal medicine, where it was used to treat asthma, back pain, chills, digestive problems, dysmenorrhoea, headaches and muscular aches and pains. It was also used to treat cancer tumours since it was believed to have carcinostatic properties.
Recent research in China investigated the ability of the essential oil to regulate cardiac arrhythmia when compared to the beta-blocker, Propranolol. The results were encouraging and showed that Litsea cubeba reduced artificially induced arrhythmia from 15 minutes to 6.5 minutes, compared to the drugs performance 15 mins to 0.6 mins.
Litsea cubeba is native to China, Indonesia and other areas within Southeast Asia. In China it grows naturally in the south, and has been cultivated in central and eastern areas to the south of the Yangtze river. Small quantities of this species also grow wild in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, between a height of 700 metres and 2,300 meters above sea level. It is also cultivated in Japan and Taiwan.
The essential oil did not become available in the Western world until the early 1950’s, when it began to compete with Lemongrass as a source material for the extraction of citral. Widely used in soaps, fragrances and flavourings, production of the oil is now almost entirely based in China and very little is currently known about their methods of cultivation or harvesting.
The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of the fresh fruits, and yields a pale yellow liquid with a fresh, intensely lemon fragrance with fruity and spicy undertones. For many people, the aroma brings back happy memories of sherbet-lemon sweets! Its lemon fragrance is similar to, but much sweeter and more refined than lemongrass, which has grassy, fishy and fatty backnotes. Due to this lemon sweetness, essential oil of litsea cubeba is used extensively in the perfumery, cosmetic and flavouring industries.
Litsea cubeba essential oil has refreshing, stimulating and uplifting action, which makes it perfect for relieving fatigue and lethargic psychological states. So when you are suffering from a severe case of the blues, put your vaporiser on and add a few drops of this oil for a quick pick-me-up. And because this oil is a tonic to the nervous system it also makes it perfect for clearing your head when you are feeling anxious, stressed or befuddled.
It has quite a pronounced antiseptic, antifungal and antiviral action too, which can be used to help keep coughs, colds and athletes foot at bay, and for cleansing jobs around the home such as cleaning kitchen worktops. To boost its effectiveness, blend it with tea tree and you’ll get a powerful cleansing action without the disinfectant-like aroma. Vaporised, it also acts as a respiratory tonic.
Use it in skin care for its mild astringent properties which can be helpful with acne and oily skin. Litsea cubeba is also a very effective deodorant that helps to reduce excess perspiration, so added to a lotion it can be used to make an all-over body lotion. This oil may be mildly sensitising to a few individuals, but since it has a powerful aroma you only need tiny amounts which makes it very unlikely to be a problem for many people.
Litsea cubeba blends well with a wide range of oils, adding a lovely lemon-citrus note wherever you use it. Try it with Basil, Bergamot, Clary sage, Geranium, Ginger, Jasmine, Lavender, Linaloe wood, Petitgrain, Rose, Rosemary, Rosewood, Ylang-Ylang and all citrus oils.
Copyright © Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd 2005. Written by Geoff Lyth
Litsea cubeba fruits
Did you know?
In China, litsea cubeba is used to treat cancer tumours since it has long been believed to have carcinostatic properties.
Research in Japan during the 1940’s confirmed that citral (a principal constituent of the essential oil) is anti-tumoral and helps to prevent atherosclerosis.
Arteriosclerosis is a condition in which fatty substances form a deposit of plaque on the inner lining of arterial walls.
Litsea cubeba flowers
The white or pale yellow flowers that grow in clusters on the tree are also lemon-scented, and were at one time used to flavour tea in China.
Did you know?
At one time it was believed that Litsea citrata was a species closely related to L. cubeba, but more recently opinion has changed and they are now considered to be the same species.
The secret to getting the best possible results in aromatherapy is to be certain you are using the very highest quality, pure essential oils that were sourced from the best growing regions.
If you would like to learn more about how Quinessence sources and tests every essential oil for quality and purity, visit these pages on our website;-
Litsea Cubeba Essential Oil Profile
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