I’ve been distilling my own essential oils and hydrosols for years. When I decided to start teaching this craft, I noticed that I was getting a lot of the same questions. I thought I would dispel some misinformation, as well as provide some encouragement, for those considering learning how to use steam distillation to make their own essential oils and hydrosols.
It does not take a ton of plant material to get a measurable amount of essential oil. That’s the simple answer. I should say right off the bat that yes, there are plants that have a much lower oil content and do require quite a bit more plant material to get oil, but in my experience, this process CAN be done using what is in a small raised garden bed. In fact, between what I wildcraft and what I pluck from my raised bed, I have had more than enough to create amazing essential oils and hydrosols with. I have never had to plant “fields” of crops for distillation purposes, nor order a ton of herbs.
Case and point: last summer I went to visit my mother and she asked me to get some oregano from her little raised bed. I gathered a few robust handfuls and took them home, curious how much oil I would actually get. I was impressed with the yield! I had a measurable amount of oil – close to 5 ml. Considering that this oil is very strong and requires sufficient dilution to use, this was enough to last me quite a while! Another great example is Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Every summer, around mid to late June, it appears all over my farm. I will collect a medium-sized basket-full of the flowers and take them back to the house to distill. I get a lot of oil from these amazing flowers! I can easily fill a 15 ml bottle after two distillations. Research each plant you distill beforehand, and you will be better prepared for the outcome of the distillation process! Some plants are just not as oily as others. Please don’t beat yourself up if your oil yield is low. I guarantee you were able to obtain hydrosol from the process, and that is just as useful as essential oil!
Above: Wild Bergamot oil sitting on top of hydrosol. This picture was taken only minutes into the distillation process, when hydrosol had just started dripping into the collection container. Essential oil from this plant is abundant, powerful, and very useful!
You will always produce hydrosol during distillation. Don’t underestimate the power of hydrosol. I can’t stress this enough. Hydrosol is a by-product of the distillation process. The essential oils are usually floating on top of the hydrosol when the process is over. The oils are then extracted and what you have left behind is quite a bit of hydrosol. This is also referred to as “floral water” and has small amounts of the essential oils in it. It has many of the same medicinal properties as the essential oils that came with it. The great thing about it is that it is MUCH gentler than the essential oil, it is much more kid safe, it is much less likely to cause skin sensitization (always use caution and good judgement though), and it can be used in many of the ways you are using your essential oils!
I recently distilled yarrow essential oil and hydrosol. The oil was so sticky and hard to separate from the hydrosol! I ended up only getting maybe 1.5 ml of yarrow essential oil from that distillation, although I probably had around 3 ml total. It all decided to stick to the sides of the beaker and be stubborn. I wasn’t too bummed about it though, because I had around a quart of yarrow hydrosol…
This stuff is amazing. It has proven to be useful for so many things around our household. Having two little boys means someone is always getting cuts and scrapes. I spray yarrow hydrosol on minor cuts and scrapes because it is a great disinfectant, and its astringent properties help clean the wound. It has proven to be a great skin cleanser/toner as well. I use it as part of my beauty routine. It is especially helpful for those with acne-prone skin. Another use we found for it is an after-sun spray. I already put all my hydrosols into spray bottles, so it was ready to apply when we all came back from Florida with a little too much sun (and yes, we used sunscreen). It immediately helped with pain and by the next day, our burns were nonexistent. And finally, the most awesome thing about yarrow for us is that it has proven helpful as an insect repellent. Bugs don’t seem to like it very much. I have even experimented with spraying it on our bottle calf’s back where flies seem to bother him and they left him alone all day! When we apply it before going outdoors, we do not get bothered by mosquitoes, ticks, or any other creepy crawlies. And ALL hydrosols are this useful. This is just one example of how awesome and important hydrosols are in our every day lives!
Above: Yarrow hydrosol and essential oil after distillation. I took what oil I could by using a glass dropper to suck it up. The essential oil is the blue stuff you see in the picture. The hydrosol has proven to be just as useful as the essential oil.
You CAN do this. It is not as hard as it looks, sounds, etc. I know that when a person first sees a still all hooked up to pumps circulating water through the condenser, bubbling water in a beaker over a hot plate or propane burner, and all these things happening at once, it can look like some sore of crazy science lab. This can be intimidating for those wanting to learn more about how to create their own essential oils. I hear it all the time: “I could never do this. It looks too complicated.”
It is not that complicated. Steam distillation is simply the process of sending steam through the plant material and then letting it re-condense and turn back to liquid. Circulating cool water around the condenser coil will help the hot steam re-condense, so this is why you see pumps hooked up to them sometimes. When it re-condenses after passing through the plant material, it has taken constituents from the plants and is now a highly beneficial substance known as hydrosol and essential oil. As I stated above, the essential oil is usually floating on top of the hydrosol after it comes out of the condenser and into the collection container.
Once you learn the terms and understand steam distillation a little better, it isn’t as intimidating as it once was. There are several types of stills (I prefer copper, but I also have a glass still) and several types of distillation, but with slight variations.
Above: I labeled the parts of my glass still. As you can see, you heat water under the plant material, it turns to steam that rises up through the plant material, and then goes through what is called a “swan neck”to the condenser (where there is cool water circulating around it). What comes out of the end of the condenser is hydrosol and essential oil!
I hope that this helps those that were wanting to learn more about the process, but were held back by worries and fears of “not having enough plants” or the process looking “too hard.” We all have to start somewhere, so my hope for readers is that you gain enough confidence to at least look further into the process and realize that you can do it!
I offer a course in essential oil distillation that breaks down the process, step-by-step, to make it even less intimidating. I discuss types of stills, pros and cons with each, types of distillation, more terminology, other materials needed, native plants you can find to use, plants you can grow and use, and so much more. In addition, I offer discounts on copper stills for students wanting to get a still. You can check it out here: https://thebitterherb.com/the-bitter-herb-school-of-aromatic-distillation/