Distillation: Dancing with Plants and Water

Distillation and Hydrosols are in the Realms of the Moon and Feminine (Yin) Aspects.

The Poetically Elemental Essence of Distillation

Working with aromatic plants and their distilled essences is poetry. We are in-touch with the most volatile components able to come over the still carried by water in its gaseous state: steam. Water and distillation are essential (pun intended) for obtaining essential oils and hydrosols from the wonderful aromatic plants. The ancient practice of distillation is science, artistry and alchemy combined to create something ethereal. There is a certain knowing–intuition–when practicing distillation, which combines the elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether….

Earth: plant material and the soil it was grown in, the copper still
Water: ancient molecules (H-O-H) that may be solid, liquid or gaseous
Fire: fuel and combustion needed to create the heat to turn water into its gaseous state
Air: air that feeds the fire, that allows for cellular respiration and metabolism in living beings
Ether: spirit of the plant and distillation

Hydrosols: Magically Therapeutic Waters

The ancient art of distillation is a sacred dance of fire, water, pressure, temperature and living elements from the plant and human realms. This dance coaxes out essential oils and the forever changed water, also known as “hydrosols” as well as “distillates” or “hydrolats”.  Hydrosols are the marriage of water and water-soluble plant constituents which are light enough to ride the magical steam over the still’s neck and into the cooling condenser. Magic.

When distilling aromatic plant material a hydrosol will have minute amounts of water-loving essential oil components such as the alcohols, ketones, aldehydes and other chemical “functional” groups. Water loving is paramount, as hydro-phobic constituents are loathe to combine and dance with steam. Hydrosols are also obtained from non-aromatic plants, the key is the dance between steam and hydrophilic plant components. This is one of many places where aromatherapy and herbalism intersect.

Hydrosols are stored in the cool, dry basement along with herbs in the process of drying out, my copper stills and of course, wine.

Hydrosols: Subtle, Potent, Eternal

Essential oils are potent and quite direct—one drop is all you need to realize a change in the mind-body. Hydrosols are potent in their own way—they may work more diffusely, seep into and penetrate tissues, hydrate—yet they are more subtle than the lipid-loving oils. Nuanced. Similar to essential oils, you need only use a small amount. It is not homeopathy—but think of it in a similar manner—diffuse, diluted.  Water has memory. Plant messages imprint water during distillation. It holds the memory of ages; Earth recycles it, eternally.

Use hydrosols in conjuction with water or substitute for water in herbal and aromatherapy preparations. Easily incorporate them into creams, aromatic sprays, in an ultrasonic diffuser, into the bath and much more.

Some of the more easily found “waters” are Rose, Neroli, Lavender and Melissa. I invite you to further explore the world of hydrosols and incorporate them into your repertoire. Start on your hydrosol journey with a few of the following ideas.

Elevate Hydration with Hydrosols

I often suggest the incorporation of aromatic hydrosols into a client’s daily routine, especially to stay hydrated and support the nervous system where my go-to is Neroli, backed by Melissa due to their brightening and notable nervine qualities.

Let’s keep things simple, but nuanced, just like hydrosols. Consider adding the distilled waters to things you drink. I’ve used cucumber hydrosol in gin-based cocktails, rose and neroli hydrosols in baking and added several different hydrosols to my drinking water for their effect on the mind-body as well as the simple joy of adding a distilled botanical burst of joy to my everyday water. All the while knowing the plant molecules are influencing my being. Here are some guidelines:

  • Add ½ to 1 tablespoon of hydrosol to a liter of water to enjoy through the day; (Note: I prefer 3-5 “spritzes” into one cup of water).
    • Remember, this is nuanced—don’t think more is better
  • Make ice cubes with a hydrosol of your choice (or a blend!) and add one cube to a drink of your choice.
  • Add a teaspoon to a cup of tea or herbal tisane.

Hydrating Toner

Honestly I keep my hydrosols in the fridge. A bonus? This makes them decadently cooling in the summer. I simply open up my fridge[1], select a hydrosol and spritz my face and neck a few times. Bliss? Very much so.

To be a bit more formal, try creating a simple toner to incorporate into your personal hygiene routine.  Consider taking equal parts of Rose (Rosa x damascena) and Neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara) hydrosols and combining them in a glass bottle with a spray top.

  • Rosa x damascena is excellent for mature, sensitive, normal to dry skin. It has an affinity for the heart (i.e., grieving, sadness, nurturing) as well as supporting women through the stages of their lives.
  • Neroli is a mild astringent that may help calm the nervous system, aid with sleep and bring brightness during the day (e.g., antidepressant). A few weeks ago a client sprayed Neroli hydrosol onto her body and her face just lit up—she beamed. She was moved to tears by the hydrosol.

To use? Simply spray your face with the mixture (after cleansing and before moisturizing) and let the waters sit on your skin for a bit before moisturizing –OR— liberally spray a cotton pad and gently wipe the pad across your face and neck. The possibilities are endless.

In Closing…

To be honest with you, I love the waters. I love the fact there is not a ton of research or scientific documentation (versus essential oils) and that there is a lack of a “this is good for that” mentality as far as incorporating them into daily life. I love the fact people favored “distilled waters” for hundreds of years over the essential oils. I love the fact that many women were involved in distillation and the still rooms in homes and estates of years gone by.  

Want to learn more? Several “Plant Talk” videos showcase distillation of aromatic botanicals to obtain the beautiful hydrosols. Below is a short video clip featuring a hydro distillation of Melissa officinalis. You’ll notice a rye-flour paste applied to the joints to keep steam and pressure from escaping.


[1] Note: store hydrosols at a comfortable “room temperature”—what matters most is they are not subject to constant temperature fluctuation. Treat them like a fine wine.

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