The Power of Indigenous Herbal Medicine Harnessed as Essential Oils

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars each year examining the effects of indigenous herbal medicine extracts. They want to understand how effective they are to heal ailments and protect us from disease. But biochemists study them because of the success plant healers have been enjoying for generations. They are not trying to establish if plant medicine works. They want to know if it will work better than their existing solutions which often have side effects. Or, sometimes they want to look closer at why it works. Observing the pathways molecules take often also reveals more about how the human body works too.

The internet is full of herbal medicine lists and uses charts. One of the key challenges we encounter, as Westerners, is we do not understand the cultural context the indigenous herbal medicines are being used in. Plants used as medicine does not necessarily mean the same as it does for us. Today for Awareness of Indigenous Peoples Week, I wanted to take your knowledge of herbal medicines a little wider. 

A Respect for Accuracy Around Indigenous Herbal Medicine and The History of Medicinal Plants

Let’s begin with a couple of disclaimers, so we can more accurately set the scene.

Web pages often say essential oils have been used “for thousands of years”, “since time immemorial.” Or that “the ancient Egyptians used them for embalming.”

Not true.

The healers of antiquity used medicinal plants, but they were not essential oils.

Distillation appears to have been invented by Muslim physicians in the 12th century CE.

Before that plant healers of antiquity placed plants, resins, and sometimes animal parts (musk, castoreum, ambergris) into vegetable or animal fats. These are medicinal oils, but not the same essential oils we know today.

Indigenous herbal medicine records are also quite biased towards Europe and the Mediterranean. This is because the Romans were so good at written record keeping. The herbal medicine schools of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda are still extant today of course, maintaining the wisdoms of thousands of years. Again, written record keeping has helped to keep this information alive, but if a culture speaks their wisdom, and passes it from mother to daughter, or from father to son, the outside world is less likely to know about it.

Both the indigenous herbal medicine of both Australia and the Americas are transmitted through oral tradition. These teachings focus on observing what happens in nature and on subtle cues that plants provide. Rituals and ceremonies take place during plant gathering and the medicines are prepared. Songs and chants honor plant spirits and the ancestral knowledge associated with them.

If the knowledge has been written down at some point, it has often been made by European settlers. This means they do not necessarily have the cultural background to fully understand the reasons why certain plants have been used.

Who Used Indigenous Herbal Medicines?

We should acknowledge the First Nations Peoples of Australia do not have a name for Australia. Each tribe (known as mobs) has its own geographical home and set of languages. There are around 250 mobs who speak around 900 different languages.

In this article, I’ll talk about usage of plants like Tea tree or eucalyptus in Australia, but each mob has its own traditional indigenous medicines growing in their area. The same is true of the First Nations Peoples of America. The Lakota people may use different plants to the Sioux. This is not because they disagree on which is better, but because medicine men and women are skilled herbal remedies using plants that grow with them.

Notice too, the plants that grew with them, not by them.

Indigenous medicine men and women are often also shamans. Living in animistic cultures, they see plants as brothers and sisters who live beside them. To them, it is not only because of  the chemical constituents that people heal. To them, the spirit of the plant coming into communion with the human spirit are also active ingredients.

Even today, most Native Americans whether they keep traditional (i.e. old customs and spiritual beliefs) or more modern (United Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, etc.) do share the belief that there is one Creator of the heavens and earth and that all parts of creation (plants, animals, and humans) are created equal. (Advocate Health , 2004)

The fundamental principles underlying indigenous herbal medicine are balance and harmony. Many indigenous cultures believe health to be a result of a harmonious relationship between humans, nature, and the spirit world. Disease is often seen as a spiritual challenge as well as, or instead of, a physical problem. This holistic approach takes into account interconnectedness with all living beings and the environment.

Healing in Australia is More Than Just Medicinal Plants

I recently ran a workshop about lavender and eucalyptus oils with Australian aromatherapist, Deby Atterby. I did some research about how disease was seen by the First Nations people of Australia. This will be different to how it is seen in America, and different again in Asia, but it will give us a small window into an indigenous herbal medicine mind set. 

Beliefs of the mobs of the First Nation of Australia are essentially superstitious. 

At the heart,  is the belief that illness is caused by some  social or spiritual dysfunction. As an animistic culture living in family with the Earth, they have duties and responsibilities to both their human kin and their brother animals and mother lands. Whilst you and I believe we should take care of the earth and we have a moral code to do so, the ramifications of not doing so are indirect. We’ll lose the bees, climate change, acid rain and a loss of our beautiful world for our children. Perhaps these feelings run like ancestral echoes through our DNA, because archaeological evidence of animist cultures can be found  right across the world, and it is likely all of us are descended from one.

The inability to meet one’s responsibilities has a much deeper significance to these peoples.  Failure to provide the sustenance to one’s community brings huge internal shame.


Shame is well documented in healthcare research. However, its is complex concept that is difficult to translate into non-Aboriginal English

The next section is taken, wholesale, from a wonderful work by a man called Patrick Maher of Darwin Hospital in Northern territory. It was written to help healthcare professionals treat First Nations people more respectfully and effectively

The concept of shame ‘describes situations in which a person has been singled out for any purpose, scolding or praise or simply attention, in which the person loses the security and anonymity provided by the group’.

It is experienced in situations in which one does not know the rules for doing the right thing, where whatever one does would be wrong because one should not be in the situation or by a person who acts, or who is forced to act, in a manner that is not sanctioned by the group and that is in conflict with social and spiritual obligations.

Good health is associated with strict adherence to approved patterns of behavior and avoidance of dangerous people, places and objects’  

Preventative measures to ensure well being are based on laws governing behavior and may include: avoiding certain foods which are prohibited during ceremonies or life crises (e.g. pregnancy or menstruation). 

There are requirements to obey ritual prescriptions and taboos

These include being careful not to abuse one’s land or trespass onto the territories of others. To avoid prohibited sacred sites or, if one must go near them, approaching them with ritual protection. 

Observing debts and obligations to others

Keeping anger, violence or jealousy contained. 

Exercising caution in interactions with strangers (This also illuminates another reason why our knowledge of indigenous herbal knowledge is so fractured). 

Avoid sorcery or open conflict with others. 

Learning hazards that exist within the environment

Avoiding any action that might endanger the health of the family. 

Observing obligations of kinship like respecting and honoring the dead. 

Protecting oneself against attack by leading an exemplary moral life. 

Employment of counter spells and charms. (Maher, 2002)

The Mind Body Connection 

Linguistic studies of indigenous languages in Australia reveal that expressions about body parts seem to betray emotions that might be connected to what plays out in the physical body. 

For instance, in some parts of Australia “ I have a sore ear”  means “I am confused”.

In Kaurna, South Australia, and in Pitjantjatjara in the Western Desert, talking about the throat represents anger. If someone says they have “a  dry” or “a burning throat,” it means they are furious about something..

In Anindilyakwa (Groote Eylandt, Top End), speakers have a lot of  expressions about the chest.

To say you have a “bad chest about something” means “feel bad about it”. To say your “chest dies” means you are terrified.

This is extremely interesting when you consider that one of the biggest healthcare dangers for Indigenous Australians is blood pressure. It is far more common for First Nations people than it is for non-indigenous people and is one of the leading causes of heart attacks.


So, this gives us pause doesn’t it? We’ve all been faced with the very real threat we could die from a chest infection recently. So my question to you is, what was it that decided whether we would catch a disease or not? Or indeed if we would die from it?

Does the Australian thought that fear might play a part ring true? Or even whether it might kill us?

What’s interesting is that the SAR-COV-2 receptor is ACE-2. This receptor also controls blood pressure. If there is an over-expression of the receptor, then we feel acute anxiety.

Recent studies have revealed an action between one of the main constituents of eucalyptus, 1,8 cineole and the docking mechanism that SARS COV- 2 uses to take hold in a host and spread. (da Silva, 2020) (Panika, 2020)

It interferes with the transcription and replication of the germs' genes to replicate and grow the embryo within the host. This has led to interest by researchers as a possible antiviral agent for the disease. 

This is also an excellent time to do a reminder on the difference between antiviral and virucidal. The term "Antiviral" pertains to the pathogen spread through the system that allows the infection to take hold. This is different from a virucidal agent that would stop you from catching the disease. We should also stress these are early trials and by no means count as medical proof for creating a eucalyptus drug for COVID-19.

That said, I think this would be evidence enough to change the directive of most aromatherapists - myself included - who have said, "As soon as you start to feel a bit rough, reach for the tea tree…", to "Reach for the tea tree and eucalyptus oils."

Is Eucalyptus essential oil used in indigenous herbal medicine?

Nowadays, eucalyptus essential oil may be used in indigenous herbal medicine, but just as likely is to boil the leaves to make a tea, or to inhale smoke when branches are thrown in the fire.

Either way, it is a wonderful help to chest infections, coughs, the common cold and even pain.

Tea Tree

Again, anti viral, antibiotic, antiseptic, antibacterial properties, in fact anti…whatever….you name it, tea tree us going to deal with it.

Legend has it that Captain Cook discovered natives drinking tea made from the Melaleuca plant, when he landed there, which is what gave it its name. 

We know later they combined the leaves with spruce to make beer too. 

In some areas of Australia, First nations tribes were crushed. Indigenous herbal medicine was  subverted and European medicine took its place.  Worse, European settlers brought entirely new illnesses that their immune systems had no immune-markers to deal with. Entire tribes were wiped out by small pox and other horrid illnesses their bodies had never before encountered.

We do know they used the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia to help guard against coughs and cold and to reduce fever. In early days they would burn the leaves on the fire and the patient would stoop to inhale the fumes. They also made cold decoctions to drink, steeped for many hours to work as anti bactericides.

When Cook departed Australia, he left Tea Trees healing secrets there too. It wasn’t until the 1920s when a botanist Arthur Penfold decided to look more closely, that its antibacterial magic became known. 

A Vital Part of Australian Defenses

In 1929 along with FR Morrison he published Australian Tea Trees of Economic Value, suddenly the world sat up and started to take notice. So much so that in World War II, Australian troops were furnished with a bottle of oil in their first aid kits to protect against Athletes' Foot and to clean wounds. The oil was seen as so vital to the war effort that workers of production companies were made exempt from subscription to the military.

As grenades quietened and life went back to normal, synthetic drugs settled back into popular demand, and for a while tea tree had a little rest. The swinging sixties and its flower people soon woke it again. By the dawn of the twentieth century tea tree was on every supermarket shelf.

It has spent many an hour in a petri dish to establish just how useful it is.   For a while it looked set to be the answer to the global epidemic of MRSA sweeping through hospital wards. Sadly, further tests said, no, it would not work in a clinical setting.

Twenty years ago we slavered it neat onto every wound going, now there are guidelines about sensitization. Ironically, it may be this very hazard that makes tea tree oil the wonder drug we have long suspected it may be.


Manuka is indigenous to New Zealand where the Maori population used Manuka wood to fashion tools. Manuka bark was made into water containers and to provide waterproof protection for roofs.Rongoā Māori is the traditional Māori medicine system. The ancient wisdom that includes plant knowledge, massage, and incantations, has been passed down through many generations.

In traditional Māori medicine, ailments are treated in a holistic manner with:

    • Medicinal plants
    • Spiritual healing
      • The power of karakia which are the chants of Māori ritual. They often call on the atua, the gods and spirits of the Māori. Atua means "power" or "strength". Karakia are a means of becoming one, with the ancestors and atua. In this way, they can participate with the events of the past within the 'eternal present' of ritual.
      • The mana of the tohunga (expert)- Mana describes an extraordinary power, essence or presence. It relates to the authority, power and prestige bestowed by the atua.
      • Manuka is extensively used as Rongo. 

An infusion of the bark is used externally and internally as a sedative. It was also used for scalds and burns. Ash made from the bark was rubbed onto the skin to treat skin diseases. Vapor from leaves boiled in water is used to relieve colds, in the same way as volatile oils are emitted from essential oils.  Mouthwash is made from the left over water from boiling the bark.

Indigenous Herbal Medicine of The Americas 

There are more than 500 nations of Native Americans, each having their own separate customs, language, culture, set of beliefs and religious practices.

There are many names for The Creator Spirit, but the Great Spirit cannot be expressed in human form. Instead it is a universal force running through all of life.

It  is alive and in everything in the universe. Anything  that can be seen or touched is “alive” with the spirit, or breath.

Grandmother Earth’s spirit nourishes and sustains life, and she accepts the bodies of the dead when they return. She is to be respected and thanked for the sustenance she gives to creation. Any form of life depends on other life forms to survive.

The expression Mitakuye’ Oyasins means “All of creation are my relatives, we are all one.”

Lakota Holy Man Black Elk states, “Peace…comes within the souls of men and women when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the Universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the Universe dwells Wakan Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere. It is within each of us.”

Each person is called to “walk in the sacred way or to walk in beauty”, to live in harmony and balance with the universe and spirit world. Each person finds their own way, searching for the sacred through prayer, vision quests,  dreams and traditional teachings.

Health, for the Native American individual, and/or for their family or tribe, depends on proper actions and healthy interactions with the spirit world.

Well-being manifests through walking in harmony with the universe. Disease is a sign of having fallen out of step with these.

Many Native Americans believe that disease comes from forces that are supernatural.

The Cherokee believe animal spirits bring illness if hunters do not pay proper respect. Iroquois believe unfulfilled desires and dreams cause illness; Inuit believe that sins of the ancestors can be passed down lineages to cause illness.

Other tribes believe illness occurs through contact with evil spirits.believe illness is caused through an individual’s bad actions or sometimes through contact with malevolent spirits. 

Rituals restore the patient to balance. 

Native Americans consider the call to be a healer a sacred one and if one is called, it is only just and correct  to use that gift to help others.


Juniper's berries aid digestion and its needle helps support healthy respiration. Ceremonially fragrant juniper branches are burned in purification rituals to foster connection with spirit and to clear negative energies.


Cedarwood holds a revered place in indigenous herbal medicine, embodying both physical and ritual significance. Cedarwood essential oil is wonderful for skin ailments, respiratory issues, and to relieve muscle discomfort.

Cedarwood's aromatic essence is integral to smudging ceremonies, cleansing spaces, and to open connection to spirit.


Pine holds dual roles in ceremonial and indigenous herbal medicine practices. Its needles, resin, and bark are used for respiratory issues and to promote vitality.

Spiritually Pine symbolizes cleansing, endurance, and spiritual connection. The needles are used in smudging rituals, its aromatic smoke purifies spaces and invokes blessings. The essential oil can be used in the same way.

Peru Balsam

Peru balsam was sacred to the Incas, being used in their funerary practices and to embalm their mummies. When settlers documented the indigenous herbal medicine of El Salvador, they described how they had found Peru Balsam trees growing in the gardens of the royal palaces so they could be used to be applied to the skin to heal wounds of the royal household.

The records also show that the medicine men of the area had described using Peru balsam for kidney complaints and for “gleets”, the discharge that accompanies gonorrhea.

Copaiba Balsam

Copaiba oil is used in the indigenous herbal medicine of the Amazon, especially for reducing inflammation, to heal wounds,  ulcers,  and scarring, and for the parasitic infection, leishmaniasis.

The use of Copaiba oil in the Amazon traditional medicine has been reported since the 16th century. Various Copaifera species are used by the population of Barão de Igarape Miri, state of Para, Brazil, to treat poorly healing wounds (Pinto, 2008) America's settlers documented that the American Indians applied this oil newborn babies’ belly buttons and to warriors’ wounds after they had been injured in battle. This indigenous herbal medicine originated when they noticed that wounded animals rubbed themselves on copaiba tree trunks when they had been hurt.

Palo Santo

Palo Santo essential oil is extracted from a tree native to South America whose name translates to "holy wood." This oil has a rich, woody aroma and is used to cleanse spaces, uplift spirits, and to promote relaxation.

The Rest of The World?

Well this Earth is far too big a place to mention all medicines used through all of time, but we might think of how valerian, vetiver, patchouli, cinnamon and ginger have illustrious histories of herbal medicine in the East.

Here in England, lavender, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and yarrow have also grown wild to tend to the needs of healers who use indigenous herbal medicine.

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