Essential oils from 23 species of plants comprising 14 genera and 4 plant families were obtained by Clevenger-type water distillation. The major compounds in these essential oils were identified with GC-MS and their insecticidal activity against adult turnip aphids, Lipaphis pseudobrassicae (Davis), tested with dosage-mortality bioassays. We examined mortality only for viviparous adults because sizeable aphid populations on crucifer (Brassicaceae) hosts are largely produced by these wingless, parthenogenic females. Twenty-two of the oils were directly applied to aphid females in randomized blocks at concentrations of 0.0, 1.0, 2.5, 5.0 and 10.0 mg ml(-1). Essential oils mixed with a non-toxic emulsifying agent, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), more easily penetrated the waxy insect cuticle. Probit analysis and LC50 at three different exposures showed aphids were quickly incapacitated and killed by aliphatic aldehydes, phenols and monocyclic terpenes contained in Bifora and Satureja oils and at applied concentrations as low as 0.3 to 1.0 mg ml(-1). Only enough Pimpinella isaurica oil and its three phenylpropanoid fractions were available for testing at a single concentration of 10 mg ml(-1). We could not spare any additional P. isaurica oil for testing at other concentrations. Phenylpropanoids isolated from P. isaurica oil when recombined or left naturally blended in the oil were highly bioactive against L. pseudobrassicae at 10 mg ml(-1). (c) 2005 Society of Chemical Industry.