The Blue Oils: Chamomile, Artemisia arborescens, Tanacetum annuum and Ormenis

By Jeanne Rose

The Blue Oils: Chamomile, Artemisia arborescens, Tanacetum annuum and Ormenis

Since 1970, when I first started teaching aromatherapy courses, I was much intrigued by the blue color and navy-blue color of some essential oils. Since that time I have studied and collected them and only recently (1990) became aware of an oil called Ormenis sold as Chamomile or Blue Chamomile. I had purchased it from various companies and sometimes it was blue and sometimes yellow. This was very interesting and I knew that there was definitely confusion amongst sellers and buyers of essential oils. I now wonder if even some of the producers know what they are picking and distilling. Recently Pamela Parsons wrote a detailed article describing some of the oils of the Compositae family labeled or sold as Chamomile. She discussed the Chamomile oils, other blue oils, their healing properties as well as specific applications, safety and perfumery usage. I found the article to be very exhaustive and complete. Parsons article refers to many popular texts but lacks true taxonomic reference. She also says "that depending on which book or article you read Blue Chamomile can mean two or more different plants entirely. Therefore, when I see something labeled or described simply Blue Chamomile, I am not amused"( 5) I agree with Parsons completely. After reading it, it became apparent that there was much confusion regarding the genus Ormenis (Parsons called it Ormensis) and I undertook to investigate this problem.

You can see from the following information that there are no hard and fast rules to giving common names to plants. Classifying and naming plant essentials oils can also be a mess. Although many of the blue oils have similar uses, there are cases where it is important to know EXACTLY which oil you have or need. As with anything, the best way to clarify confusion is to do some research and experimentation. Especially, do talk to the various essential oil distributors and retailers and get complete information about the oils you are purchasing, the Latin binomial, part of the plant used, country of origin and color to expect. Buy a small quantity of the same oil from 2 different sources and compare color and scent. Remember that each year of growth, each harvest, each separate distillation will result in an oil with slightly different amounts of chemical components. The environment and individual ecology of a plant is important in the resultant essential oil. A year or two of great drought may result in a lower yield of essential oil but with improved or "stronger" components.

The fragrance of any particular essential oil varies from year to year and is totally dependent on the vagaries of "Mother Nature".

ORMENIS/CHAMÆMELUM

Naming

-- My first stop in untangling the Ormenis mystery was to go to the California Academy of Science, visit the Botany department and examine their herbarium specimens of Chamomile and Ormenis. This Herbarium is one of the most prestigious in the world and happens to be just five short blocks from my home. We looked up the reference for Ormenis in various books( 5, 8, 9, 11), in particular Cambridge University's book, The Plant Book, by D.J. Mabberly. Imagine my surprise at the following entry: Ormenis (Cass.) Cass. = Chamæmelum( 9). Next we checked Flora Europæa and found that Ormenis mixta was originally known as Anthemis mixta and is correctly called Chamæmelum mixtum( 8). It is described as "C. mixtum (L.) All., loc. cit. (1785), a somewhat pubescent annual 10-60 cm, often much-branched, with divaricate branches...in cultivated fields, roadsides and maritime sands. Mediterranean region and S.W. Europe, extending northwards to W.C. France."( 8) The essential oil was not described. The herbarium sample shows a plant to be a close look-alike to Matricaria recutita and almost identical to Chamæmelum nobile. This seemed to answer for me the question regarding the various confusing nomenclatures of Ormenis that I have seen in popular aromatherapy books. It was apparent that aromatherapy books are using out-of-date nomenclature for plants that their authors never looked at.

To go further with this, please note that O. multicolis is a misspelling of O. multicaulis which is a synonym of O. mixta, which is a synonym of O. mixtum. And O. mixtum is correctly identified as Chamæmelum mixtum.

Color

-- In taxonomy, plants are described but fragrance and color of the essential oil is rarely noted. I referred to Arctander's book for fragrance and color of this particular plant. "This plant grows wild and is available in substantial quantities. Chamomile Oil, Moroccan is related to "German Chamomile" botanically but not at all resembling this plant is Ormenis Multicaulis, a good-looking plant, 90-125 cm high with very hairy leaves and tubular yellow flowers,...The plant is probably a native of northwest Africa, and evolved from a very common Ormenis species which grows all over the Mediterranean countries....The oil of Ormenis Multicaulis [Chamæmelum mixtum] is a pale yellow to brownish yellow, mobile liquid."( 1) Arctander goes on to say that the lighter colored oils are obtained at the beginning of flowering and that towards the end of flowering the oil becomes darker and with a lower yield. "The odor of the pale oils, is fresh-herbaceous, slightly camphoraceous, but soon changes into a sweet, cistus-like and rich-balsamic undertone which is very tenacious and pleasant...."( 1) [Note: This oil is not blue.] It blends well with Artemisia, Cypress, Labdanum, Lavandin, Lavender, Frankincense and others. "Chemically and olfactorily, the oil is distinctly different from the "German" or the "Roman" chamomile oils, and cannot be considered as a replacement for them."( 1) [author's emphasis]

Uses

-- What about the uses of Chamæmelum mixtum? Franchomme calls it "O. mixta and O. multicola Braun-Blanquet and Maire of mixed Ormenis flowers and other species of Ormenis called Moroccan Camomile"( 2) and lists the active principles and properties and indications, as follows. "Active principles include a-pinene, terpene alcohols, 33% santolina alcohol, yomogi alcohol, camphor ketone and 1,8-cineol oxide terpene."( 2) It presents the highest in alcohol content of these three oils. "The properties are anti-infectious, bactericide against coli-bacteria, parasiticide against worms and amoeba, a general tonic, neurotonic and aphrodisiac."( 2) It is indicated for problems of the liver and stomach, parasitosis, amoebic cysts, eczema, dermatitis, prostatitis, other sexual problems and disease, nervous depression and atherosclerosis. "No known contra-indications in physiological doses."( 2)

Once again, please note that this is not a blue oil. And Guenther does not list an Ormenis species at all.( 3)

Product Comparison

-- At the time of writing this article I had two bottles of essential oil, named as follows: Chamomile (Ormenis multicaulis) by Aura Cacia 15 ml for $21.95 and Chamomile Moroccan (Ormenis mixta) by Shirley Price Aromatherapy 7 ml for $21.70. In spite of the difference in name and the extreme price difference, these oils were identical as to the spicy, sweet fruity scent and identical in their color, a golden-yellow mobile liquid.

CHAMÆMELUM NOBILE Tea camomile or sweet camomile( 9)) Roman or English camomile.

Naming

-- "C. nobile (L.) All., F. Pedem. 1:185 (1785) (aka Anthemis nobilis L.). Perennial; more or less pubescent, decumbent, aromatic perennial ( 5-)10-30 c. Leaves 2- to 3-pinnatisect. Roadsides and damp grassland. W. Europe northwards to N. Ireland; formerly frequently cultivated for lawns, for ornament and for infusions and locally naturalized. Different from C. mixtum which has most of the cauline leaves 1-pinnatisect while C. nobile has most of the cauline leaves 2- to 3-pinnatisect."( 8) Also called Roman Chamomile oil. [see also Matricaria recutita.]

Color

-- "Roman Chamomile oil is distilled from the ligulate florets. It is cultivated in England, Belgium, France, and Hungary for the flower head. Steam distillation takes place mainly in England. The oil is a pale blue, mobile liquid (when fresh) of sweet herbaceous, somewhat fruity-warm and tealeaf-like odor. This odor is extremely diffusive but has little tenacity. The flavor is somewhat bitter, chemical or medicinal, but also fruit-herbaceous and warm."( 1) Steam distillation of the whole plant yields from 0.2 to 0.35% of oil. Upon exposure to air and light and on prolonged standing the light blue color of the oil changes first to green and later to yellow-brown. They present the highest ester value of all essential oils, from 272 to 293.5. The color is due to chamazulene and is present only in traces in Roman or English camomile( 3).

Uses

-- "The properties are both positive and negative, antispasmodic, calming on the central nervous system, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitical against Giardia and lock jaw. Indicated for neuritis, neuralgia, nervous tics, asthma that originates from nervous conditions, intestinal parasitoses, surgical intervention. Contra-indications: None known in physiological doses."( 2) This oil is particularly good inhaled for insomnia or headache and applied in cases of acne and skin irritation.

Product Comparison

-- I compared Leydet with Prima Fleur Botanicals. Leydet sells their Roman Chamomile for 5 ml for $53. It was a pale, pale yellow when newly purchased that changed to a deep yellow, almost brown after a few months. It had no blue tones. The scent of the oil was herbaceous and tea-like and the taste was warm, and aromatic with a menthol overtone. Prima Fleur's Roman Chamomile is called Chamaemelum nobile, is organically grown from Italy. The cost is $32 per ounce. It is absolutely clear, like water, with a sweet, herbaceous odor and an ether overtone when fresh, drying to a fruity-warm finish. There is no blue color. The taste was somewhat bitter bur flavorful. These two oils from Leydet and Prima Fleur, when freshly inhaled had a pleasant somewhat nail polish remover odor with hints of cumin scent. They are very different in price, color and taste and I wonder if it is a varietal difference or simply the very different environments in which they were grown.

Other prices are S= $9/5ml and O= $118/15ml

MATRICARIA RECUTITA, Wild( 9), German, Hungarian or small Chamomile

Naming

-- Called Matricaria chamomilla and correctly known as Matricaria recutita L. Annual plant. "The chamomile of commerce and the source of oil of Roman chamomile and chamomile tea is largely, if not exclusively, C. nobile which is cultivated as either a Roman double-flowered form or more frequently a German single-flowered form....In most herb trade and medical literature, chamomile is referred to as M. chamomilla which is incorrect. This binomial is a synonym of M. recutita L., the chamomile found throughout Europe, Asia, and many other parts of the world, often as a weed. It may be used to make a tea, but infrequently, and mostly is used as a cultivated species of commerce. Because of nomenclatural confusion therefore, the vast majority of nonbotanical references to chamomile in the literature, in pollen extracts made for immunotherapy, and in commercial sales is not to M. recutita. (M. chamomilla), but rather to Chamæmelum nobile native only to southern and western Europe.( 10) "M. recutita L. [M. Chamomilla of auth., not L.] Sweet False Chamomile. Sweet-scented, much-branched, glabrous annual, to 2 1/2 feet; leaves to 2 3/8 inch long, 2-pinnatifid into linear segments; heads 1 inch across, receptacle conicle; disc flowers yellow, 5-lobed, ray flowers 10-20, white, reflexed, achenes 5-ribbed. Europe to west Asia; naturalized in North America."( 11)

Color

-- "High-grade [that is, whole or complete] chamomile flowers are much too costly to use for essential oil production. For this purpose only lower grade [those that are broken], siftings and dust are employed in Hungary and Germany. Oil of Chamomile consists chiefly of high boiling constituents, steam of high pressure is applied. Distillation of one charge requires from 7-13 hours...Certain constituents of the oil are soluble in large quantities of warm water and the distillation waters must be redistilled (cohobated)....The oil is deep blue liquid of strong and characteristic odor, and bitter aromatic flavor and more or less viscous. Under the influence of light and air the deep blue color of oil gradually charges to green, and finally to brown. The ester number is 3-39 and after acetylation 117 to 155 (not as high as Roman Chamomile oil)...The most important constituent of the essential oil is an azulene named chamazulene. The content of chamazulene in the various chamomile oils depends upon the origin and age of the flower material and decreases during storage of the flowers."( 3) Chamazulene is formed during the distillation process and is highest in morning distilled plants. "The oil is used as a flavoring agent in fine liquers, in perfume to which it imparts a pleasing and warm tonalities that are difficult to trace."( 3)

Uses

-- "Active principles are chamazulene, bisabolene, farnesene, sesquiterpenols, and others. The properties are tonic digestive, stomachic, anti-inflammatory, cicatrise, antiallergic, decongestive, antispasmodic and with hormone-like properties. It is indicated for dermatosis, infected sores, ulcers, eczema, dyspepsia, gastro-duodenal ulcers, cystitis, and menstrual difficulties like amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea."( 3)

Generally speaking, we use M. recutita oil for severe skin problems, externally, as an anti-inflammatory, in a diffusor as an anti-allergenic and the C. nobile for inhalation, asthma and oral uses.( 6, 7)

Product Comparison

-- I compared oils from three companies. Prima Fleur's German Chamomile oil was a very beautiful deep-blue color with deep herbaceous scent that had overtones of fruit and toasted nuts, very characteristic of what I have always associated with this plant and its oil. Parsons describes this scent as blueberry and pineapple.( 5) The taste was like a very strong Chamomile tea (the annual grown in my garden). One could certainly imagine using this flavor in a fine liqueur. Prima Fleur is a wholesaler and their prices reflect this. This oil from Prima Fleur cost $61 per ounce. In contrast the German Chamomile from P and L had a nasty odor and when removed from the bottle was greenish-black, fading to brown color. These two oils looked old, smelled putrid, as if they had been distilled from rotting plants. The cost of P was $23 for 3 ml. The cost of L was $24 for 5 ml. If you look at the comparison of these prices, you will see quite a difference!

Other prices seen were S=$43/5ml and O=$25/5ml and $75/oz.

Chamomile CO( 2) is one other product that we should mention. It is a thick, CO( 2) extracted, solid, unctuous matter from Chamomile flowers (M. recutita) that contains all the natural parts of the flower plus the essential oil. It smells just like the fresh flowers and could play an important part in your cosmetics and body-care products, whether they are home-made or for the professional market. I have made a hand lotion with this, using enough of the Chamomile CO( 2) to scent the lotion with a delicious apple scent and then added the essential oil to color it pale blue. Altogether a very aesthetically pleasing and beautiful product. The Chamomile CO( 2) is available from Prima Fleur Botanicals. Cost: $42 per ounce.

ORMENIS and CHAMOMILE.

If you read Shirley Price's Aromatherapy Workbook regarding these three species you find that she recommends the Nobile Chamomile to all the others and finds it has more uses.

ARTEMISIA ARBORESCENS, sometimes called greater Mugwort.

Naming

-- "A. arborescens L., Sp. Pl. ed. 2, 1188 (1763). White-tomentose, aromatic perennial; stems 50-100 cm, woody below. Leaves 1- to 2-pinnatisect or the upper sometimes simple, petiolate; capitula 6-7 mm across, in a large, paniculate inflorescence. Receptacle hairy. Corolla glabrous. Mediterranean region, S. Portugal.( 8) This is a plant that I grow and have used. It is similar to A. absinthium and smells somewhat like it due to the presence of thujone. If the plant and essential oil do not have this very characteristic odor of thujone it is NOT A. arborescens.

Color

-- The flowers are distilled and the color is a deep, navy-blue, even darker than M. recutita. The oil is almost viscous. The scent has a very characteristic scent of thujone.

Uses

-- "The active principles are the monoterpenes of limonene and sabinene, sesquiterpenes that include a very elevated level of chamazulene, dihydrochamazulene, monoterpenes that include isothujone of 30-45% [which gives it its characteristic odor], up to 18% camphor and other components. The properties are anticatarrh, mucolytic, anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, antihistaminic, choleretique (increases bile production). It is indicated for bronchial catarrh and for asthma, problems of the skin and insufficient bile production."( 2)

Product Comparison

-- I had five bottles to look at. The Prima Fleur sample was a luscious deep, deep blue with the unmistakable odor of thujone. It tasted warm, very bitter, just as thujone would. Cost: $45 per ounce. One sample was distilled in Oregon, had the characteristic thujone scent, contained 20% azulene and had the appropriate deep blue color of A. arborescens. This was an experiment sample and not for sale. One L sample was greenish-black and smelled exactly like Tanacetum annuum. Cost: $34 per 2 ml. The O sample was a luscious deep blue but without a thujone odor. The odor was dark, somewhat burnt-toast smelling and herbaceous, exactly the scent that I associate with Tanacetum annuum (aka wild Moroccan blue Chamomile). The taste was tasty warm and flavorful. Cost: $30 per 5 ml or $90 per ounce! The last sample was also greenish-black and smelled like Tanacetum annuum. It was labeled as having come from Morocco which seems to be the country of confusion when naming or misnaming the blue oils. Cost: $18 per 3 ml. The last three samples were obviously mislabeled.

Comment

-- Here is an extreme example of an oil with two such different scents that they cannot be of the same species. It would be interesting to see just what species the producer had picked, distilled and sold to these companies.

TANACETUM ANNUUM, sometimes called Moroccan blue Chamomile

Naming

-- Tanacetum annuum. L., "Sp. Pl 844 (1753). Ligules yellow or absent (T. parthenium has white ligules.) Greenish-pubescent annual. Stems 20-80 cm, branched. Leaves pinnatisect, the cauline 1-3 cm; segments linear, acute or acuminate, sparsely pubescent to glabrous. All florets hermaphrodite, tubular, 5-toothed. Achenes 5-ribbed. Cultivated ground and waste places. S.W. Europe."( 8)

Color

-- A very lovely, deep blue from the flowers. Oil not as viscous or thick as other blue oils.

Uses

-- "Active principles include monoterpenes with limonene as major component, sesquiterpenes of chamazulene up to 30% and dihydrochamazulene. The properties are anti-inflammatory, antiphlogistic, antihistamine, antiprurigenic, analgesic, nervous sedative, hypotensive, phlebotonique (blood), possibly thymus stimulating and hormone-like. It is indicated for asthmatic crises (as it supplies theophylline which is a bronchodilator), emphysema, irritating skin problems, allergic skin in adults and infants, abnormal reddening of the skin and couperose skin, tubercular lesions, arthritis, neuritis, sciatica, muscular rheumatism, diabetes, hypertension, varicose veins, and leukemia (certain forms). Contra-indications: among certain women with endocrine imbalances."( 2)

Product Comparison

-- I compared Prima Fleur and Leydet. Prima Fleur was a very lovely deep blue with characteristic toasty odor and warm flavor with a bit of bitterness on the back of the tongue. Cost: $28 per ounce. Leydet's sample was labeled simply Moroccan, Chamomile but in conversations with the owner, it was additionally called Moroccan Blue Chamomile and Tanacetum annuum. The color was deep blue, almost turquoise, with a fresh almost fruity scent that reminded me of Ormenis (Chamaemelum mixtum) Cost:?

Other prices seen were $80/oz, S=$5/ml, and O=$30/5ml and $90/oz. There was a huge disparity in price and great confusion among the various companies as to what they were selling and the appropriate name.

TANACETUM VULGARE, sometimes called Common Tansy

Naming

-- Tanacetum vulgare L. [Chrysanthemum vulgare (L.) Bernh.]. Common Tansy, Gold-Buttons. Coarse, aromatic, subglabrous, rhizomatous perennial, to 3 feet; leaves pinnate, to 4 3/4 inches long, lfts. toothed or incised, punctate; heads many, flowers all tubular, golden-yellow. Europe, Asia; Widely naturalized in North America.( 11)

Color

-- Oil of Tansy has a strong strong, aromatic odor and very bitter taste and is "a liquid of peculiar, aromatic odor and yellowish color which turns brown under the influence of air and light."( 3) It is also occasionally very pale, watery blue.

Uses

-- There is no aromatherapy use for this oil which contains a toxic amount of "ketone content, calculated as thujone of 50-67.3%"( 3) Used medicinally to rid the body of worms and other parasites, under medical supervision.

Product comparison

-- Since the Tansy oil is quite toxic, no product comparisons were made as there is no legitimate aromatherapy firm handling this product. Although I did see a price as $20/15ml.

OTHER BLUE OILS

During this investigation of "The Blue Oils" and because I have been involved in organizing the growing of essential oil plants in the Pacific Northwest, specifically California, for the express purpose of encouraging distillation here of aromatic plants as an industry; I was able to look at and smell many oils that had been recently distilled in Oregon. I will not go into detail about their naming and uses and will only briefly name a few of these oils.

ARTEMISIA ARBORESCENS was a luscious deep-blue, indigo-colored oil with the characteristic scent of thujone. This sample had been analyzed as having a 20% azulene content.

ARTEMISIA DOUGLASIANA (A heterophylla) is a clear royal-blue, with a sweet sage-like odor. With this color of azulene and knowing the Native American uses of the plant I would think that this California and Pacific Northwest species will ultimately find wonderful uses in the body-care industry especially for serious skin conditions and external applications for rheumatism or headache.

TANACETUM VULGARE cv Goldsticks. This essential oil is a very pale sky blue with a hint of thujone odor. I do not feel that it has any external applications in the body-care industry or use in aromatherapy.

ARTEMISIA LUDOVICIANA var. latiloba (White Mugwort) is a watery blue in color, very perky-scented with sage and eucalyptus overtones. According to the Native Americans the herb was used as a tea to expel a dead fetus among many uses and externally to remove tumors.

Two other oils with pale blue color were Daucus carota which is commonly called Queen Ann's Lace (wild Carrot) and Chinese Celery. The oil of Aralia californica of leaves and flowers and Conioselinum pacificum with their pale colors, almost green in hue do not fall within this short article.

CONCLUSION

It is obvious that people who sell aromatherapy essential oils are not careful about the naming of their product or the correct spelling of the binomial. Where are the spell checkers and editors? The confusion seems to lie in lack of integrity with the persons who pick, distill and package the original product and sell mislabeled product to distributors who pass on their errors to retailers. By examining all of these oils one can see which were the old and improperly stored oils and even last years distillation by the color: brownish-yellow for Ormenis and greenish-black for azulene-containing oils. Sometimes it is a disadvantage for the essential oils to be sold in brown bottles because the consumer cannot judge the age and quality of the oil by the color. My suggestion is that knowledgeable consumers carry around a bit of blotter paper and take a small sample of these expensive oils, examining them carefully for color and scent before purchase. Also the consumer must take some responsibility and learn the Latin binomial and make sure essential oils are labeled completely before they buy them.

It appears that some of these samples of essential oils were sold as either Artemisia arborescens or Blue Moroccan when in fact they were actually Tanacetum annuum which has much different uses and in general is not a viable substitution. Consumers must educate themselves and learn to understand and use the correct Latin binomial and demand that this name is on the oils they purchase.

When it comes to the expensive essential oils, it pays to call around for pricing. Only order oils from those companies that will tell you common name, Latin name, condition of oil you want and the color, particularly with the blue-colored oils. These show age and oxidation with a change in color from blue to greenish black or from pale yellow to yellow-brown.

Analyze the chart and read the text again for the key differences in these oils.
Notes to Text & Bibliography

(1.) Arctander, Steffen. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. (Elizabeth, NJ: Steffen Arctander, 1960.)

(2.) Franchomme, P. and Penoel, Docteur D. L'Aromatherapie Exactement. (Limoges, France: Roger Jollois Editeur, 1990.)

(3.) Guenther, Ernest, Ph.D. The Essential Oils. (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company 1976.) (original edition 1952.) (in VI volumes)

(4.) Parry, Ernest J. Parry's Cyclopedia of Perfumery. Philadelphia, PA: P. Blakisont's Son & Co., 1925.) (in II volumes)

(5.) Parsons, Pamela. "Chamomile". The Aromatic "Thymes". (Spring 1994) 2:2.

(6.) Rose, Jeanne. The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 3rd edition, 1994.)

(7.) Ibid. Guide to [225] Essential Oils. (San Francisco, CA: Jeanne Rose Aromatherapy, 3rd edition, 1994.)

(8.) Tutin, Heywood, Burges, Moore, Valentine, Walters and Webb, Editors. Flora Europaea, Vol. 4. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976.)

(9.) Mabberley, D.J. The Plant Book. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, corrected reprint, 1989.)

(10.) Lewis, Walter H. "Notes on Economic Plants." Economic Botany. 46(4) pp. 426-430. (1992.)

(11.) Bailey, L.H., staff of. Hortus Third. (Cornell, New York: Hortosium, Cornell University, 1977.)

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The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

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By Jeanne Rose

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