Vetiver Essential Oil

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Vetiver Essential Oil
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Vetiver – Introduction

Vetiver is Vetiveria zizanioides or Chrysopogon zizanioides, also very commonly called Vetivert – a perennial grass native to India and now grown in many tropical countries around the world including Haiti and Java. [1] It is one of the essential oils commonly used as a fixative in the perfume industry (a fixative is a less volatile substance that reduces evaporation and adds stability). [2]

Said to improve with age, essential oil of vetiver is highly alcohol-soluble and enables other substances to mix better. Essential oil made from its roots is widely used in the perfume industry and its woody, deep scent is considered to be an aphrodisiac. It is used as a primary ingredient in 36% of high end perfumes in the west – including Chanel No. 5, Opium, Dioressence, Caleche
and the Indian perfume Majmua. [3]

Here’s some good news right off the bat: Growing vetiver can be good for the environment! This is a welcome contrast to some of the other essential oils and herbs we have investigated such as sandalwood, tongkat ali and catuaba; all of which have sadly been the focus of some ecological controversy. Vetiver is used for erosion control in the warm, tropical countries that it is grown in. That’s because unlike other grasses which form a horizontal mat of roots, it has roots that grow downwards – down to an amazing 12 feet. It is a non-invasive plant which is easily controlled, and is used in the Vetiver System – a system for soil and water conservation operated in over 100 countries. Vetiver, planted across a slope, forms a kind of protective barrier with fast growing roots – that slows water runoff and filters sediment – protecting slopes from erosion. [1]

Vetiver essential oil is prepared by steam distillation of the roots, which have first been washed or soaked. The oil is a complex mixture of sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpene derivatives, with around 100 components having been identified. The roots themselves are not only made into oil, but have several other uses: In India are burned as incense, used to scent linen and made into mats or other woven goods. [3]

As with certain other oils, the fragrance of the oil from different countries varies. The vetiver oil from India is considered the best – and Rus Khus, a high quality Vetiver oil, is a dark green color – and is produced at the location of harvest, using a traditional copper vessel for slow steam distillation. Haitian Vetiver is highly regarded in perfumery. [3]

Vetiver – History

Vetiver was long used in scent-making in India before its discovery by the perfume industry of the west – and has enjoyed long use in Ayurvedic medicine. This much is known. It appears to have entered the perfumery of the west some time in the 19th century. The earliest account of it I can find, interestingly, is from Alexandre Dumas’ fabulous Memoirs (which I highly recommend as a magnificent read). The fact that this account precedes other accounts (Google Books advanced search) by many years leads me to the conclusion that Vetiver must have been indeed scarce in the West at that time. Born in 1802, Dumas recounts:

“There was a big chest in the loft which contained coats and vests and breeches belonging to my grandfather, and coats and breeches belonging to my father : all in very good condition. These clothes were destined by my mother to form my wardrobe as I grew up, and they were protected against vermin by bottles of vetyver and sachets of camphor.” [4]

We can reasonably estimate that the passage referred to would have been some time between 1810 and 1820. It’s known that Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre, passed away in 1806.

Vetiver is mentioned in passing by various plant catalogues of the 19th century, and is known to have been used traditionally as an insect repellant for fabrics – but the fact that Dumas’ account is the earliest description I can find of Vetiver’s use in Europe, raises some interesting possibilities. Can we be so bold as to speculate that the Dumas family may have been among the first Europeans to have use of the scent? Reading Dumas’ memoirs, we find that Dumas was not only partly of African descent – but that his father served in Egypt under Napoleon in 1798. Could it be that Dumas’ father brought the oil back from Egypt?

Dumas describes his father’s campaign with great detail. Dumas senior, growing frustrated with the Egyptian campaign, sold his belongings in Cairo and left for France. Before leaving, he “bought 4000 lbs of Mocha coffee, eleven Arabian horses, and chartered a small vessel.” However, the vessel almost sank: Dumas endured capture, imprisonment, poisoning by arsenic and the loss of all his belongings.
It took him over two years to get home – and thus the Vetiver cannot have found its way to France via Dumas senior. Dumas was of French and African ancestry; it is possible that knowledge of vetiver came to his family through another means; it seems likely that the substance had found its way into France by that time and was in use among the more wealthy classes.

Vetiver is mentioned in John Lindley’s 1846 classic The vegetable kingdom: or, The structure, classification, and uses of plants
and was considered medicinal at that time. He states:

The fragrance of our sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum), is by no means confined to it. Other species are Hierochloe borealis, Ataxia Horsfieldii, and some Andropogons; their odour is said to bo owing to the presence of benzoic acid. The most famous species are Andropogon Iwarancusa and Sclicenanthus, the latter the Lemon Grass of English gardens ; A. Calamus aromaticus, which Dr. Royle considers the plant of that name described by Dioscorides, and the “sweet cane” and “rich aromatic reed from a far country” of Scripture ; and the Anatherum muricatum, called Vetiver by the French, and Khus in India, where its fragrant roots are employed in making tatties, covers for palanquins, &c. This fragrance is connected with aromatic secretions which have in part recommended Grasses to the notice of medical practitioners. The last mentioned plant (Anatherum muricatum), is said to be acrid, aromatic, stimulating, and diaphoretic. [5]

Another early mention is in Neues Repertorium für die Pharmacie, Volume 9 of 1860, which I have endeavoured to translate from German as best I can (I’m no expert!) with scanned pages, Google Translate and some hand corrections:

In the pharmaceutic collections in Europe, the Radix Iwarancusae s. Vetiveriao (i.e. vetiver) is pretty rare; I found it in the beautiful, magnificent drug collection of my very esteemed friend, the pharmacist, Mr. Joseph Dittrich in Prague, which through incredible effort, care and financial sacrifices made, is thought to be one of the finest and richest collections in Europe… This herb is obscure in Europe but has its origin in India and also in Asia Minor and the Caucasus, where it is used as a convulsion suppressant, for urine and sweat, also used as a remedy for the menstrual blood with good results. More recently, it was praised as a preservative against the cholera. Since I am on the subject of the healing effect of vetiver, which is derived from Anatherum muricatum, I can tell nothing more about it, so I will confine myself to a note I received verbally by a Turkish physician from Adrianople, who calls the root Ueberreichung, and which the Turks call Kus-Kus. Small bundles of cheese come from time to time from the interior of Africa, and usually it is the Moslems who bring the same from their pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina to the Prophet. The Vetiver in a dry state has a faint odor, but the odor is more developed and some will be very pleasant if we put the same moistened with water. Many people also find the Kus-Kus flavor unpleasant. With water or even better with alcohol-Kus Kus is inserted into the wet Sentouks (cupboards), to deter the moths by its smell from their clothes and perfume the laundry. Kus-Kus has specific effects against hysterical convulsions and will be frequently used for this reason, by the empire of physicians in the East, in women’s diseases. [6]

By 1890, as with Ylang Ylang
and the rest of the essential oils which formed the basis of perfumery in those days (and considered to be the aphrodisiacs among scents), vetiver had found its way into the list of perfumers’ ingredients.

Vetiver Essential Oil – Scientific Studies And Research

Vetiver is a perennial grass one can easily associate with both fragrance and biological activities. To date, several studies have already pointed out some observed characteristics of vetiver essential oil that support the oil’s traditional medicinal uses. Vetiver essential oil is highly regarded as one of the most complex essential oils, with conventional gas chromatography even failing to serve as a tool to qualitatively and quantitatively analyze its constituents. [7] Vetiver essential oil putatively acts on the nervous system, providing a sedating effect and a means of management or treatment to depression, nervous tension, insomnia, and other conditions commonly associated with stress. [8] The findings from the study of Matsubara et al. (2012) had showed that under low-dose conditions, volatile compounds emitted from cut vetiver roots appear to help individuals keep performance in visual discrimination tasks while maintaining high sympathetic nervous system activity. In this study, the decline in attention during a visual display terminal task was suppressed. Individuals who had inhaled the volatile compounds emitted under low-dose conditions exhibited faster reaction times and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system as measured by electrocardiography. [9]

Vetiver essential oil can serve as a warm and soothing massage or rubbing oil to relieve musculoskeletal aches, such as muscular pain, sprains, stiffness, rheumatism, and arthritis, while stimulating the circulatory system and the production of red blood cells. By aiding the circulatory system, vetiver essential oil helps to revitalize the body, transporting oxygen to every cell. [8]

Vetiveria zizanioides

Vetiveria zizanioides

Photo: USDA, via Wikimedia

Much of vetiver essential oil’s medicinal use can be attributed to its commendable antioxidant activity. Two genotypes of vetiver, namely, KS1 and gulabi, possess ferric reducing ability and free radical–scavenging and antioxidant activities, as illustrated in in vitro assays in the study of Luqman et al. (2009). In particular, at 100 μg/mL, KS1 extract renders protection in reduced glutathione and malondialdehyde concentrations of erythrocytes subjected to oxidative stress. [10]

Many studies regard vetiver essential oil as an effective antiseptic; in fact, vetiver essential oil is therapeutically used in lotions, baths, and compresses to treat oily skin, acne, and weeping sores. [8] Using a broth microdilution method, Hammer, Carson, and Riley (1999) investigated twenty plant oils and extracts with respect to their inhibitory activities against Candida albicans, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli. Their study had determined the lowest minimum inhibitory concentration of vetiver essential oil against S. aureus to be 0.008% (v/v). [11] The ethanolic extract from intact and spent vetiver roots has also been shown to display promising antimycobacterial efficacy against Mycobacterium tuberculosis H(37)Rv and H(37)Ra strains in one recent Indian study. Here, the antituberculosis activity of vetiver extract was demonstrated at a minimum concentration of 500 μg/mL. [12] Vetiver essential oil works well too as an effective repellant against chigger, Leptotrombidium imphalum, the vector for scrub typhus. [13]

Vetiver Essential Oil – Molecular Components and Phytochemistry

Vetiver essential oil contains mainly sesquiterpenes and their derivatives, including khusimol, vetivone, eudesmol, khusimone, zizaene, and and prezizaene. One study had determined that the essential oil cultivated in “normal” soil has (Z)-9,10-dehydro-2-norzizaene (20.78%), khusimone (20.57%), and khusimol (11.11%) as the major components. [14]

Is Vetiver an Aphrodisiac?

Although in modern times, vetiver is cheerfully listed as an aphrodisiac by all and sundry, I can find no mention of Vetiver being an aphrodisiac in western literature prior to 1990: Then all of a sudden, its aphrodisiac reputation spreads through essential oil literature like wildfire! What are we to make of this?

That Vetiver is a sensual scent is beyond doubt. As a mainstay of perfumery since ancient times, it is undisputably an alluring, timeless component of fragrance. However, it is not listed along with the other aphrodisiacs in the usual sources of the 19th century.

Vetiver has been much studied in recent scientific literature – however, none of these studies explores any aphrodisiac qualities ascribed to the plant. They generally deal with its use in environmental protection.

A perfume’s success is based on its ability to heighten attraction – and Vetiver is one of the most common of all ingredients in perfumes. It seems therefore highly likely that something in this fragrance excites desire – but exactly what it is, remains another of nature’s secrets yet to be understood by science.

Finally, after much searching, I learned that Criss Juliard, studying use of Vetiveria nigritana in Senegal, has found much use of the plant as an aphrodisiac in traditional medicine there. [8]

Vetiver is listed in the AHPA’s “Herbs of Commerce”, p.152. [15]

Vetiver – also known as Vetiver, Vetiveyr, Vetyver, Vitivert
Latin: – Chrysopogon zizaniodes, Vetiveria zizanoides, Andropogon muricatus, Anatherum muricatum (Lindley)
Tamil: – Vettiveru
India: – Khus
Khuskus, Kuskus, Cuscus (various places)
Ayurvedic: – Ushira






[5] (p.113)

[6] Neues Repertorium für die Pharmacie, Volume 9. C. Kaiser, 1860. (p.129)

[7] Filippi J. J., Belhassen E., Baldovini N., Brevard H., & Meierhenrich U. J. (2013). Qualitative and quantitative analysis of vetiver essential oils by comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography and comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography A, 1288: 127–148. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2013.03.002. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[8] Chomchalow N. (2001). The utilization of vetiver as medicinal and aromatic plants with special reference to Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Pacific Rim Vetiver Network, Office of the Royal Development Projects Board. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[9] Matsubara E. et al. (2012). Volatiles emitted from the roots of Vetiveria zizanioides suppress the decline in attention during a visual display terminal task. Biomedical Research, 33(5): 299–308. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[10] Luqman S. et al. (2009). Antioxidant potential of the root of Vetiveria zizanioides (L.) Nash. Indian Journal of Biochemistry & Biophysics, 46(1): 122–125. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[11] Hammer K. A., Carson C. F., & Riley T. V. (1999). Antimicrobial activity of essential oils and other plant extracts. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 86(6): 985–990. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[12] Saikia D., Parveen S., Gupta V. K., & Luqman S. (2012). Anti-tuberculosis activity of Indian grass KHUS (Vetiveria zizanioides L. Nash). Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 20(6): 434–436. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2012.07.010. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[13] Rodkvamtook W. et al. (2012). Efficacy of plant essential oils for the repellents against chiggers (Leptotrombidium imphalum) vector of scrub typhus. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 95 Suppl 5: S103–106. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[14] Pripdeevech P., Wongpornchai S., & Promsiri A. (2006). Highly volatile constituents of Vetiveria zizanioides roots grown under different cultivation conditions. Molecules, 11: 817–826. Retrieved 1 May 2013 from

[15] “Herbs of Commerce” (AHPA) (2000 edition) – Michael McGuffin, John T. Kartesz, Albert Y Leung, Arthur O. Tucker p.152

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