Distilling Rabbitbrush in New Mexico

Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp) distillation

pH 5.00

Grey clouds brushed across white skies as we made our way up the sandy, narrow track from the small hot spring tucked into the rocks beside the Rio Grande in Taos. We had thought that we would harvest some of the soft, bushy, bluish spring shoots of one of the Artemisia that grow so abundantly in this part of the world on our way but another plant called to us. Bright green tufts of fresh looking young plants drew us in. Our idea was to distil the local, aromatic plants at several times of the year, during their first spring flush, mid summer and then the during the early autumn flowering. I picked one of the young shoots, rubbed it between my fingers and smelt it, rabbitbrush. We looked around ourselves and as if popping up from nowhere as we scanned the rocky hillside, we saw more and more chlorophyll-rich tufts calling us. We scrambled across the dark black and red volcanic rocks and joyfully harvested our new friend, taking care not to take too much, listening to the plant as we went. It felt like the plant was pleased that we had listened to its call and the fact that we will recognise its spirit, is a gift not just to us but to the plant as well, a two-way relationship of connection.


Without effort or calculation, we stopped when we felt the moment was right. I joined Florian, feeling his joy at doing what made us both so happy and we filled our bag. We paused and listened to the eaglets, squawking from high up in their rocky hideout blessing our activities from up high. As we walked up the path again, we stopped at the last rabbit-brush, stilled ourselves and thanked it, leaving our offering and listening to the magical, secret name of the hydrosol that we will be making.


The first thing we did when we got home to our earthship was to sit and enjoy the sacred rabbitbrush some more as we had to go through it, taking out any errant grasses that made their way in during harvesting and cutting off any roots that had come away with the plant. I love this process as it gives us a chance to feel and caress the plants before they are distilled and changed forever. When all was done, we weighed them, 2kg total that we put in the large 35 litre copper boiler, covered with collected rain water and left next to the warm earthship wall to soak overnight. This maceration period allows the water to fill up the plant cells and soften the cellulose plant cell walls making extraction of the aromatic molecules easier during the distillation.

The following afternoon, storms covered the mountain and rains fell, cosily installed in the earthship we set up the still and slowly heated the boiler.

My problem now was correct botanical identification of the plant, rabbit brush when put into Google gives at least two Latin names; Ericameria nauseosa and Chrysothamnus species. I looked up the USDA database and they give many species of Chrysothamnus but Wikipedia state that this is the former name and Ericameria is the up to date name. I will wait until the plant flowers in early fall and with my new New Mexicana flora, I will identify it.


As we are at a high altitude here in the Taos mountains (close to 8500 ft./ 2800m), water boils at slightly lower temperatures, our sacred hydrosol was born when the still got to 95 degrees. The top notes smelt like New Mexico, a subtle blend of sagebrush, pinion and fresh desert rains, as the distillation continued the aromatics evolved and the smell of freshly cut grass and slightly minty notes revealed themselves. The next morning, I spent time with the hydrosol and made the following notes; Soapy, fresh, minty and lemony, clean, clearing, high fine resonance, suddenly it reminds me of Salvia officinalis (sage) hydrosol that I distilled in France. I decide to try and find out if the constituents may be similar, which was to proove more difficult than expected. There is very little information about the chemical composition of rabbit brush essential oil. As stated earlier I am not sure of the exact species we have harvested yet but ignoring that fact there is still virtually nothing on any of the possible species except for one research paper about the constituents of Chryothamnus pulchellus, a rabbitbrush species found in the area we are in. The main constituents being monoterpenes, which logically as they are non polar, do not dissolve in water well and are therefore not found in hydrosols, in comparison to sage that has a majority of ketones that can be found more easily in the hydrosol. I did find a paper written about the leaf surface flavonoids of Chryothamnus species (4), which showed through mass spectometry that flavonoids where represented mainly in the form of methyl-ethers of flavones, flavanones and dihydroflavanols. Methyl ethers are too light and volatile to be contained in a hydrosol and according to Len and Shirley Price are rarely if never found in essential oils. They are however slightly polar and could eventually bind to the hydrogen of water molecules and be found in hydrosols.

Precursors of these molecules act to form compounds that include a six carbon benzene ring, attached to a short (3 carbon) chain. Even though this type of molecule occurs far less frequently than terpenes in essential oils, they can have a great impact on the aroma, flavor and therapeutic effect. These molecules have powerful effects on the body and essential oils containing them should be used with great care. Several of them are amphetamine-like and can be neurotoxic in high quantities; thus such oils should be used only in the short term and in low concentrations. They are as a class strong antispasmodics….” (5)

I continued my olfactory meeting with the young hydrosol; the first and most prominent note remains that of soap, heady, circular clearing, it slowly has a descending movement that seems to clear blocked energy as it goes, powerful, anchoring and heady at the same time, energizing.

The following day, I came back once again to the hydrosol, remembering it can take up to three weeks to stabilize and find its place in this world. It had changed once again, a milky aspect that I noticed slightly to begin with has now developed and covered the whole of its surface. The base notes are coming through strongly now and are partnered by a powerful alcohol-like effect, that Florian describes as being like mescal or tequila and which is floating on the air above the watery hydrosol. I wonder to myself if the gas-like, alcoholic aspect maybe the methyl-ethers that are light and form a gas above the hydrosol?


What do I know about rabbitbrush, I ask myself? My first intuition was to go and find out how the native Indians of the region used this plant as it is one of the area’s major plants and as the region is so arid, few of these plants were allowed to go unused. I was lucky enough to come across a paper written about ‘The ethnobotany of the Navaho’ (1). The first and foremost usage by the Navahos was as a yellow dye from the yellow blossoms, followed by a tooth remedy as well as removing evil spells. Following this I then decided to see what the late Michael Moore had to say about this genus as he lived in New Mexico and knew the herbal medicines from here like no-one else. He has pages of references for the genus Chrysothamnus, all having origin in papers citing native Indian uses. These include; gynecological aid, dermatology – in chicken pox and measles, decoction of twigs for toothache, infusion of flowers for colds and coughs, leaves and stems in diffusion for smallpox, burning leaf and branches to drive away the cause of nightmares, infusion of flowers for tuberculosis and chest pain, poultice of smashed herbs applied to blisters, , decoction of plant for stomach cramps and diarrhea, plant used as a medicine for drinking and bathing,  decoction of plant for venereal disease, roots used as chewing gum and the list continues. Different tribes used different names for the plant such as; rabbitbrush, little rabbitbrush, snakeweed, chamiza.

A few companies are selling rabbitbrush hydrosol but without giving any real information about its use, so I suppose it is up to us to carry on spending time with it, working with it and using it to see how it reacts to us and how we react to it.