Distillation is a fascinating field of study for the aromatherapist and herbalist alike and although I am just beginning this journey and have much to learn, I shall share my experience to date.
Hydrosol derives from the Latin “hydro” meaning “water”and “sol” for “solution”. In the world of aromatherapy, hydrosols are also known as hydrolates, hydrolats, floral waters, and plant waters. Hydrolate uses “hydro” for “water” and “late”, from the French “lait”, for “milk”.
I have had an interest in the distillation of essential oils and hydrosols since witnessing a distillation of peppermint essential oil while at Purdue University years ago. I found it fascinating how they would go out and harvest the peppermint, drive the trucks under a canopy, close up the trailer, hook up the tubes up and distill right inside the trailer. (Here is an example of it: http://www.farmersguardian.com/the-colman-family-ventures-into-peppermint/19826.article) And I shall always remember the aroma of mint that wafted heavily throughout the air as the steam condensed back into water to be sent over to large industrial containers to collect the essential oil and siphon off the hydrosol.
During this same visit we were also shown a distillation of peppermint in a stainless steel unit, which was equally as interesting. My memory of this is how the peppermint looked after the distillation had occurred and they had opened up the still. Inside the peppermint was dry, brittle and without any color or life (prana) remaining. Indeed, the prana had been carried over into the essential oil.
So a few months ago, I decided to invest in a copper distillation unit. I searched and searched and ended up ordering a 20L copper distillation unit from the Essential Oil Company in Portland, OR. (http://www.essentialoil.com/products/alembic-distiller-with-rotating-column) You need at least 20L still as this size has the removable column that allows you to place plant material above the water rather than in the water.
Once the unit had arrived I collected the following additional items one needs:
- tubing to run water from the input/output pipes (still working on how to cycle water in the condenser – stay tuned!)
- a gas burner (you can use a camping stove or electric heating element as well)
- rye flour (to close up any gaps in the unit to prevent steam from flowing out)
- a few glass containers (I used sterilized canning jars) to collect the hydrosol: these need to be sterilized prior to use
- a pack of coffee filters to filter hydrosol
- a pH meter – to measure pH of water to be used in the distillation still (*the water needs to be slightly acidic – if it is too alkaline you can add in a small amount of citric acid to adjust the pH)
- Other item one could use: Separatory Funnel
Preparing the Distillation Unit
The first step in utilizing the copper still was to run a mixture of rye flour and water through the unit. This was done a couple of days before our first distillation per instructions that accompanied the distillation unit.
First Distillation – March 14, 2014
Our first distillation took place during our advanced aromatherapy certification program. Eager to try and the new distillation unit, we gathered up what was available (it was late winter): pine needles and eucalyptus leaves from around our property. Students cut the pine needles and eucalyptus leaves and then placed in the vat.
We then enclosed the vat and began the process by lighting the flame under the distillation unit (where the water is). We used water from the local coop as our water comes from a well and is very hard but is softened with salt, so not really a good option. The water had a pH of: 5.6
What began to transpire throughout the distillation process was nothing short of alchemical transformation both for the plant as well as for all of us who were present to witness the distillation. As the first few drops began to come forth, the excitement and awe of the experience began to take hold. And as the drops turned into a light flow of hydrosol mixed with a very small amount of essential oil and the aroma began to waft around us, the energy of the whole group became more elevated, more inspirational, and more beautiful.
I find it hard to describe with the richness of this experience because something happened for which I cannot lay my finger upon but inside myself I felt elated, almost transported to a more etheric realm of consciousness.
We stopped the distillation after about 1 hour (did not really time it, so just guessing here). Time seemed to waft along with the aroma. We had collected two jars of water (approx. 4 cups each). The essential oil droplets were visible in the jar, sitting on the surface of the water. And the aroma: stimulating, uplifting, alive, vibrant, and energizing. Everyone in the class seemed to have undergone some kind of transformation as well. The energy was rich and we were all incredibly thankful to have had the experience.
I have since utilized the hydrosol in room spritzers as well as for cleaning. It is incredibly potent! We keep it stored in the fridge and currently have about 2 cups left. I love just smelling it as it transports me back to that incredible sensation I experienced while distilling.
Distilling Nettles – June 11, 2014
Yesterday I was visiting the house we used to live at and where I cultivated several medicinal plants including nettles. I had been meaning to get out there for a while but had not had a chance until yesterday. The nettles were beginning to send out their flowers which would in turn become seeds so I decided to go ahead and harvest a batch (there is tons! If you know nettles, they sure do like to spread and spread and spread!). I have a great love of nettles.
Once we had returned home, I began to prepare for the distillation. It was early evening so I collected all the things together for the distillation and began preparing the plant material by gently removing the leaves and then cutting them into smaller pieces so that the steam could pass easily through the plant material in the still.
Each process, from harvesting to preparing to distillation, brings in a type of mindfulness meditation. The process (at least for me) begins with setting an intention: to honor the plant, to thank the plant, to be fully present, to be mindful and observant, to distill a beautiful hydrosol, and to be honored by the whole process (within oneself and within the distillation process itself).
Once the fire had been lit, I sat near by listening to the flame as it heated the water. I am not sure how long it took, perhaps 1/2 hour, but suddenly there is was: the first drop. Then after about 1/2 hour to 1 hour, tasting the hydrosol along the way and realizing I was running out of sunlight, I stopped the distillation.
Nettles hydrosol reminds me very much of nettle tea with some distinguishing aromas that make it, well, a hydrosol, rather than a tea. Its aroma: very earthy, herbaceous yet light. I gathered about 8 cups from this distillation.
So what am I going to use it for? I am going to use the nettle hydrosol as a hair tonic, to drink as well as to make an facial cleanser and toner!
Facial Cleanser Recipe
- just under 3 ounces Organic Castile Soap (to leave some room for the aloe vera gel and glycerin)
- 1 ounce Nettle Hydrosol
- 1 tsp. glycerin
- 1 tbsp. aloe vera gel
- 3 drops Roman chamomile essential oil
- 5 drops Lavender essential oil
For Distillation Units
The Essential Oil Company in Portland, OR. (http://www.essentialoil.com/products/alembic-distiller-with-rotating-column)
Research on Hydrosols