Litsea cubeba oil is distilled from the small, pepperlike fruits of the tree of Litsea cubeba.
Oil of Chinese origin, the only source of internationally traded material, is rich in citral (about 70 percent) and has an intensely lemon-like, fresh, sweet odour. It competes to a limited extent with lemongrass, another citral-rich oil, in fragrance applications such as household sprays and fresheners although it is less suitable for use in soaps than lemongrass oil since it has less fixative power.
Its major use, however, both in the People's Republic of China and in international markets, is as a raw material source for the isolation of citral. This is used in its own right for flavour and fragrance purposes or converted by the chemical industry to a number of important derivatives such as ionones, which possess a violet-like fragrance, and vitamins.
Although cheap synthetic citral (ex turpentine or petroleum hydrocarbons) is readily available, and has displaced much of the citral ex lemongrass previously used for derivative manufacture, there has remained a significant market for natural citral which low-priced Litsea cubeba oil has been able to meet. However, the oil is not separately specified in trade statistics and this, coupled with the lack of reliable data for Chinese production or exports, makes it difficult to quantify the demand and identify all the consumers. Countries with the capacity to fractionate essential oils and chemically convert isolates into products for the flavour and fragrance industries are the major importers of Litsea cubeba oil, i.e. the United States, countries of Western Europe and Japan. Total imports are probably of the order of several hundred tonnes annually, although trade in some years is estimated at up to 500 tonnes.
Chinese production of oil is impossible to quantify accurately. A report of the International Trade Centre in 1986 suggested a figure of 500-600 tonnes annually, but a recent Chinese source placed it much higher at 1500 tonnes pa. Social and economic changes in the People's Republic of China in recent years have led many people traditionally employed in the agricultural sector to turn to more remunerative activities for their livelihoods. One consequence of this has been a fluctuation in the level of harvesting Litsea cubeba. If Chinese domestic consumption of Litsea cubeba oil grows as expected, then quantities available for export are likely to decrease and opportunities will occur for new producers.
Small quantities of Litsea cubeba oil are produced on Java, Indonesia, but from the leaves rather than the fruits and it is not rich enough in citral to be suitable for export.
Citral content is the most important indicator of oil quality and an international (ISO) standard specifies a minimum value of 74 percent. Both Chinese Litsea cubeba oil and Indian lemongrass oil, with which it competes, are described in trade terms as "75 percent", i.e. containing 75 percent citral.
The price of Litsea cubeba oil has been erratic as a result of competing economic forces in the People's Republic of China. It has fallen steadily in recent years and at the end of 1993 it was available in London at around US$3.40/kg (compared with US$7.75/kg in early 1991). In early 1994 it had risen slightly to US$4.30/kg. By comparison, lemongrass oil of Indian origin has remained at around US$9.75/kg for most of the last two years. In early 1994 it was US$9.10/kg. The longer term price trend is uncertain for Litsea cubeba but a firming is conceivable.
Botanical/common names Family Lauraceae:
Litsea cubeba Pers.
Litsea cubeba is a small tree, 5-12 m high with a stem diameter of 6-20 cm. It is native to China, Indonesia and some other parts of Southeast Asia, where it occurs mainly in mountainous regions. In the People's Republic of China it occurs naturally in the south of the country but it has been successfully domesticated and large cultivated areas are found in central and eastern China south of the Yangtze River. In Indonesia the species grows wild in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan from 700 m to 2300 m above sea level.
Information on this aspect, if it exists, is not readily accessible outside the People's Republic of China, but it is unlikely that harvesting the fruits for oil production can have seriously affected the state or size of the wild resource.
Details of the methods used for harvesting and the timing of it are not available in the more accessible literature. Nor is it known at what age the trees, in areas where they are cultivated, can furnish their first crop.
Standard methods of steam distillation are used to distil the fruits.
Yields of oil distilled from the fruit are reported to be 3-5 percent. What this represents in terms of yield per tree is not known. Oil yield and composition undoubtedly vary according to the provenance origin of the trees but information on this is not well documented. "Krangean" and "trawas" oils from L. cubeba growing in West and Central Java, Indonesia, are different in composition, although they are both obtained from the leaves rather than fruits and are richer in cineole than citral.
Fractionation of the oil and recovery of citral takes place in the country of origin (for Chinese internal use) or the importing country. Chinese exports are of whole oil.
Although it is not a major timber species, the trunk wood of L. cubeba is sometimes used for making furniture and handicrafts. Parts of the tree have also been used for medicinal purposes.
The Chinese monopoly of the market for citral-rich Litsea cubeba oil presents both constraints and opportunities for the potential new producer. End-users do not like to be dependent on a single source of supply of any oil and so would welcome alternative sources, providing quality (citral content) was assured and the price was attractive. Production of an oil with a higher citral content than Chinese oil might enable it to be priced at about the same or slightly higher than prevailing levels.
There may be particular potential in remote countries such as Bhutan where L. cubeba occurs, labour is available and new high value/low volume cash crops are imperative to social and economic development.
One obstacle to introducing the species into areas outside the People's Republic of China where it does not occur is that of acquiring seed for growing trials. Another is the lack of documented information relating to its cultivation which could be used as a basis for such trials.
The following areas need to be researched if citral production is to be taken up by countries other than the People's Republic of China:
- Germplasm screening of L. cubeba. Sources of wild Litsea growing in Indonesia and elsewhere need to be screened for citral content and oil yield to try and identify suitable sources of planting stock.
- Economic viability of cultivating L. cubeba. This includes propagation studies and management trials.
- Germplasm screening of plants other than L. cubeba. Continued commercial interest in natural citral makes it worthwhile seeking alternative sources to L. cubeba. Backhousia citriodora is one plant which has aroused recent interest.
CU, J.Q. (1992) La production, la technologie et le potentiel des huiles essentielles en Chine. pp. 91-92. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Aromatic and Medicinal Plants, Nyons, France, 2-4 December, 1991.
HAMID, A. and DJISBAR, A. (1989) Current work on essential oils and spices in Indonesia. Industrial Crops Research Journal, 2(1), 16-21.
ISO (1974) Oil of Litsea cubeba. International Standard ISO 3214-1974 (E). 2 pp. International Organization for Standardization.
ITC (1986) Essential Oils and Oleoresins. A Study of Selected Producers and Major Markets. 208 pp. Geneva: International Trade Centre.
KOERNIATI, S. (1989) Litsea cubeba Pers.: potential and prospects. pp. 268-269. In Plant Resources of South-East Asia. Proceeedings of first PROSEA International Symposium, Jakarta, 22-25 May, 1989. Wageningen, Netherlands: PUDOC.
LIN, T.S. (1981) Study on the variation of yield and composition of essential oil from Litsea cubeba. Bulletin of the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, No. 355. 14 pp.
LIN, T.S. (1983) Variation in content and composition of essential oil from Litsea cubeba collected in different months. Bulletin of the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, No. 398. 9 pp.
ZAMAREL, RUSLI, S. and DJISBAR, A. (1990) New essential oil crops (Clausena, Foeniculum, Backhousia citriodora and Litsea cubeba). Penelitian Tanaman Rempah dan Obat (Indonesia), 6(1), 66-73.