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Distilling for Hydrosols

Distilling hydrosolsLike most children I loved making potions from picked flowers and leaves, maybe some mud and if I was lucky a berry or two. I would shake it up, pop it in empty jars, label them with a name like “Helena’s magical dandelion and daisy perfume” and try to sell them to passers by.

Little did I know that 30-odd years later I would be doing just that…all be it with fancier labels and a more effective way of selling!

Essential oils were one of the first “raw” ingredients that I fell in love with many years ago but I didn’t really encounter hydrosols (aqueous distilled plants/flower waters) until I moved to Canada and started formulating my own line of skin care products.

The more I learnt about them, and used them for myself, the more I fell in love. So gentle and easy to use yet so effective at helping the skin, but also the body and mind when taken internally. Three and a half years ago, I travelled to Oregon with my family so I could learn how to distill my own hydrosols. From the minute the workshop started I was smitten and knew that one day I would be doing this for my own products.

Making skin care out of plant ingredients is very rewarding but, other than the dried botanicals I don’t actually get to touch the plants that the ingredients come from. When distilling plants for hydrosols it’s best to use freshly picked blooms or leaves and so it added a whole new wonderful dimension to making skin care from plants. I fell in love with the full process of harvesting fresh plant material at the start of the day and ending with a glorious, highly therapeutic ingredient.

The process of distillation is a simple one in chemistry terms, simply boiling an aqueous solution into steam and then condensing it back into a liquid again. But something magic happens in this process for me. When plants are added into the equation not only are the physical compounds captured but the cellular water which, I think, keeps the soul and spirit of the plant alive.

As soon as I returned from my trip to Oregon, I ordered by own copper alembic still (see picture) mine is just a 25 litre capacity, small compared to the thousands of litre ones used by large producers. But this is perfect for now as I experiment. The first year I collaborated with a friend who had an abundance of lemon balm, mint and oregano. We distilled it all and came away with wonderful results, including the strongest oil of oregano we had ever encountered and litres and litres of my favourite hydrosol ever, lemon balm.

Alembic Copper Still
I have always drunk lemon balm tea, it does wonders for my slightly anxious disposition, calming my mind and my body, but the hydrosol was something so much better. I sprayed it on my face, I tipped it in my bath and I added it to my drinking water. I then planted a huge bed of it in my garden to make sure I can distill it each year!

Annoyingly, life got busy and last year I didn’t even set up my still once. I even planted beds of marigolds, chamomile, lemon balm and lavender. So, this year I have promised myself to set it up early and get distilling again. I have a dream that one day I will be using my own hydrosols in my skin care and the plants will come from my own garden or foraged locally.

The first plant this year will be elderflowers, which bloom mid spring here. Each year I make syrup and champagne but this year I will make the hydrosol also! I will detail the process for you all then, so you can learn more about how hydrosols are made. You can even make them on our stovetop with the pots and pans from your kitchen – I’ll teach you that too!

Another reason to be excited about the arrival of spring (hurry up spring!)

Helena Lane


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