Costus Essential Oil

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Costus is Saussurea Costus, a plant originating in the Himalayas. Costus has been known to herbalists since ancient times and the root has been considered an important medicinal herb, with a long history of use. [1] The root has been used to treat a variety of conditions and has also been used as an aphrodisiac since old times in several Asian cultures.

The costus plant is a large perennial growing up to 6 feet high and with flowers that are purple, almost black. [2] It grows at altitudes of between 8,000 and 13,000 feet in the Kashmir area. [3]

Costus root has been in use as an ingredient in perfumes and incense since ancient times. It has also been very widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine [4], under the name yún mù xiang, where it is one of the “50 fundamental herbs”.

Costus should not be confused with Costmary, an entirely different herb – however there has also been confusion over this, with Costmary erroneously being given as a translation. [5]

Costus – History

Costus was described by Pliny, the 1st century writer, in his Natural History. He states:

“…The costus;
it has a burning taste in the mouth, and a most exquisite odour; in other respects, the branches are good for nothing. In the island of Patale, situated at the very mouth of the river Indus, there are two kinds of costus found, the black and the white; the last is considered the best. The price of it is five denarii per pound.” [6]

Dioscorides, writing in his famous Materia Medica, stated that costus was aphrodisiac [7], in addition to having other actions. He states that there were three kinds of costus; though it is considered likely now that these were three varieties of the same plant. Dioscorides wrote:

“Of Costus the Arabic is best, being white and light, having a great an pleasant smell; next after it, is the Indian, being full and light, and black, like Ferula, but the third is the Syriac, heavy, of the color of box, of a biting smell. That is the best which is new.” [8]

It is possible likely that the widespread reference to costus as aphrodisiac commences with Dioscorides – as his work was very widely circulated indeed for over a thousand years following.

Costus, as the Sanskrit Kushta, was mentioned by Chakradatta, Sarangadhara and in the Bhavaprakasa. [9]

Costus appears to have been traded since ancient times from India and was also mentioned by Theophrastus, Strabo, Oribasius and others.
It was used medicinally and also as a spice additive to wine. [5]

However, Pliny’s Costus may not be Saussurea costus – and in general there is much difficulty, debate and uncertainty in identifying the exact plants described by ancient authors. John Bostock, translating Pliny into English, notes:

“According to most commentators, this is the Costus Arabicus of Linnaeus. Dioscorides mentions three varieties of costus: the Arabian, which is of the best quality, and is white and odoriferous; the Indian, which is black and smooth; and the Syrian, which is of the colour of wax, dusky, and strong smelling. Fee, however, doubts whether the modern costus is the same thing as that of the ancients; for, as he says, although it has a sweet odour, it does not deserve the appellation of a ” precious aromatic,” which we find constantly given to it by the ancients.

Numerous other works of the 19th century describe costus as aphrodisiac – having a reputation as such in both China and India. The 1874 “Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association” states of costus: “When dry the root is of a dark-brown color, very brittle, apparently full of resin, and of a strong agreeable odor, similar to that of orris root. It is used by the Mohammedans as an incense, by the Chinese also as an aphrodisiac.” [10]

Samuel Frederick Gray’s 1821 “Supplement to the pharmacopoeia” states that Costus is Costus arabica; furthermore, that is it is “distinguished in the shops into sweet and bitter costus, which is merely owing to keeping, the root becoming bitter and stronger by age.

Sir Whitelaw Ainslie’s 1826 Materia Indica states: “The Arabians place kust among their Mobheiat Aphrodisiacs.” The word Mobheiat appears nowhere in Google other than in Ainslie’s text and I can thus find no meaning for it.

Sir George Watt’s 1889 “Dictionary Of The Economic Products Of India” has much to say about confusion between Saussurea costus and Costus speciosus, but leaves us in little doubt that Saussurea is the plant in question – C. speciosus being somewhat tasteless and odorless.
He lists Saussurea costus root as having been used as an aphrodisiac in India. [11]

Costus is still exported from India. It is used by shawl merchants in Kashmir as a moth repellant. [5]

It is reported to be used as a humane / vegetarian substitute for musk in fragrances, and is even said by Ayurvedic sources to be narcotic if smoked. [12]

Costus has an ancient and apparently long-lasting reputation for being aphrodisiac to Chinese, Indian and Arabic cultures – and preparations of the root appear to have been both taken internally and used as fragrance ingredients. Science however appears not to have investigated the aphrodisiac claims.

Costus – scientific research

Little appears on Pubmed regarding Saussurea costus – and a search turned up just five papers.

A 2011 study found that S. costus potently inhibited the growth of Trypanosoma brucei, a parasite responsible for sleeping sickness. [13] This is interesting in light of traditional use of the herb as a vermifuge. The study identified the sesquiterpene lactones arbusculin B, alpha-cyclocostunolide, costunolide, and dehydrocostuslactone in the ethyl acetate extract of the roots. [14]

A 2007 paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology describes S. costus has having remarkable biological activity; worthy of development as medicine. [15]

A 2005 study found S. costus to have free radical scavenging activity, attributed to chlorogenic acid. [1]

Costus root oil reported to contain the following components: Aplotaxene, costus acid, costol, lactone, dihydro-costus lactone. [16]

Costus – other names:

Indian Costus, Arabian Costus, Costus Root, (English) Saussurea Costus, Aplotaxis lappa, Aplotaxis auriculata, Aucklandia costus, Saussurea lappa (Latin), Koshet (Hebrew), Kust (Arabic), Putchock, Putchuk, Puchuk, Patchak (Bengal), Kuth, Kut, Koot (Kashmir), Ouplate (Bombay), Kushta (Ayurveda), Changala costam (Tel), Sepuddy (Malay), Goshtam (Tam.) Goda mahanel (Cyng)

Note – Costus Root oil is not recommended for skin use i.e. in massage oil as it is reported to be a dermal irritant. [16]


[2] [3] “Awakening Indians to India”, compiled (2008). p.465
[6] The natural history of Pliny, Volume 3 By Pliny (the Elder), John Bostock, p.119
[8] “The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides”, Robert T. Gunther ed.

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