Does knowing which Botanical family an essential oil belongs to give one an indication of what that oil might be good for? Not really. It is the chemistry of an essential oil which will give one an indication of what a particular essential oil might be used for.
So, in that case, why do we want to know which family an essential oil belongs to? Well essential oils are derived from plants and plants are classified into families and knowing the family helps us to accurately identify the plant from which the oil was extracted from.
So what are the Botanical Families?
To understand this we need to look at Plant Taxonomy – the classification of plants. This universally accepted classification of plants moves from the more general, through each stage to the specific naming of each individual plant.
First we start with CLASS. Here there are only two possibilities – either plants produce flowers and are angiospsperms or they don’t and are gy-mono-sperms.
Then we have SUBCLASS. Again there are only two possibilities – plants that have two seed leaves – Dicots and plants with one seed leaf – monocots.
After that we have ORDER. These groupings are plants which have remote patterns of similarity to one another.
Now we get to FAMILIES. All the plants found in a particular family will have distinct patterns of similarities. Genetically they will also have a lot in common. On the other hand, plants found within the same family can also have major differences.
There are many, many different plant families. Some botanists only recognize 150 different families, while others recognize closer to 500 different families. Luckily for us, there are not a whole lot of families which have essential oil producing plants. Some of the Families contain many essential oil producing plants, while other may only have one essential oil producing plant.
The next level of classification is GENUS which is the first part of the Latin name and it is always written with a Capital letter. Plants within the same genus are often easily recognizable as belonging to the same group.
Then we have SPECIES which is the second part of the Latin name and is always written in lowercase. This is where the plant is specifically defined. The species part of the name often describes some aspect of the plant, the colour of the flowers, the size or shape of the leaves, or perhaps it is named after where it was found.
The Genus and Species together are the Latin name of the Plant and therefore of the essential oil produced by that plant.
Within this classification we can also find varieties, sub-species, cultivars and chemotypes.
So as you can see from this the Families are really a classification of the plant and refer to the patterns of similarity and genetics of the plants found within that family. They tell us about the plant’s characteristics, but it is the chemistry of the essential oil which will tell us about its properties.
As I mentioned some of the families only have one or perhaps a few essential oil bearing plants within it, and in cases like these it can be easy enough to compare the essential oils in question and perhaps come to a conclusion, based on what we know about the essential oils contained in the family, of what properties that family might impart to the essential oil. But in my opinion, this is not really accurate. You have other families where there are many essential oil bearing plants, and when you compare the essential oils extracted from these plants you can’t come to any consensus because the resulting oils are so very different.
Knowing the Botanical Family the plant the essential oil has been obtained from is helpful, but when working with the oil it is always necessary to take the particular oils own profile into consideration.