As you may already know, the expansive world of aromatic plants offers countless therapeutic benefits. While many may associate aromatic medicine solely with aromatherapy and essential oils, a rich array of aromatic plant medicines extends far beyond these conventional boundaries. Aromatherapy is powerful – but there is much more to explore beyond essential oils. 

Aromatic medicine encompasses a diverse collection of modalities that converge to form a holistic framework for healing. It transcends the limitations of singular approaches, inviting us to explore the multifaceted dimensions of all natural therapies. Aromatic medicine is the core link where herbalism and aromatherapy intersect harmoniously, opening a doorway for deeper healing and expanding our connection with the gifts of nature.

Essential oils are potent forms of plant medicine, but they only offer a fraction of the healing that the whole plant holds. Picture a majestic Pine tree standing tall amidst a lush forest – from its lofty branches emanate fragrant terpenes and essential oils, wafting through the air to offer support to our respiratory and nervous systems; while a cup of Pine tip tea brims with antioxidants and Vitamin C to boost immunity; and Pine resin seeping from its bark can be incorporated into oil infusions and salves to soothe our wounds, or burned as incense to heal a host of respiratory ailments and infections. In embracing the whole plant and exploring its myriad of herbal applications, we discover a deeper level of healing – one that nurtures not only the body but also the soul.

Expanding your aromatic medicine toolkit is helpful for holistically addressing any health challenge that comes your way, whether that’s for yourself, your family and friends, or your clients. Learning different herbal preparations not only enhances your skills but also adds an element of excitement and fun to your practice! Whether you're an aromatherapist seeking to broaden your scope beyond essential oils or an herbalist looking to enrich your practice with the therapeutic potential of aromatic plants, there's something valuable for everyone to gain.

This comprehensive guide serves as your ultimate resource on aromatic medicine. Within this article, you'll gain a clear understanding of aromatic medicine, its myriad benefits, and its pivotal role in the realm of natural therapies. You'll also discover the diverse applications of aromatic medicine, including essential oils and beyond.

What is Aromatic Medicine?

In modern Western herbal practice, aromatherapy and herbalism are seen as two separate approaches to health and well-being. While each practice holds its own strengths, blending the two creates a symbiotic relationship, where each application enhances the other, elevating your connection with plants to a deeper level. Aromatic medicine bridges the gap between herbalism and aromatherapy, uniting the two into a cohesive, holistic practice. By doing so, you unlock greater healing potential – this is the essence of true aromatic medicine.

There are many diverse ways to experience aromatic medicine, by inhalation of aromatic compounds through the lungs via incense, essential oils, and topical applications – which can also be absorbed through the skin – but also by ingesting aromatic plants that are safe to consume. Many aromatic herbs can be used internally, like Chamomile, Rose, Fennel, Ginger, Cardamom, Lemon Balm, Rosemary, and so many more. 

What distinguishes aromatic medicine is its capacity to engage not only the senses but also our entire being. Through the transformative journey of internalizing aromatic plants, we can transcend olfaction to encompass taste and somatic sensation, building a deeper relationship with the botanical kingdom and experiencing their therapeutic effects on a visceral level.

One facet often overlooked in traditional conversations regarding herbalism and aromatherapy is the profound role aromatic plants play as powerful catalysts for emotional transformation, providing solace, comfort, and upliftment to the psyche. Embracing the totality of aromatic medicine encompasses a holistic philosophy that celebrates the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit.

Aromatic Medicine Preparations

Let’s dive into each type of aromatic medicine preparation and explore their benefits, as well as any caveats or limitations they may have. 

Essential Oils

Essential oils are the aromatic essences of plants that are naturally found inside plant materials like foliage, flowers, roots, seeds, resins, woods, and bark. By definition, they are highly concentrated liquid extracts containing volatile chemical compounds from medicinal and aromatic plants. Essential oils are extracted in various ways, most often through steam distillation, but also solvent extraction, CO2 extraction, and cold pressing.

Here’s our favorite source for sustainable, organic essential oils: Aromatics International

Steam Distillation

This is one of the most common and widely used methods for extracting essential oils from plant materials, utilizing steam to vaporize the aromatic compounds from the plant. The resulting condensed steam, containing both water and essential oil, is then collected and separated, yielding two distinct end products: the essential oil and hydrosol.

The advantage of steam distillation is that it allows for the extraction of essential oils without the use of solvents that may degrade the delicate aromatic compounds. The choice of plant material, steam temperature, and distillation time can all influence the quality and composition of the extracted essential oil.

Solvent Extraction (Absolutes)

Absolutes are highly concentrated aromatic substances similar to essential oils, however, they are obtained through a solvent extraction process instead of steam distillation. This method is typically used for delicate or highly fragrant plant materials that cannot be effectively distilled using steam. 

In the solvent extraction process, plant materials are submerged in a solvent like ethanol or hexane to release their aroma. The solvent mixture dissolves the aromatic compounds of the plant and releases them into the liquid, and then the solvent is removed, leaving behind a fragrant, concentrated mixture known as an absolute. 

It's important to note that absolutes may contain trace amounts of the solvent used in the extraction process, often measured in parts per million (ppm) or even parts per billion (ppb). Many aromatherapy professionals do not believe that they contain enough trace chemicals to be harmful, while others debate this. 

CO2 Extraction

CO2 extraction uses carbon dioxide as a solvent to extract aromatic compounds from plants at lower temperatures compared to steam distillation. This preserves delicate compounds and results in essential oils with a closer aroma profile to the original plant material. These oils are often of superior quality, with higher concentrations of certain compounds,  increased therapeutic properties, and enhanced fragrance complexity. However, CO2 extraction is more expensive and requires specialized equipment, making it less common than steam distillation in some applications.

Cold Press Expression

Cold press expression, also known as cold pressing, extracts essential oils from Citrus fruit peels without heat. This method, popular for fruits like Oranges, Lemons, Grapefruits, and Limes, uses mechanical pressure to release essential oils and juice from the plant material, which are then separated. Cold pressing preserves the fresh aroma of Citrus oils by avoiding heat, which can degrade their delicate aromatic compounds.

The Caveats of Using Essential Oils

It’s important to note that not all aromatic compounds or plant constituents are captured in essential oils during the distillation processes. Therefore, even though essential oils are highly concentrated extracts containing many of the volatile compounds present in the plant material, some therapeutic properties may not be present in the final product as they are a fraction of a whole plant. 

This can happen for a variety of reasons, like varying boiling points of aromatic compounds, or their solubility in solvents. Plus, some volatile compounds may degrade or change chemically during distillation, resulting in their loss or alteration. Different extraction methods may also selectively capture specific compounds, leading to variations in the composition of the final essential oil.

As a result, while essential oils provide a concentrated representation of the aromatic profile of a plant, they may not contain all of the compounds present in the original plant material. This is one reason why other herbal preparations, such as tinctures, infusions, or extracts, may be used to capture a broader spectrum of plant constituents for therapeutic purposes.


Hydrosol, also known as floral water or flower water, is the aromatic water that remains after steam distillation. Hydrosols often do not get the spotlight they deserve as they are a byproduct of the more popular essential oil, though they are most wonderful and effective in their applications. Hydrosol contains water-soluble medicinal compounds, as well as trace amounts of essential oils and other plant constituents. They have a milder aroma compared to essential oils and are often used in skincare products, aromatherapy, and natural cosmetics. They are valued for their therapeutic properties, extremely gentle nature, and versatility in various applications. Examples of common hydrosols include Rose, Lavender, Orange Blossom, and Chamomile.

Natural Incense

Incense made of entirely natural plant material is the original form of aromatherapy. Burning aromatic plants is one of the earliest forms of natural remedies, as the combustion of plant material releases its volatile oils and chemical compounds into the atmosphere, allowing for inhalation and integration into our physical, mental, and emotional realms. It’s important to make sure the incense you burn is true aromatic medicine made entirely of plant material and does not contain any synthetic ingredients that could be harmful to your health.

Herbal Steams

Herbal steaming involves placing aromatic plants, fresh or dried, in a large pot of water, and then bringing it to a boil. This acts as a type of distillation, releasing the plant’s volatile compounds and essential oils into the surrounding atmosphere. You can use this method as a way to diffuse the essential oils of whole plant material into your environment or practice an herbal facial steam. For step-by-step instructions on how to herbal steam, including the wide range of benefits, check out our blog post here.

Herbal Bathing

Essentially, herbal bathing involves soaking in warm waters infused with aromatic plants. This could be practiced in a bathtub or prepared as an herbal foot soak. Herbal baths were often called “tea baths” because that is essentially what they are – the warm water extracts the medicinal benefits and volatile oils in the aromatic plants that you inhale through your lungs and absorb through your skin, creating aromatherapeutic soaking waters and vapors. The healing powers of the plants and warm water work in synergy with one another, each amplifying the other's powerful effects for deeper relaxation and healing.

Oil Infusions

An herbal oil infusion, also known as an herbal-infused oil, is a preparation where dried herbs, flowers, or aromatic tree resins are infused into a carrier oil to extract their beneficial properties. This process involves steeping herbs in a carrier oil – such as olive oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, or almond oil – anywhere from several days to several weeks. Sometimes gentle, indirect heat application is used to speed up the extraction process. 

The oil absorbs the medicinal and aromatic compounds present in the herbs, resulting in an infused oil that can be used topically for various purposes, such as massage, skincare, or as a base for salves, balms, and beauty products. For some plants, using oil as a solvent helps extract aromatic and medicinal constituents that aren’t easily extracted through the essential oil steam distillation process or other solvents. Herbal oil infusions are valued for their therapeutic benefits and aromatic qualities that support skin and musculoskeletal health, as well as the respiratory and nervous systems through inhalation of the aromatics in the topical preparation. A great example of this is incorporating Pine or Spruce resin into a chest rub to help alleviate cold and flu symptoms.


An herbal salve is a topical preparation made by combining herbal-infused oil with beeswax or candelilla wax to create a semi-solid consistency. Salves are traditionally used externally and can be applied to the skin for various therapeutic purposes – such as soothing minor cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites, rashes, or dry skin conditions – depending on the medicinal plants used. They are an important first aid preparation to have in your first aid kit.

They often contain a combination of herbs or resins chosen for their specific properties and may also incorporate essential oils or other natural ingredients to enhance their efficacy. Herbal salves are popular in herbal medicine and natural skincare for their ability to provide targeted relief and promote healing.

Herbal Tea

Herbal tea is a beverage made by steeping medicinal plant materials in hot water. Unlike traditional tea, which is brewed from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, herbal tea is caffeine-free and derives its flavor, aroma, and medicinal properties from the botanical ingredients used in the infusion. Herbal teas can be enjoyed hot or cool and offer various health benefits depending on the herbs used, including calming, energizing, digestive, or immune-boosting properties. 

Herbal teas can be helpful for a wide variety of health issues, from chronic to acute, minor to major. Their benefits can manifest immediately for acute use, like Peppermint or Ginger for an upset stomach, or can be consumed daily as a tonic for more chronic health concerns. There are two main ways to brew herbal teas: infusions and decoctions. The main differences between an herbal infusion and a decoction lie in the method of extraction and the types of plant materials used. 

Herbal Infusion

An herbal infusion is made by steeping dried herbs, flowers, or other delicate plant materials in hot water for 10-15 minutes before straining. This gentle process extracts the soluble compounds, flavors, and aromas from the plant material without applying heat directly to the herbs. Common examples of herbs used in infusions include Chamomile, Peppermint, and Lavender. 


A decoction involves boiling tougher plant materials, such as roots, bark, seeds, or woody stems, in a pot of water for 15 to 30 minutes to extract their medicinal properties. Because these parts of the plant are denser and less water soluble than leaves or flowers, they require more intense heat and prolonged boiling to release their beneficial compounds. Common examples of herbs used in decoctions include Ginger, Cinnamon, and Licorice root.

Tea Tip: Be sure to cover your herbal tea throughout the extraction process so that the fragile volatile oils do not evaporate out of the tea due to the high heat of the water!

Alcohol Tinctures

Herbal tinctures are liquid herbal extracts made by steeping medicinal herbs in alcohol to extract their active constituents. The process of making a tincture involves macerating the dried or fresh herbs in alcohol or a mixture of alcohol and water for typically several weeks to several months. During this time, the alcohol extracts the bioactive compounds, such as alkaloids, flavonoids, and essential oils, from the herbs, resulting in a concentrated liquid extract.

Herbal tinctures are usually consumed internally, although they can also be applied topically to the skin. They are valued for their potency, long shelf life, and ease of use, allow for precise dosing of herbs, and can be customized to target specific health concerns.

Apple Cider Vinegar Extracts

An herbal apple cider vinegar extract is a type of herbal preparation very similar to a tincture, in which the extraction process involves using raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar as the solvent instead of alcohol to extract the beneficial compounds from the herbs, resulting in a concentrated extract with the added health benefits of apple cider vinegar. Herbal apple cider vinegar extracts are commonly taken internally like a tincture, incorporated into food recipes, or used topically on the skin. They can be used for various purposes, including digestive support, immune system support, skin health, and more. 

One of the primary advantages of using apple cider vinegar as a solvent is that it provides an alcohol-free option for those who prefer to avoid alcohol due to personal, cultural, or health reasons. In addition, some herbs with water-soluble compounds or delicate volatile oils may extract more effectively in apple cider vinegar, resulting in a more comprehensive and balanced herbal tincture.

However, apple cider vinegar does have a shorter shelf-life compared to alcohol, and it may not extract certain constituents as efficiently as alcohol, so it's essential to consider the specific properties of the herbs being used and the desired outcomes when choosing a solvent for herbal tincture preparation.


An herbal glycerite is a liquid extract of medicinal herbs made with vegetable glycerin as the solvent and preservative, replacing alcohol, apple cider vinegar, or water. Glycerin, a sweet, syrupy liquid derived from vegetable oils, acts as both a solvent and a preservative in the extraction process, similar to tinctures or apple cider vinegar extracts.

Glycerites are alcohol-free and valued for their sweet taste, making them more palatable than alcohol-based tinctures for some individuals, especially children or those with a sensitivity to alcohol. Additionally, glycerites are suitable for preserving herbs with delicate constituents that may degrade in alcohol or water-based solvents. However, it's essential to note that glycerites have a shorter shelf life compared to alcohol-based tinctures and may not extract certain constituents as efficiently.


Cordials are alcoholic herbal tinctures blended with honey, typically using brandy as the solvent, although you can use other alcohol options. These delicious concoctions can be enjoyed neat, over ice, or as a flavorful addition to drinks like teas, hot toddies, sparkling water, and herbal mocktails and cocktails. Cordials have a long history of medicinal and culinary use, often consumed after meals to aid in digestion or crafted to be energetically heart-warming. Their sweet and delightful flavors make them an enjoyable and convenient way of consuming herbal alcoholic extracts.


An electuary, also known as honey paste, is a type of herbal preparation made by mixing powdered herbs with honey to form a paste-like consistency. Electuaries are often used as a palatable way to consume herbs, particularly for those who don’t care for other types of internal herbal preparations. They can be eaten as-is, incorporated into food or drink recipes, or added into hot water as an “instant tea.” Electuaries are valued for their convenience, pleasant taste, and therapeutic benefits.

Expand Your Plant Practice

The vast world of aromatic plants holds incredible potential for holistic healing and well-being. While aromatherapy and essential oils are powerful tools in their own right, aromatic medicine encompasses a much broader spectrum of therapeutic modalities. By embracing the whole plant and exploring diverse herbal applications, we can unlock deeper levels of healing that nurture both the body and the soul. 

Aromatic medicine transcends the boundaries of singular approaches, uniting herbalism and aromatherapy into a cohesive framework for healing. It invites us to explore the multifaceted dimensions of plant medicine and deepens our connection with the natural world. As we continue to explore the profound potential of aromatic medicine, we cultivate a deeper reverence for the natural world and harness the power of aromatic plants to nourish our entire being – mind, body, and soul.

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

© 2024 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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