Defining Conifer Oils in Aromatherapy

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By Kathy Sadowski, ACHS MS in Aromatherapy, RA, LMT

This article originally appeared in the NAHA Journal (Winter 2020.4) and it is republished here according to the NAHA Writer Guidelines 2019-20 copyright statement.

Conifer essential oils offer a grounding woody aroma that connects us with Mother Earth. These evergreen trees and shrubs include pine, cedarwood, fir, spruce, and juniper species.

This article reviews the botany of conifers with monographs for five of the most common conifer essential oils: Balsam fir (Abies balsamea), black spruce (Picea nigra), juniper berry (Juniperus communis), pine needle (Pinus sylvestris), and Virginia cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana).

What is a Conifer?

For the most part, conifers are perennial woody trees and shrubs with needle-like leaves that stay green year-round. These include pine (Pinus spp.), cedar (Cedrus spp), cypress (Cupressus spp.), fir (Abies spp.), juniper (Juniperus spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), larch (Larix spp.), hemlock (Tsuga spp.), redwood (Sequoia spp.), and yew (Taxus spp.). These individual species are classified into different plant families, as listed below.

Conifer comes from the Latin words conus which means cone, and ferre which means to bear.  These gymnosperm plants have “naked seeds” most typically seen as woody cones.

Conifers with aromatic qualities belong to either the Pinaceae or the Cupressaceae family. The Pinaceae family includes pine, fir, spruce, true cedar, larch, and hemlock species. Their long needles grow in clusters and they also produce large open cones.1

The Cupressaceae family includes cedar, cypress, juniper, and redwood species. Their needles are small, flat, and look like scaled leaves. Their cones are closed and typically smaller than those of pine.1

The Pine (Pinaceae) Family

·      Firs are classified in the Abies genus and includes the species Balsam fir (Abies balsmaea).

·      True cedars, in the genus Cedrus, include species such as Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica).

·      Spruces are classified in the Picea genus and include the species black spruce (Picea nigra).

·      The Pinus genus includes pine species such as Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris).

·      Tsuga and Pseudotsuga genera include hemlock spruce (Tsuga canadensis) and the Douglas fir species (Pseudotsuga menziesii) respectively.

 

 

The Cypress and Cedar (Cupressaceae) Family

·      Cedars are found in the genera Calocedrus, Chamaecyparis, and Thuja. A species example is white cedar/arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).

·      Cypress trees are found in the genera Cupressus or Taxodium with species such as juniper (Cupressus sempervirens) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).

·      The Juniperus genus includes juniper species such as juniper (Juniperus communis) and juniper cedarwood (Juniperus virginiania). Confusingly, juniper cedarwood is also called red cedarwood, and is not in fact a cedarwood at all.

 

 

Monographs of Conifer Essential Oils

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Botanical Family: Pinaceae.

Plant Description: This North American evergreen tree grows to a height of 45 -65 feet tall. Its one inch long dark green needles are spirally attached and become shorter in length, the higher up the tree you go. Cones are 1.5 – 3 inches long and release their seeds in late summer.

Essential Oil

Key Constituents: β-pinene, 3-carene, bornyl acetate, alpha pinene, limonene, β-phellandrene, and camphene.2

Method of Extraction: The essential oil is steam distilled from the needles and twigs.

Aroma: Woody, clean, and pine-like.

Potential Therapeutic Uses: Antimicrobial, decongestant, expectorant, muscle soreness, and for improved sleep.

Possible Contraindications: Skin sensitizing if oxidized.2

Scientific Evidence for the Use of Balsam Fir Extract

While it has been used as a folk remedy to help improve breathing and reduce muscle aches, there is very limited scientific studies on the therapeutic uses of balsam fir. Following is one in vitro and one in vivo study concerning balsam fir. More research is needed to demonstrate a safe and effective use in humans.

  • In vitro: Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and its constituents of α-pinene, β-caryophyllene, and α-humulene were shown to be effective against the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus in vitro.3
  • In vivo: α-pinene, a major constituent in many Pinaceae species, was shown to improve sleep in mice.4

 

Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Botanical Family: Pinaceae.

Plant Description: Growing in the New England states, Canada, and France, this tree can reach up to 80 feet tall, although it can grow taller in some locales. It has scaly grey-brown bark, needles of less than one inch in length, and small cones.

Essential Oil

Key Constituents: Bornyl acetate, β-pinene, α-pinene, camphene, limonene, camphor, and 3-carene.2

Method of Extraction: Essential oil is steam distilled from the needles and branches.

Aroma: Woody and pine-like.

Potential Therapeutic Uses: Muscle pain relief, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antitussive, and anxiolytic.

Possible Contraindications: Possible skin irritant if oxidized.

Scientific Evidence for the Use of Black Spruce Extract

Limited studies indicate potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial activities.  Further, in a few human studies, the aroma of woody essential oils and the bornyl acetate constituent may have a calming effect. More research is needed.

  • Low exposure to the aroma of bornyl acetate demonstrated a calming effect in people taking part in the study.
  • In a study with 498 people, time spent walking in the forest and breathing in forest air was shown to help to reduce stress.6

Juniper Berry (Juniperus communis)

Botanical Family: Cupressaceae.

Plant Description: Juniper grows in the Northern hemispheres of Europe, Asia, and North America. It is a short tree/tall shrub with triplet whorled waxy needles. Plants are either male or female. Males have small yellow cones and females have berry-like cones that ripen to become blueish in color with a diameter of up to half an inch.

Essential Oil

Key Constituents: α-pinene, sabinene, β-myrcene, terpinen-4-ol, limonene, and β-pinene.2

Method of Extraction: Essential oil is steam distilled from the berries.

Aroma: Woody, green, and earthy.

Potential Therapeutic Uses: Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, rubefacient, antimicrobial, repellent, and for wound health.

Possible Contraindications: Oil can be skin sensitizing if oxidized.2

Scientific Evidence for the Use of Juniper Berry Extract

Scientific studies have shown therapeutic properties such as antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, insecticidal, repelling, anti-arthritic, wound reduction, analgesic, respiratory aid, anxiolytic, anti-insomnia, and anti-dementia potential. More research, and especially human studies, are needed.

  • Extractions from cade juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus)and common juniper ( communis) showed remarkable anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive actions in vivo.7
  • Eucalyptus smithii (Eucalyptus smithii)and common juniper (Juniperus communis) were both found to be active against respiratory bacteria biofilms. They might be useful as an inhalation treatment with upper respiratory tract infections. More research is warranted.

Pine Needle, Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Botanical Family: Pinaceae.

Plant Description: This Eurasian evergreen tree reaches of a height of up to 145 feet tall. Its spiral arranged 1-inch blue-green needles appear to be more of a dark green color during winter months. Mature brown cones can be up to three inches long.

Essential Oil

Key Constituents: α-pinene, β-pinene, 3-carene, β-phellandrene, cadinene, and camphene.2

Method of Extraction: Essential oil is steam distilled from the needles.

Aroma: Clean, woody, and uplifting.

Potential Therapeutic Uses: For respiratory afflictions, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and for wound health.

Possible Contraindications: This essential oil can be skin sensitizing if oxidized.2

Scientific Evidence for the Use of Pine Needle Extract

  • In a two-week treatment period with 676 patients having chronic bronchitis, myrtol (which contains α-pinene, cineole, and d-limonene) showed to be both safe and effective in reducing symptoms. Pine essential oil typically contains high amounts of α-pinene and small amounts of cineole and limonene.9
  • In a small double blind placebo controlled study with sixty-two women over the age of forty-four years, improved skin elasticity and reduced skin roughness was demonstrated using a product that contained a Pinus pinaster bark extraction, plus vitamins C and E, carotenoids, selenium, zinc, amino acids, glycosaminoglycans, and blueberry extract. More research is needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of this product, as well as other products containing pine extractions.10

Virginian Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana)

Botanical Family: Cupressaceae.

Plant Description: This North American evergreen tree/shrub grows to sixty feet tall. It has reddish, peeling bark. Adult leaves are short and scale-like. Cones are small, purple, waxy, and berry-like.

Essential Oil

Key Constituents: α-cedrene, thujopsene, cedrol, and β-cedrene.2

Method of Extraction: Essential oil is steam distilled from the leaves.

Aroma: Earthy, deep, and woody.

Potential Therapeutic Uses: Expectorant, antitussive, insect repellent, antimicrobial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anxiolytic.

Possible Contraindications: May interact with sedative medications.

Scientific Evidence for the Use of Cedarwood (Juniperus) Extract

  • Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) essential oil was found to be an effective repellent against several species of ants and cedrol was determined to be toxic against ticks.11 
  • In a small study with twenty-six participants, cedrol inhalation, the key constituent found in Virginian cedarwood essential oil, had a relaxant effect in humans. It increased parasympathetic activity and reduced sympathetic measures.12 

Conclusion

Extracts from evergreen trees have been used in the past as a folk remedy to help with muscle aches and pains, respiratory complaints, and as an antiseptic for wounds. The aroma is also thought to help boost mood and calm anxiety. Limited scientific studies are available but some studies do help to expand on the common folk uses.

Easy Juniper Pine Muscle Rub Recipe

Carrier Oil:

  • 4-oz. sweet almond (Prunus dulcis) oil

Essential Oils:

  • 30 drops of juniper berry (Juniperus communis)
  • 30 drops of pine needle (Pinus sylvestris)

To Make: Wear gloves. Combine all three ingredients in a 4-oz. bottle with a flip-top lid. Cap and shake well. Label the bottle with the date made and ingredients.

To Use: For healthy adults: Massage about 1-oz. of the blend into the muscle area of the skin where needed.

Cautions: For adult use only. Avoid contact with mucus membranes. Skin patch test before use for those with sensitive skin. Discontinue use if any irritations occur. Avoid use in pregnancy. Avoid use with kidney disease.

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References

  1. Elpel, T. (2013). Botany in a Day.    The Patterns Method of Plant Identification.  6th Edition.  Hops Press.  Montana.
  2. Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety.  Second Edition.  Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
  1. Pichette, A., Larouche, P. L., Lebrun, M., & Legault, J. (2006). Composition and antibacterial activity of Abies balsamea essential oil. Phytotherapy Research, 20(5), 371-373.
  2. Yang, H., et al. (2016). α-Pinene, a major constituent of pine tree oils, enhances non-rapid eye movement sleep in mice through GABAA-benzodiazepine receptors. Molecular pharmacology, mol-116.
  3. Matsubara, E., et al. (2011). (-)-Bornyl acetate induces autonomic relaxation and reduces arousal level after visual display terminal work without any influences of task performance in low-dose condition. Biomedical Research, 32(2), 151-157.
  1. Morita, E., et al. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public health,
  1. Akkol, E. K., Güvenç, A., & Yesilada, E. (2009). A comparative study on the antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory activities of five Juniperus taxa. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 125(2), 330-336.
  2. Camporese, A. (2013). In vitro activity of Eucalyptus smithii and Juniperus communis essential oils against bacterial biofilms and efficacy perspectives of complementary inhalation therapy in chronic and recurrent upper respiratory tract infections. Le infezioni in medicina: rivista periodica di eziologia, epidemiologia, diagnostica, clinica e terapia delle patologie infettive, 21(2), 117-124.
  3. Matthys, H., et al. (2000). Efficacy and tolerability of myrtol standardized in acute bronchitis. Arzneimittelforschung, 50(08), 700-711.
  4. Segger, D., & Schönlau, F. (2004). Supplementation with Evelle® improves skin smoothness and elasticity in a double‐blind, placebo‐controlled study with 62 women. Journal of dermatological treatment, 15(4), 222-226.
  1. Eller, F. J., et al. (2014). Bioactivity of cedarwood oil and cedrol against arthropod pests. Environmental entomology, 43(3), 762-766.
  2. Dayawansa, S., et al. (2003). Autonomic responses during inhalation of natural fragrance of “Cedrol” in humans. Autonomic Neuroscience, 108(1), 79-86.

 

About Kathy Sadoswki:

Kathy Sadowski has a Master of Science degree in Aromatherapy from the American College of Healthcare Sciences. With a passion for reading scientific studies on herbs and essential oils, she has developed the website www.EarthtoKathy.com, which categorizes 4,000 plus scientific research articles on plants by species, therapeutic action, and constituent. The goal is to demonstrate a growing amount of evidence for the potential healthful uses of herbs and essential oils.  Kathy is a professional member of NAHA and AIA, a Registered Aromatherapist (ARC), licensed massage therapist, and enthusiast for environmental protection and a natural lifestyle. Visit Kathy’s website at: www.EarthtoKathy.com

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.

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