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Vetiver: I am the Fragrance of the Soil

By David Crow, L.Ac.

All creatures are born of the earth, and nourished by her rich flavors. I am the fragrance of the soil, Lord Krishna proclaims in the Bhagavat Gita, reminding us of God's life-giving presence within the most humble of the elements.

Every plant absorbs the prana (life force) and ojas (nutritive essence) of the soil into its body, transforming them into foods, medicines, and oils for the benefit of other beings. Yet none capture the subtle complexities of the earth's mysterious fragrances as completely as vetiver grass, known in India as khus.

Khus (Vetiveria zizanioides) is a grass that grows up to six feet high. Vetiver's deeply penetrating roots and thousands of tiny fibrous rootlets reach out to drink in the aromatic molecules from the surrounding soil, which in turn become the multi- layered perfume notes of its dark amber oil. Sweet and heavy, with rich undertones reminiscent of precious woods and marshlands, the oil has widely varied olfactory characteristics depending on the type of earth it grows in. Because of the diversity of compounds present in different soils, vetiver oil is one of the most biochemically complex of all essential oils. Silently enjoying a secret banquet, only the plants know that the soil is a feast of flavors.

Vetiver grows primarily in Indonesia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and India. In India the grass grows wild in many areas, and it is often harvested as a cash crop by nomadic tribal people. The roots are woven into sweet-smelling sleeping mats, and hung as curtains in desert homes; when the fierce hot winds blow, people sprinkle water on these curtains, which then release their cooling vapor into the air.

Khus oil has been used in the perfume trade for centuries. One of the most unusual, rare, and unique of the vetiver oils is ruh khus. The ruh (an Arabic word meaning essence) of khus is distilled from the wild roots that grow in the blazing expanses of Rajasthan's deserts. After the roots are carefully dried, they are slowly reconstituted while immersed in water during hydro-distillation. Another beloved vetiver preparation is khus attar, which is created by repeatedly distilling the fragrant steam of vetiver roots into sandalwood oil. The preparation of these aromatic treasures is a vanishing art and science.

Ayurvedic medicine describes vetiver oil as cooling to pitta (anti-inflammatory), yet pacifying to vata (calming and comforting to the mind). A traditional method of using the root is to apply it as a paste, which reduces fevers and cools the body. Used in massage oils, its relaxing effects spread through the skin and muscles into the deeper levels of the nervous system, helping to counteract nervousness, stress, and exhaustion. The relaxing fragrance of the roots stabilizes concentration and works as a rejuvenating tonic. Vetiver is considered to have mild estrogen-like effects that are balancing for a woman's hormones; it is used in lotions for enhancing fullness of the breasts. Vetiver oil is used in cosmetic products for its skin-regenerating powers, which make it helpful for counteracting aging of the skin and preventing stretch marks after pregnancy. It is an ingredient in liniments used for rheumatic pains and arthritis, and a compassionately soothing remedy for enthusiastic yogis who strain their muscles and joints with excessive asana practice.

Through purification and regeneration, plants cure diseases of the earth's ecological terrain in the same way that they cure diseases of the body's inner terrain. Vetiver grass is one of the world's most important botanical solutions for a wide range of environmental problems. Its deep roots hold the topsoil and prevent its erosion by wind and water. These roots also capture the rain and percolate it into the soil, preventing runoff, recharging depleted groundwater, and bringing springs back to life. Like many other plants, vetiver has amazing metabolic powers that allow it to thrive in polluted environments and digest the endless stream of man-made poisons that we dump everywhere. Because the grass has a special appetite for pesticides and agricultural toxins, it is now used in over a hundred countries for phytoremediation purposes, helping to cleanse the environment in the same way that medicinal plants detoxify the organs of the body.

Vetiver is beloved to perfumers, esteemed by traditional physicians, and appreciated by people who need its healing virtues. It is also a great friend to farmers, who use it as mulch for improving the fertility of the soil; animals, too, are pleased with finding the sweet grass in their meal. It gives livelihood to nomadic tribal people, and it is a treasure to alchemists who distill its rich essence. Vetiver is only a simple grass, yet its multitude of benefits and its earthy aroma reminds us that we need not look far to find the life-giving powers and presence of the Creator.

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