A high altitude plant with a unique and beautiful physical form is Saussurea lappa commonly known as Costus Root. It grows on the moist slopes of the Himalayas at altitudes of 8000-12000 feet in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Lahul-Spiti, etc. It both grows wild and is cultivated. The roots have a long history of medicinal and aesthetic use in Tibet, India and other mountain regions.It was a prized item of commerce from the earliest times as the roots were reputed not only to have great curative properties but also wonderful aromatic qualities much prized in perfume creations of the ancient world. It not only was appreciated as an oil but as a prime ingredient in incense.
It was used by the Romans as a culinary spice as also as a perfume. This root was dug up and cut into small pieces and shipped to Rome and China. The root is generally of the size of a finger wit' a yellowish woody part and a whitish bark. It is said that Seleucus Callinicus had obtained Costus from India and sent it as gift to the Milesians.6 The Romans also referred to costus as radix, the root as distinguished from Nard which was called folio(the leaf). The price of Costus in Rome is stated by Pliny to have been 5 denarii per pound. India still exports Costus and today the collection of Costus is a state monopoly. In Kashmir the product is used by shawl merchants to protect their fabrics from moths. The Indian origin of Costus is evident from the fact that the word is derivedfrom the Sanskrit term Kustha which means 'that which stands in the earth'. This word was perhaps used as Costus was a root. http://www.hindubooks.org/sudheer_birodkar/india_contribution/prod.html
Today the roots still offer to us their special aromatic virtues in the form of an essential oil and absolute although some authorities consider it unsafe for application on the skin. Nonetheless one may find it offers delightful nuances in compositions which can be diffussed through the air and enjoyed throught the simple act of breathing. Only very tiny amounts are required are used to create unique effects in diffusor blends.
The roots are widely traded in the huge back street bazaars like Khari Baoli in Delhi. I have only had one opportunity to explore this hidden part of the medicinal and aromatic plant world and it was an unforgettable experience. Leaving the main road and turning into small lanes one finds shop after shop offering every conceivable plant used in medicine, perfumery, incense, etc. Shops specializing in particular aromatics like frankincense, myrrh and benzoin or spikenard, costus and valarian are true delights. The knowledge and expertise of the shop owners with regards to the particular herbs, spices, wood, resins, etc is vast and one feels as if they have entered into an Arabian Nights fairy tale even while still living in this modern age.
I have a keen memory of this root and the habitat in which it dwells from a meeting with Mr. Nandlal a person my mom calls the John Muir of the Himalayas. Nandlal spent 40 years roaming the upper ranges of the Himalayas in search of rare and precious plants and his knowledge of the areas botanical resources is superb. I visited him in the company of my fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlka, at his distillery in the Kullu Valley and on that occasion he showed us collected roots of valarian, spikenard, costus and many others. Looking at the tall majestic peaks surrounding the valley while talking with this wonderful man and inhaling the odors of the aromatic roots was a truly precious experience.
Simple description of the plant
Saussurea, known as c0stus in English, is a tall, stout herb having an annual stem and perennial roots. It has very large heart-shaped leaves: bluish, bluish-purple or almost black flowers and hairy fruits. The dried roots of the plant constitute the drug. Saussurea is indigenous to India. It occurs in Kashmir and adjoining areas at altitudes ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 metres above the sea level.
Detailed description of the plant
The plant is a tall, perennial herb upto 2 meters high. Leaves are very large at the base born on the winged stalks and upper leaves are smaller, sometimes with two lobes at the base of the leaves, almost clasping the stems. Flowers are about 2 centimeters long, bluish purple or almost black, borne on rounded flower heads; few flower heads are clustered together. Pappus is about 1.7 centimeters long, feathery, giving a curious , fluffy appearnace to the fruiting flower heads.
Costus Essential Oil
pale yellow to brownish yellow viscous liquid
soft, delicate and warm precious woods/orris root odor. Surprising radiant tenacity for an oil which has a fairly low key odor impact. A buttery/fatty note appears shortly after one detects the precious wood/orris root odor. It lends the entire olfactory texture of the oil a very smooth feeling.
Perfume Uses-"Costus Oil will induce warm, woody, and "natural" notes to a perfume.; however this is limited to cetain perfume types, eg. Oriental bases, chypres, violet bases, certain floral fragrances, etc. and many types of the "modern-aldehyic" theme... Blends well with patchouli, opoponax, oakmoss, etc. Overdoses of costus oil may easily produce obnoxious effects, and the power of this oil is often underestimated. Similar in effect to angelica root oil, Costus Oil has the peculiar ability of producing diffusive power and intriguing topnotes, and at the same time it works effectively as a fixative of unusual tenacity."-Steffen Arctander
Images of Saussurea lappa
Phytochemicals present in Costus Root
Heptadecatetraene, 12-methoxy-dihydrocostunolide, 22-dihydrostigmasterol, 3-isopropylpentanoic-acid, 3-methylbutyric-acid, 4-ethyloctanoic-acid, 7*-octenoic-acid, Acetic-acid, Alkaloids, Alpha-humulene, Alpha-phellandrene, Alpha-costene, Alpha-amorphenic-acid, Alpha-amyrin-stearate, Alpha-ionone, Aplotaxene Beta-sitosterol Beta-selinine, Beta-costene, Beta-ionone, Beta- elemene, Beta-amyrin-stearate, Betulin, Camphene, Caryophyllene, Caryo-phyllene-oxide, Cedrene, Cedr ol, Cis-dihydroionone,Costic-acid, Costol, Costunolide, Costus-acid, Costus-lactone,
Dehydrocostus-lactone, Dihydro- dehydrocostus-lactone, Dihydroaplotaxene, Dihydrocostunolide, Dihydrocostus- lactone, EO, Friedelin, Guaia-3,9,11-triene-12-acid, Heptano ic-acid, Hexanoic- acid, Inulin, Isozaluzanin, Kushtin, Lactones, Linalool, Lupeol, Myrcene, Naphthaline, Octanoic-acid, Oleic-acid, P-cymene, Palmitic-acid, Pentadec- 1-ene, Phellandrene, Resinoids, Saussurine, Stigmasterol, Tannin, Taraxasterol
An essential oil obtained from the roots is used in perfumery, incenses and as a hair rinse when it is said to darken grey hair. It has a strong lingering scent. The smell is at first like violets, but as it ages it can become more fur-like or eventually become unpleasantly goat-like. The roots are cut into lengths about 8cm long and then dried before being exported. Smaller pieces of the root are ground into a powder and then used to make incense sticks. The longer clean pieces are cut into very thin slices and then burnt at shrines or used as a tonic in hot baths. http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/cgi-bin/pfaf/arr_html?Saussurea+costus&CAN=LATIND
Aromatic plants used in incense (Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease)
As many of you already know many aromatic plants have been used in incense since ancient times. Costus is among them. Over the course of many generations ancient people discovered that when aromatic plants were burned, they gave off aromatic molecules that had unique healing properties. Many of us tend to associate smoke with something negative, but smoke can also be healing and beneficial. One whole branch of ayurvedic medicine called Dhoopam relates to healing through inhalation of the smoke produced from certain aromatic plants in specific combinations. The Tibetans also developed a very high form of healing through smoke. In fact when I was traveling in the Palampur region of the Himalayas I talked with a research scientists who had spent several years of her life in Bhutan amidst the Buddhist community there. She told me that she had personally observed that people with certain types of diseases came to the monks and they had special rooms where they were treated through inhalation of aromatic plants that were combined in specific formulas and burned. It is important to remember that the molecules created by pyralyisis(distillation by fire) are different than those which exist in the essential oil, CO2 extract, etc. It is an area where only limited research has been done but I think we shall see more forthcoming on the healing benefits of the smoke of roots like Costus, Vetiver, Spikenard; precious woods like agar, sandalwood, cedarwood; resins like frankincense, myrrh and opoponax, etc. These plants and their aromatic products and the incenses produced from them have had a revered place in the sacred pharmacopeias of ancient civilizations and it will be interesting to see what is discovered about them through our modern research technologizes. As has been mentioned before many ancient systems of wholistic health concerned themselves with the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well being of the person and medicines for rebalancing a person were often of a very sublime type, including incense.