For many years May chang essential oil was listed by most aromatherapy suppliers under its botanical name of Litsea cubeba, but more recently the more enchanting name of May chang seems to have been adopted by our industry.
It is also occasionally referred to as Exotic Verbena or Tropical Verbena, although despite the references to verbena, the plant is not related in any way to true verbena(Lippia citriodora). The association to this name would appear to be due to the similarity in fragrance.
In fact it is not uncommon for May chang essential oil to be passed-off as ‘verbena’ to an unsuspecting or inexperienced buyer. In the perfumery industry it is used as a starting material for the extraction of natural citral, and it is even known to be used to adulterate true Melissa oil, although such clumsy adulteration is quite easy to spot by an expert.
The species Litsea cubeba belongs to the Lauraceae family and is also known as Chinese Pepper and Mountain Pepper. It is a small deciduous tree that grows to a height of 5 to 8 metres (16-26 feet), with a smooth trunk measuring 6-20 centimetres (2.5 to 8 inches) in diameter. The tree bears white or pale yellow, lemon-scented flowers, and small fruits which are similar in shape to small peppers, from which the word ‘cubeb’ is derived.
Measuring between 4 to 6 millimetres in diameter, the aromatic fruits are almost spherical in shape and green in colour, turning red then dark brown upon ripening. When dried, these small fruits look like large, dried black peppers and provide the source of May chang essential oil, although oil can also be extracted from the flowers, branches, bark, roots and leaves too. The essential oil derived from these parts of the plant do not have the same odour as the fruits though.
Litsea cubeba is native to China, Indonesia and other areas of Southeast Asia. In China it grows naturally in the south, and has been cultivated in central and eastern areas to the south of the Yangtze river for its various commercial uses. Smaller quantities of this species also grow wild in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, between a height of 700 metres and 2,300 meters above sea level. It is also cultivated in Japan and Taiwan.
May chang essential oil did not become available in the Western world until the early 1950′s, when it began to compete with lemongrass as a source material for the extraction of citral. Widely used in soaps, fragrances and flavourings, production of the essential oil is still almost entirely based in China, and very little is currently known about their methods of cultivation or harvesting.
Continue reading here for traditional uses: http://www.quinessence.com/blog/may-chang-essential-oil