Understanding Botany for Aromatherapy: What is a Hybrid Plant?
The term hybrid may conjure up an image of something that is not “real” — and in some ways, this may be true. However, with regard to plants, hybrid plants, depending upon your point of view, are just as “real” as original plants and, furthermore, when used as an essential oil, hybrid plants have the potential for therapeutic properties, too; hybrid essential oils are not the same as synthetic, or adulterated, essential oils which are chemically made, or altered, in a laboratory or process plant.
Definition of a Hybrid Plant
A hybrid plant is an interspecies plant; that is, a plant that has been crossed between two different species but within the same genus (Falsetto, 2014). There are many different hybrid plants. And you will find many hybrid plants within the world of gardening; breeders attempt to create an “ideal” plant for specific climates and to produce the “best” features of the plant. The hybrid plant will share common characteristics with both of its parent plants. Hybrids are sometimes created naturally in the wild through self-pollination, but many are usually specifically bred with human intervention.
Although essential oils were originally extracted from wild plants, today, through commercialization of the industry, many common (or endangered) plant species used for essential oil extraction, are bred specifically for that use, in order to protect the wild resources. Along the way, plants have also been specifically bred to create other species – of which, several are used in aromatherapy practice.
Describing a Hybrid Plant in Botanical Terms
Today, all plants are cataloged using a scientific plant classification system. The system, originally developed by Carolus Linneaus (1707 – 1778), records all names in Latin, in a two-part binomial name. For example, true lavender is recorded as Lavandula angustifolia (with various synonyms).
A hybrid plant will have the letter x inserted between the two parts of its binomial name; the insertion of the letter x indicates that the plant is a hybrid, or interspecies, plant.
Common Hybrid Plants in Aromatherapy
You might be surprised to learn that some of the common essential oils used in aromatherapy are actually extracted from hybrid plants. Examples of hybrid plants that produce essential oils are:
lavender (Lavandula x intermedia) – a cross between true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). Lavandin shares common characteristics of both of its parent plants; the essential oil is similar in use to true lavender, but has a different chemical make-up and a sharper aroma, with therapeutic properties beneficial for respiratory and muscular problems (Lawless, 1995).
Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) – a cross between the shaddock or pomelo (Citrus maxima) and sweet orange (Citrus sinensis). Its hybridization is not clearly documented but records indicate it was probably bred sometime in the eighteenth century.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) – the parents of the hybrid plant peppermint are cited by many resources as spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint(Mentha aquatica) but Heilmeyer writes that horse mint (Mentha longifolia) is a parent of peppermint too as it was in common use by gardeners during the time of hybridization (1696, in England) (Heilmeyer, nd). Peppermint essential oil contains some strong chemical components and one of its parent plants, spearmint, is often recommended in preference to peppermint.
Rose (Rosa x damascena) – the rose is such a common plant, with many species and hybrids, that many may not realize that the damask rose is a hybrid of musk rose (Rosa moscheta) and Gallic rose (Rosa gallica). In addition, there are several other rose species used as an essential oil, so it is important to know which species (or hybrid) you are using. Even though many rose species essential oils share similar therapeutic properties, their aroma can vary.