Making the Hydrosols
I make Hydrosols in my Alembic Copper Still. First I gather the plant matter, which is all grown organically on my land. I put the plant matter into the belly of the still, add water and put the still on the camp stove outside. Most Hydrosols take about an hour to make. You can see a demonstration of me Making A White Rose Hydrosol on Youtube. There is another video, Making A Salvia divinorum Grappa, also on YouTube. I sell my hydrosols from home and at the Mendocino Farmer’s Market in the summers.
Hydrosols are frequently referred to as Floral Waters. The most common are rose and lavender, are often found at high-end stores and used to spray on linens. Another common use is as a skin toner. Herbalists are discovering the amazing medicinal uses of Hydrosols. Because they contain no alcohol, they can be safely ingested as well as used on the skin without the drying effects of alcohol. Hydrosols can be sprayed onto the skin, in the mouth, or used on cloth or cotton to soothe the skin. They are stronger than tea but gentler than essential oils. Many products sold as Hydrosols are byproducts of making Essential Oils. My Hydrosols are not: they contain the oils and acids of the plant which preserve them for about three years. These qualities are suspended in solution in water, hence the name Hydrosol or Water Solution.
All Plant Matter From My Farm – The Mediterraneans
All of the Hydrosols I make come from flowers or leaves grown on my organic farm. Looking out my kitchen window, I can see rose, lavender, oregano, thyme, sage, clary sage, white sage, lemon balm, yarrow, rosemary, Queen Anne’s Lace, rue, Chinese chrysanthemum, tansy, feverfew, borage, Sweet Annie, and goldenrod blooming at different times of the year.
From experience, I know many of these herbs are very strong and often must be used sparingly. Hydrosols are a great delivery vehicle for them. First let’s consider the Lamiaciae family, many of which can also be thought of as the Mediterraneans. This family contains very important medicinal plants that can be unsafe when used in excess, particularly with pregnant women. These are all rich in volatile oils. These oils become gasses when heated and escape with the steam. When making a tea with herbs with volatile herbs, such as lavender or thyme, it is important that they be covered to keep the volatile oils in the cup or teapot. I often use a flat Mason jar top over a cup.
Many of these Mediterranean herbs are wonderful medicines, as well as irreplaceable in cooking. Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) leads the list. This plant, beloved by the famous herbalist Juliette de Bairclii Levy, is rich in volatile oils and flavonoids, which are also found in the white inner peel of citrus fruits, and also phenolic acids, which are strongly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary stimulates the liver and gall bladder, improves digestion, and acts to clear pathogens.
Another herb I grow is the Lavender species Lavendula angustifolia, a highly-scented lavender, rich in volatile oils, and most often grown in this country. It is used internally for depression, especially in combination with Rosemary (Rosemarinus officialis), indigestion, anxiety, bronchial complaints, exhaustion, and tension headaches. Externally it is used for burns, sunburns, rheumatism, muscular pain, neuralgia, skin complaints, cold sores, insect and snake bites, head lice, halitosis, and anal fissures. It is highly antiseptic and it smells heavenly! Lavender was used to strew on hospital floors for cleanliness long before the antiseptic betadine took over.
Individual Herbs And What They Do
I also grow many varieties of thyme. Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is mostly used for medicine. It is a warming and astringent antiseptic and is antifungal. It improves digestion, relaxes spasms, and controls coughing. It is also antifungal. The oil is not used internally for pregnant women, but can be used in a bath. The Hydrosol is safe to use as a skin spray or to drink sparingly. I use thyme Hydrosol when I am traveling or am in a crowd, to protect me from germs.
Oregano grows particularly well on my land in Northern California. The most common is Oreganum vulgare. Like thyme, it contains the volatile oil thymus, which is used increasingly in medicine. Dr. James Duke, renown ethnobotanist and scientist, tested oregano for its antioxidant properties and found it the highest of the Lamiceae family, due not to any individual component but to the synergy of its properties. It is antiseptic, antispasmodic, increases perspiration, benefits digestion, stimulates the uterus, and is a mild expectorant. Using the Hydrosol rather than the oil is safer, particularly for pregnant women.
Common garden sage (Salvia officianalis) is also rich in volatile oils, particularly thujone, and should not be taken in excess by anyone, particularly a pregnant woman. However, it was used by the ancients to increase fertility. It is astringent, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory. It relaxes spasms, suppresses perspiration and lactation, and improves liver function and digestion. It also has anti-depressant properties and estrogenic effects. It is an important post-menopausal supplement (as tea or Hydrosol) that improves and cleanses the circulatory system.
I make Hydrosols with two other sages, Clary Sage (Salvia Sclarea) and White Sage (Salvia Apianis). Clary Sage is used very sparingly internally because it is very potent. It relaxes spasms, aids digestion, stimulates the uterus, calms nerves, controls vomiting, and is said to be an aphrodisiac. I love to spray this one on before bed. My friend Madelon Hope, an herbalist in Boston, MA, is one of the many people who immediately felt the relaxing and soothing effects of the Clary Sage Hydrosol.
White sage has many of the properties of common sage. It is best known as a ceremonial herb, first used by Southwestern Native American tribes who burned it to clear the air at gatherings. The good news is that the Hydrosol doesn’t get smoke in your eyes and lungs! I use it for ceremonies and also as a medicine.
Yarrow (Achillea millifolium), a prolific herb on my land, is a member of the Compositae family rather than the Lamiceae. It is best known as a protector plant, both physically and psychologically. The dried stalks of the plant have also long been used in divination with the I Ching and are hung over a door to ward off unwanted presences. Yarrow is such a powerful herb that it was used up through the Civil War as the primary wound healer. I have used it countless times to heal open wounds. I use the Hydrosol to spray on wounds, particularly when the skin has been burned or chafed, like in a rope or seat belt burn. In addition to miraculous healing, it is anti-inflammatory. Taken internally it is bitter and astringent. It increases perspiration, aids digestion, lowers blood pressure, relaxes spasms, and heals hemorrhages. It is said to be the substance that Achilles’ mother dipped him in to protect him from battle wounds. But, she forgot to anoint his heel and he was hit by a poison arrow in what would become known as the Achilles tendon. Basically, yarrow knows blood. It can be used to stop bleeding and can also be used to bring on menses when the hormonal balance is off.
Borage (Borago officinalis) belongs to yet another family, Boraginaceae. It pops up everywhere in my garden and attracts hordes of happy bees, particularly in the early spring. “Borage for courage” is a very old saying, and alludes to its antidepressant action. It also helps to soothe damaged tissue. The oil regulates hormonal systems and helps to lower blood pressure. Unlike most herbs, the oil can be used more safely than the plant, which must be used sparingly. It adds a cucumber flavor to water and the beautiful blue star flowers are commonly used in salads. The Hydrosol is uplifting and especially good before public speaking or a first date.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carotus) grows rampant along the highway and easily adapts to the home garden. It is in the Umbelliferae family, along with our garden carrots, and is also known as wild carrot. It is a beautiful wild flower growing along California roadsides. It has a calming effects on the urinary system and acts on cystitis, gout, and edema. Many, including herbalist Phyllis Light, say it is also very effective remedy for flu. It is also a uterine stimulant but must be used with care in pregnancy. The Hydrosol is therefore a good way to use it.
I take the two separate entities, in this case the flower petals and water, and use the process of distillation to make them one. This is Alchemy: the transformation of the acts of separation and rejoining. If you have ever dropped some essential oil into water, you know that oil and water don’t mix. However, through the process of distilling, the water and the flower petals are mixed without a solvent. This process gives me a substance that is pure and long-lasting. Simply placing flower petals (or leaves) into water and letting them stand won’t produce a lasting product. It will rot and wind up a putrid mess. As an experiment, following a distillation of roses, I put the leftover water and petals (called the tail) from the kettle into a Mason jar on my patio. I left it for two months, expecting to get moldy rose petals. However, when I opened it up, it was pure, even with the plant matter still in it.