Vetiver (botanical name Vetiveria zizanioides) belongs to the grass family, which also includes sorghum, maize, sugarcane as well as lemongrass. This plant has had an irregular history, as it was given no less than 11 names in four dissimilar genera at one time. The generic name ‘Vitiveria’ is derived from the Tamil expression ‘vetiver’ denoting a ‘dug up root’, while the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus gave the plant its specific name ‘zizanioides’, which is occasionally spelled wrongly, in 1771. The word ‘zizanioides’ refers to ‘beside the river’ and mirrors the fact that this plant is generally found growing the length of the water bodies, especially in India.
Belonging to the Poaceae family, vetiver is a perennially growing grass that is indigenous to India. It is also known as ‘khus’ in the northern and western regions of India. This grass has tall stems while the leaves are elongated, slender and somewhat firm. Vetiver produces brownish-purple hue flowers. Dissimilar to most other varieties of grasses that grow horizontally and have matted roots, the roots of vetiver grow downwards up to 2 meters to 4 meters in depth. Although this grass species is closely related to sorghum, the morphological characteristics of vetiver match with those of other aromatic grasses, for instance, lemongrass (botanical name Cymbopogon citratus), palmarosa (botanical name Cymbopogon martini) and citronella (botanical name Cymbopogon nardus, Cymbopogon winterianus).
While vetiver has its origin in India, currently this grass species is extensively cultivated in other areas of the world having tropical climatic conditions. Presently, countries like India, Haiti and Réunion are the largest producer of vetiver worldwide. It may be noted that the vetiver genotypes that are used most extensively basically do not produce fertile seeds and since this grass species has the aptitude to self-propagate by giving rise to small offsets rather than underground stolons, such genotypes usually are not invasive and are easier to control by nurturing the soil at the periphery of the hedges. Nevertheless, it is also essential to upkeep the plants, as the fertile vetiver genotypes have turned out to be invasive.
Roots and essential oil.
The root of vetiver possesses a number of therapeutic properties – it is soothing, helps to reduce body heat or fever, is invigorating, diuretic and tonic. The roots contain a chemical known as benzoin, which is useful in treating headaches. In addition, vetiver is also extremely effective in curing skin complaints as well as assists in diminishing anxiety and tension. The oil contained by this grass species works as an excellent insect repellent. On the other hand, the oil extracted from vetiver is widely used in making perfumes owing to its aroma as well as fixative effects. The roots of this grass are employed to make brushes for cleansing the body in a natural way, applying aromatic oils as well as cleaning utensils. In addition, the fragrant roots are also used as ingredients in potpourri. The leaves of vetiver are used to treat a number of health conditions, including lumbago, rheumatism, and sprains.
While vetiver has several utilities, this grass is primarily cultivated for its aromatic essential oil, which is distilled from the roots. Even to this day, the perfumery industry frequently uses the previous French spelling ‘vetyver’. It is estimated that about 250 tons of vetiver are produced throughout the world every year. As vetiver possesses wonderful fixative attributes, it is extensively employed in perfumes. In fact, 90 percent of all perfumes made in the West make use of vetiver. Precisely speaking, it forms the main ingredient in perfumes meant for men’s use, such as Vetiver by L’Occitane, Dior Eau Sauvage, Zizan by Ormonde Jayne and Guerlain Vetiver.
Apart from India, countries like Haiti, China, and Indonesia produce the bulk of the vetiver worldwide. A French national named Lucien Ganot had introduced the processing of vetiver in Haiti way back in the 1940s. Later, in 1958, Franck Léger set up a plant on the land where an alcohol distillery was established by his father Demetrius Léger. In 1984, this plant was acquired by Franck’s son Pierre Léger, who increased the capacity of the plant to 44 atmospheric stills, each having the capacity to process vetiver roots worth one metric ton. During the last one decade, the production of vetiver at this plant went up from 20 tons to 60 tons per annum, making it the largest producer of vetiver worldwide. This plant employs the steam distillation process to extract vetiver essential oil from the plant’s roots. In addition to Pierre Léger’ plant, another owned by the Bouchard family is also a major producer of vetiver essential oil. On the other hand, the best quality of vetiver oil is produced by Réunion, which is followed by Haiti and Java respectively.
The major consumers of vetiver essential oil comprise the United States, Europe, India, and Japan respectively.
Vetiver also possesses antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that are useful in relieving the swelling, pain and tenderness in the circulatory system as well as the nervous system. It is also very helpful for people suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, muscle aches, gout, parchedness and fissures on the skin.
The essential oil extracted from vetiver roots possesses tranquilizing properties and helps in treating emotional flare-ups, for instance, anxiety, anger, bouts of epilepsy and hysteria, nervousness, restiveness and so on.
In addition, vetiver is also employed to prepare a tonic bath and this is the primary reason why the essential oil extracted from the roots of this grass forms an important ingredient in superior quality soaps. Interestingly enough, vetiver is also used to eliminate lice.
People in the Indian subcontinent often substitute khus (the roots of vetiver) for straw or wood shaving pads in evaporative coolers used during summers. When wood shavings are used in evaporative coolers to cool water for a prolonged period, there is a possibility of building colonies of bacteria, algae, and other microorganisms. This not only results in the cooler giving off a smell akin to those of fish or seaweed in the house but also becomes the breeding ground for mosquitoes. However, when vetiver roots are used, it helps to neutralize the bad smell. You may also use a comparatively inexpensive method by adding vetiver cooler perfume or even genuine khus attar to the water tank of the evaporative cooler. Using vetiver roots also has an added advantage – they are not as inflammable as the dried out wood shavings.
People in India also weave mats using vetiver roots and fasten them with cords or ropes to cool their rooms during the scorching summers. Usually, such mats are hung at the doors and windows and moistened by sprinkling water on them from time to time. While they make the passing air cooler, the rooms are also refreshed owing to the aromatic vetiver roots.
The summer months are extremely hot in some places in India and people in these areas occasionally fill a muslin sachet with vetiver roots and drop it into an earthen pot to cool the household drinking water. Much like a bouquet garni, the bunch of vetiver roots helps to provide a typical essence and fragrance to the drinking water. In addition, syrups scented with khus are also sold in India.
Farmers in places having warmer climates consider khus to be a boon because it helps to avoid soil erosion. Since the roots of this grass grow downwards, it facilitates in blocking the erosion of the surface water and preserves the soil. Therefore, farmers use khus (vetiver) to develop boundaries in their paddy fields.
Vetiver is a grass species that has a very rapid growth. Unlike many other grass species, vetiver grows vertically and in dense clusters. This plant has an extended fibrous root system that penetrates the ground and grows downwards to a depth of about three meters and horizontally about 0.5 meters. The fibrous roots are interwoven firmly together to form a net in the soil. These roots work excellently as an underground barricade and hold the soil together, preventing its erosion. In addition, they also help in holding back water and filtering as well as soaking up nourishments and eliminating all harmful chemical substances, which helps to provide an environment that is free from pollution.
Planting vetiver on the contours of slopes and the length of the road gradients helps in preventing silts from escaping and, at the same time, filter the remnants of the crops and just allowing some of the water to pass through. When vetiver is planted in this manner it is very effective in preventing soil erosion and also avoids the surface soil from running off with water. Alternately, people in the plains, as well as arid and declining areas, also plant vetiver circling the base of fruit as well as perennial trees with a view to retaining the rainwater in the soil. In addition, the long leaves of vetiver are also utilized for mulching to preserve the moistness of the soil. In a number of instances, vetiver is also planted in the region of ponds and reservoirs as well as ditches and the length of the irrigation canals so as to prevent the silting of these sources of water. Most importantly, the netted roots of vetiver also help to obstruct any toxic chemical that may be present in the rain receptacle areas from polluting the water sources.
Although vetiver is a self-propagating and non-invasive grass species, it is important to nurture the plants properly with a view to attaining the benefits discussed above.
Being a plant that grows excellently on the gradient of highlands, the natural habitat of vetiver may appear to be somewhat bizarre. It also grows in the wild in lowlands and damp locations, for instance, marshlands and swamps.
It is worth mentioning that the precise location of the plant’s origin is not certain. The majority of the botanists assume that vetiver is indigenous to the northern regions of India; according to some of them, the plant is native to Mumbai, erstwhile Bombay in India. Nevertheless, practically speaking, this plant grows in the wild in the tropical as well as sub-tropical plains all over north India, Burma, and Bangladesh.
Vetiver grows best in fertile swamp soil that is present all over the plains and the lower highlands in India, particularly along the banks of rivers. Vetiver is familiar with the essential oil extracted from its roots. This oil is used in preparing medications as well as to make perfumes.
Vetiver’s main chemical components are: