I have recently returned from a trip to Finland to see my family and to visit Rauma, the birthplace of my mother Kerttu. My mother was the original founder of Aqua Oleum, having started the business in the early 1970’s, then known simply as ‘The Natural Essence Company', since she was a great advocate of natural remedies & the home use of essential oils, long before the term ‘aromatherapy’ became fashionable. As a biochemist, she had also been involved in innovative research into the properties & bio-activity of essential oils at Helsinki University especially in relation to their therapeutic and cosmetic potential, something which I inherited from her directly in my own later studies.

The Finns are well known for their love of the natural world, which is reflected in the tradition of the sauna, an intrinsic part of their culture. The sauna is usually built beside a lake or sea inlet, sometimes in a really remote or ‘off grid’ location. This health-giving, cleansing ‘ritual’ can sometimes involve jumping naked into a frozen lake through a hole in the ice in the midst of Winter … something I have done on many occasions myself!! It is also traditional to beat the skin in a sauna with a bunch of freshly bound young birch twigs or ‘vihta’ to improve the circulation, open the pores and relax the muscles. By beating the body lightly with the vihta, it gently crushes the young leaves thereby transferring the essential oils directly onto the skin. In fact, the aromatic smell of the young birch is truly delicious when released in combination with the smell of pine resin seeping through the knots of the wood in the sauna.

Birch vihta are said to help with muscle and joint pains, heal wounds, and help clean phlegm out of the lungs.

Young oak vihta are said to make the skin smooth, have anti-inflammatory properties, and act as a mild sedative helping to ease stress.

Eucalyptus vihta are good for people with colds or other respiratory problems.

Of course, it also very beneficial to employ all kinds of essential oils in the sauna by simply putting a few drops of a selected oil into a bowl onto the hot stones or stove to evaporate. Our pores are naturally opened up by the intense heat of the sauna, so this is an excellent way to naturally enjoy all the benefits of the various volatile oils, such as juniper, pine or eucalyptus as well as less traditional aromatic oils. The same principle applies equally to a steam room or bath spa experience where the heat helps to aid the absorption of the oils…

Returning to Rauma with the snow falling all around, made me also look at this familiar culture with renewed eyes and made me realize what a beautiful and unique place Rauma is … the largest remaining authentic, wooden town in the whole of Europe! Each wooden building is individually carved and decorated, but what I had not noticed before is their iconic architecture! Each compound has an enclosed yard with high decorative gates beside each house. I also learnt that the woman of the house would traditionally grow herbs in this protected courtyard as my mother recalled from her childhood:

“Mama’s most important herb was parsley, which along with dill, marjoram, hops and others were dried in bunches in the autumn… stretching right across the kitchen stove”