Hydrosols—The Quiet Revolution in Herbal Medicine

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Distillation and hydrosols: connecting herbalists to aromatherapy.

For a while now, I have been wondering why hydrosols do not play a more important role in both aromatic and herbal medicine. The more I work with them, the more I realize their potential and the more I see them playing a major role in plant healing across the board. One of the most important aspects of hydrosols is that we can make them ourselves and thereby deepen our relationship with the healing plants around us and be more sustainable.

Hydrosols are also known as aromatic waters. They are the main product of steam and hydro-distillation, which also yield much smaller amounts of essential oils.

The French pharmacist’s book entitled ‘Le precis de pharmacie galenique’ from 1900 describes hydrosols as: “Distilled waters containing volatile principles that are normally contained in the plant or that are likely to form under the influence of water.”1

Hydrosols can be made from almost any part of the plant: fruit, flowers or flowering tops, leaves, occasionally branches, bark and roots. They can also be made from more unusual substances, such as beeswax and clay. The plant matter is usually distilled fresh in order to preserve the most volatile molecules, prevent degradation due to light and oxygen and to enable the ‘cellular water’ from the plant to be extracted.

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To me, the best and most important aspect of hydrosols is that you can easily make them yourself, e.g. on your stovetop. This is important, in my opinion, because it gives us autonomy with regards to using and making plant medicine–the more we can do ourselves, and the more autonomously, the better. By making our own plant medicines, we learn to identify the plants we are using. This can also motivate us to grow or wild-craft them, which in itself means that we are building a deeper relationship with the plants and our local environment. Also we connect with the plants in an ongoing pattern, long before we make medicine with them. When making our own hydrosols, we can choose the quality of the plants that we use, either organically grown by ourselves or other people in our community or sustainably wild-crafted in non-polluted areas. We are not reliant on shop-bought products that can be of low quality, degraded, and harvested in an unsustainable manner and in polluted areas. Also, the range of plant products available via stores is generally more limited and generic. Instead, by learning to make our own hydrosols, we can work with and deepen our relationship to our local flora. We can experiment with both aromatic and non-aromatic plants. We can choose the water we use mindfully. With regards to the water for distillation, make sure it’s from a pure source, such as a spring or well, or even rainwater. We can also offer the respect to the plants that feels right to us and make offerings when we harvest, for a more proper exchange of energy, which influences the potency and energy of the medicines.

Also, gathering our own plants gives us the opportunity to take care of the local habitats that we wildcraft from and this mindful attention makes the plants happy.

Basically, we are in charge of the process from A to Z, which means that we respect the plant and concentrate on the quality of the medicine we are making from before harvest to using the hydrosol.

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Hydrosols were used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, they were the predominant form of plant medicine. Due to a number of factors, including that they are less profitable than essential oils, their popularity diminished in the 20th century. With the emphasis on maximizing essential oil yield, hydrosols became a mere by-product of essential oil production, which meant the quality suffered. Distillations were geared towards producing oils and only several highly valued hydrosols such as rose, orange blossom and lavender were available commercially. Centuries of plant medicine wisdom appeared to be headed to extinction. In the past twenty years however, hydrosols have been having a slow but steady renaissance. At-home, stove-top distilling and artisanal hydrosol production are becoming more wide-spread—a quiet revolution in sustainable herbal medicine.

For most of us, home-distilling limits the size of the still, which is usually made from copper, with sizes ranging from 5 to 35 liters (approximately 1.5 to 10 gallons), which is too small for the production of meaningful quantities of essential oils. Yet stills in this size range are ideal for hydrosol distilling, right in your own home, or even in the field. When focusing the distillation on the hydrosol, you can pay much more attention to factors such as temperature, pressure, duration, yield, pH, etc. Therefore you can achieve quality hydrosols easily with your still at home.

Still, why hydrosols? I have already discussed the benefits of being able to make them yourself. Even if making medicine isn’t your ‘thing’, hydrosols are nevertheless a very safe, interesting and effective form of plant medicine, that has a long history but has also long been overlooked and undervalued. I highly recommend you become familiar with hydrosols and their healing powers. If you decide to explore hydrosols more, my first advice is to buy them from small-batch artisan distillers or distributors known for the quality of their products. I have always made my own hydrosols. However, last year I was working on my online hydrosol class (see below for more info) and decided to buy a range of commercially available hydrosols to get a sense for their quality. I bought them in a health-food shop in France, choosing a well-known brand and I was really disappointed. Basically, they had no flavor, aroma or energetic resonance. They were flat and lifeless. I could think of at least three reasons for this: First, a hydrosol that is produced during an essential oil distillation is considered a by-product and when aiming for maximum essential oil yield, little attention is given to the hydrosol’s needs and the quality suffers.

Second, only the initial fraction of the distilled hydrosol contains enough aromatic molecules to make it aromatically and medicinally potent, but a distiller may keep collecting hydrosol in the distillation to maximize yield, which results in over-dilution of the aromatic constituents. Third, the producer has probably not paid enough attention to the care of and respect for the plant, habitat and harvesting process to retain the intelligence of the plant and its soulful resonance.

Unlike essential oils that are highly concentrated, hydrosols are much more dilute, which makes them much easier and safer to use and more sustainable, while still offering healing potency and a wide range of uses. Nowadays most of us are aware of the huge amounts of plant material required to make one liter (approximately one quart) of essential oil. For example, it takes approximately 1300 lbs of Lavandula angustifolia to get a liter of lavender essential oil and it takes the flowers of 2 acres of Damask roses for a liter of rose essential oil. Just think about the environmental impact, especially as more and more people are using essential oils in larger quantities than ever before. The yield of hydrosols is much higher per amount of starting plant material, which makes hydrosols much more sustainable and allows you to make useful quantities in a small home still.

Also, hydrosols are much safer, gentler and easier to use than essential oils. They don’t need to be diluted or mixed with a carrier oil. You don’t have to educate people about the dangers of unsafe practices, which has become a growing concern about essential oils. People often think that because hydrosols are much more dilute, they are less potent, but that is not true. Just think of how potent flower essences and homeopathic remedies can be, even though they are even more dilute.

The versatility and wide range of actions and uses of hydrosols may seem incredible. Hydrosols are effective and safe home remedies for children. They are also an excellent water-based ingredient for natural cosmetics, adding both aesthetic and healing qualities. They can be added to foods and especially drinks as an interesting and safe ‘magic touch.’ They make great and easy-to-use healing additives to a bath. They can even be added to tinctures and herbal teas to contribute an aromatic element to the medicine. Being more dilute than other forms of aromatic medicines, they also make very powerful tools in vibrational medicine, acting in a similar way to flower essences.

In France, my training as a herbalist involved an in-depth training in aromatherapy and aromatic medicine is considered an important aspect of herbalism. I know that many herbalists in English-speaking countries are hesitant to incorporate essential oils into their practice, for several reasons. One reason is an ethical concern about the amount of plant matter needed to make them, as discussed earlier. Another reason is the opinion that without a huge still, you can’t make sufficient amounts of essential oils for your practice yourself and are dependent on having to purchase essential oils. As we have discussed, this is not the case for hydrosols—sufficient quantities can be easily made at home and need very little plant matter. Although yields change with each plant, the general rule is approximately a liter of hydrosol per kilo of plant matter (approximately 1 pint of hydrosol per pound of plant matter).

I have noticed in my own work that I have been able to add to my knowledge of a plant by making a hydrosol from it. In that way, I can really discover and work with the aromatic aspect of the plant as well as all its other aspects. When discovering Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), the roots of which are traditionally used in herbal teas and tinctures, I decided to make a hydrosol with it. The yerba mansa hydrosol, which I had to make since it’s not commercially available, revealed a profound, hidden aspect of its character, that I would never have discovered otherwise.

 

To learn more about using and making hydrosols here is a link to my certified online class :courses.aromaticstudies.com/…/hydrosols-certification-program-with-cathy-skipper

 

Distill my heart: Milkweed in three acts

This article was put together by Dr. M. Leona Godin, Cathy Skipper, & Florian Birkmayer MD

 

Distill My Heart: Milkweed in Three Acts

Act One by Dr. ML Godin about her encounter with milkweed hydrosol in a class taught by Cathy Skipper & Florian Birkmayer MD.

Act Two is a poem written by Cathy Skipper, who created the online hydrosols certification program through The School for Aromatic Studies.

Act Three details the collection and distillation of milkweed in the beautiful Taos region of New Mexico by Cathy Skipper & Florian Birkmayer MD.

Act One: Drinking Monarch Nectar, AKA Milkweed (Asclepias)
By Dr. ML Godin

On the day of the hydrosols tasting with Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer, my daily hallucinations were painted blue, an electric blue that did not want to let go its hold on my visionscape. In recent years, I’ve found that strong scents can change my visual palette almost immediately, but somehow that blue day would not give way except for the neon orange of the orange blossom and then the glorious yellow orange of the milkweed that burst through towards the end of the evening.

The way it worked was that each new hydrosol was spritzed into our wine glasses and mixed with a little filtered water. Then we all smelled and sipped and free-associated, allowing the mystery hydrosol to elicit thoughts, feelings, images and yes colors too.

To be honest, it was hard for me not to feel a little competitive. As a blind person, I want my nose to be best, but, as a person new to aromatic aesthetics, I realize this is ridiculous. For several of the hydrosols, I was sure what they were and I was correct, for a bunch, I had ideas of what they were, but having been derived from plants I’d never met before—black copal and palo santo for example—I was nowhere close, and I hate to be wrong!

After the first three I finally relaxed and allowed my mind to wander a bit and not get too hung up about being right. One cool moment was guessing #8 Beeswax correctly, but I had an advantage since, being enrolled in Skipper’s Hydrosols program at The School for Aromatic Studies, I knew that such a thing was possible. That was certainly one of my favorites, as it exhibited a strong distinction between its taste and aroma—the smell reminded me of the spirit of the plants that sustain the hive, while the flavor tasted of the building material itself, a glossy waxy sensation that was almost chewable.

Birkmayer encouraged us to think synesthetically, which in the case of #9 penetrated and offered a joyous blast of yellow orange. I did not know what it was, but I liked it. I was so entranced that I neglected my notes, so unfortunately I cannot refer back to words from the moment to explain the flavor, also it was number nine, so Alabaster—who was gracious enough to accompany me on this odd little tasting adventure—and I were a bit slap happy. We’re not yet persuaded by the concept of vibrational aromatherapy, but our heads were surely buzzing by that point in the evening!

For some of the hydrosols, we were encouraged to imagine an animal. People were not guessing the correct animal for this one and so Birkmayer mentioned butterflies and then I knew and said, “Milkweed?” And I felt justified in all my orange and yellow associations.

The common name milkweed derives from its milky nectar that can trap some nonnative insects, but Linnaeus, that taxonomist of all taxonomists, apparently named the genus asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Why? I wonder. Milkweed is a new world plant, likely brought back to Sweden by one of his students flung out to all corners of the world to collect new species for Linnaeus to inspect and name. Perhaps he did so because he learned that some natives of the New World used some species for healing, but so many plants have medicinal uses, this seems too easy an answer.

Asclepias speciosa, from which our hydrosol was distilled, is also known as “showy milkweed” because of its flamboyant flowers. It is the special food of the monarch butterfly. The recognition of the monarch nectar brought me back to the Santa Cruz grove where the monarchs winter. I wrote a poem about seeing those butterflies, which I often visited during my years at UCSC.

Once, with a forgotten companion, I saw them fall from the sky mating in the warm afternoon sun. They dropped in our hands and flew apart and I believe it was all not a dream, though the memory has that quality of unreality that sometimes makes me doubt.

Act Two: My encounters with Milkweed
By Cathy Skipper   
 
Angels blowing milkweed’s message
reminding me of who I am
Head spins and heart pounds
its sweetness pulsating and pushing open
the guarded heart.
 
Spiraling and as strong as a tree
Milkweed unseals me to the sky
prompting me to breathe, anxious in its
truthful presence that gives me no choice
but to be fully alive.
 
Sweet, musky, honey, dreamy and creamy
rocking me rhythmically like a baby in the crib
Asclepius, the healer who could raise the dead
heart opens skywards, safely I become my star
 
Humming its wise song into all my bones
bringing them back into resonance with life
stagnation is broken with a shot of
authentic pulsation aligning me with the Self
 
The exquisite but momentary note of bliss
is quick to leave aromatically but does its job
perfectly…stimulating soulful remembering
feeling the warmth and safety of coming home
 
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​Act Three: Capturing Milkweed Hydrosol
By Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer MD
 
We had seen clusters of milkweed along the road between Taos and Valdez for years, easy to recognize from afar with their big pointy leaves and alien-looking, hairy seed pods. On the day of the solstice, seeing some clusters in bloom while driving home, we decided to gather milkweed for a hydrosol.

We gathered the flowering tops in some brown paper bags we happened to have. We collected more the next day—finally we had an excuse to explore all the back alleys, dirt roads and dead ends around Arroyo Seco, a very picturesque town of old adobes near Taos. That day we discovered many hidden paths and a previously invisible network of trails, older than the paved roads, revealed itself. Anywhere we saw a cluster, we pulled over and harvested the flowering tops. This time we collected them in the pot of our still, into which we had put wine.

The flowers of the genus asclepias, which are almost as complex as those of orchids, have a pollination mechanism that can trap other insects, such as flies and honey bees. We released quite a few bees and flies that afternoon from their beguiling traps! The aroma of milkweed is intoxicating. It grabs you instantly, like the flower grabs the fly.

Most if not all species of milkweed are considered toxic, due to the presence of cardiac glycosides in the milky latex. Cardiac glycosides are very large molecules, so we assumed that they would not come across in the distillation. While milkweed poisoning is a concern for livestock, a significant amount of plant material, approximately 10% of body weight, would need to be ingested to cause toxicity symptoms.

The particular species we found throughout the day was Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which has an umbel of bold five-pointed pink and white blossoms. Milkweed is the only host for the larvae of the Monarch butterfly and the butterflies get molecules from the plant that make them unpalatable to predators, according to the USDA’s Plants Database, which also mentions that the traditional indigenous uses of showy milkweed include using the stem fibers for rope as well as for food and medicine.

The day was slightly overcast and not too hot. Following along the dirt paths, we crossed several tiny acequias, ancient irrigation channels, cutting through moist pastures, along which the milkweed grew strong. It was a beautiful day spent roaming through this landscape with its intoxicating ancient beauty.

When we decided to distill milkweed, we were trying to determine how to capture its fragrance, which we were concerned would be lost in a regular hydrodistillation. We were also worried that other aromas, such as the ‘greenness’ that is common in non-aromatic plants, might predominate. Thankfully, Cathy knew of an old book on distillation of floral waters that was available online, John French’s The Art of Distillation (1651). While it had no specific information on milkweed, the chapter reproduced below guided us.

“To Make The Water Of The Flowers Of Jasmine, Honeysuckle Or Woodbine, Violets, Lilies, Etc. Retain The Smell Of Their Flowers

The reason why these flowers in the common way of distillation yield a water of no fragrancy at all, although they themselves are very odoriferous, are either because if a stronger fire be made in the distilling of them the grosser and more earthy spirit comes out with the finer, and troubles it, as it is in case the flowers be crushed or bruised (where the odor upon the same account is lost) or because the odoriferous spirit thereof being thin and very subtle rises with a gentle heat, but for lack of body vapors away. The art therefore that is here required is to prevent the mixing of the grosser spirit with the finer and to give such a body to the finer that shall not embase it, and it is thus:

Take either of the aforesaid flowers gathered fresh, and at noon in a fair day, and let them not at all be bruised. Infuse a handful of them in two quarts of white wine (which must be very good or else you labor in vain) for the space of half an hour. Then take them forth and infuse in the same wine the same quantity of fresh flowers. This do eight or ten times, but still remember that they be not infused above half an hour. For according to the rule of infusion, a short stay of the body that has a fine spirit, in the liquor receives the spirit; but a longer stay confounds it, because it draws forth the earthy part withall which destroys the finer. Then distill this liquor (all the flowers being first taken out) in a glass gourd in a very gentle Balneum, or over a vapor of hot water, the joints of the glass being very well closed, and you shall have a water of a most fragrant odor. By this means the spirit of the wine which serves to body the fine odoriferous spirit of the flowers arises as soon as the fine spirit, itself, without any earthiness mixed with it. Note that in defect of wine, aqua vitae will serve; also strong beer, but not altogether so well, because there is more gross earthiness in it than in wine. The water of either of these flowers is a most fragrant perfume and may be used as a very delicate sweet water, and is no small secret.”17361883_761773433971515_6095404633174808250_n

Based on this, we infused the flowering tops we had collected on the first day in 750ml of white wine (pinot grigio) in two batches. We let each batch soak for 30min and stored the wine in the fridge overnight. Because we were wondering if any of the subtle volatiles might evaporate before we got home, we decided to bring the still pot on the second day with 1.5 liters of white wine, so that the flowering tops could infuse immediately after being harvested. We removed the flowering tops from the wine in the still, added the wine that we had infused the previous day and distilled this very slowly. We live at almost 9000 feet (3000 meters) altitude, which means that the boiling point of water is lower, approximately 96 degrees Celsius (approximately 205F). Between the very slow heating of the still and the lower boiling point, we speculate that we are able to distill more fragile and volatile aromatic molecules that would otherwise be lost.

The scent of the hydrosol has a very quick onset and also dissipates very rapidly. There is a peppery note that comes through along with the complex floral notes, which have a similar ethereal quality to lilac, without much sweetness. The scent could be described as regal and nourishing to certain parts of the soul. It also provided a deeper glimpse of the hidden aspects of the landscape that is our home.

Deepen your healing practice by deepening your relationship with plants

I believe that any form of plant work or plant medicine such as herbalism, aromatherapy, flower essences and cultivating plants can benefit from deepening our personal relationship with the plants.

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When we study academically, we learn with the left brain, we learn the plant names, their morphology, their actions, their constituents etc. all of which is human-based information. This knowledge gives us a valuable grounding and starting point but there is more to plant medicine than book learning and theory.

Learning by initiation and letting the plants teach us what they know can deepen our practice and help us widen our consultations from patient/client and practitioner to patient/client, practitioner and plant.

Learning the language of plants is learning to feel through our subtle senses and to build our own unique and personal relationship with the plants. This is nothing new, it has been the way humans throughout history have always related to plants.

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In today’s world there is a tendency to rely too heavily on language, we are continually categorizing,  placing our experience of the world around us into boxes. Our minds are full of words that reduce the world to a limited framework in which the left brain feels safe. If we are not careful we fail to see and feel the ‘aliveness’ and possibility of deep relationship that exists in this amazing world we live in.

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’ W.B Yeats

Plants are masters in subtle communication, their survival depends on a continual relationship with their environment, they are constantly adapting their intricate chemical makeup to what is happening around them. Through intuitive plant medicine, we learn what I call, plant communication or how to communicate with plants. How to take a back seat, stop doing and become receptive, let a plant in and allow it to lead the way. When we learn to do this, transformation occurs, we change, our world view changes and the plant changes.

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I am so humbly grateful for this class Cathy, it has been completely life changing so far! I have met a large family of pines close to my home that I now feel an incredible connection with. It was wonderful beginning with the smaller plants and gradually moving to meeting the trees, a perfect flow. Working my way through this class has been completely altering for me. I feel like I am picking up on a path that I left behind as a young child. I feel like my community of friends has expanded exponentially to include the plants, animals, even minerals, sky, earth, wind, clouds etc. What an incredible opportunity this has been so far!” Piper Lacy

Thank you both for a wonderful and inspiring workshop this weekend, I can’t tell you how joyful it was to be among a group who think it’s entirely normal to communicate with plants!” Ffion S.

If you are interested in learning about intuitive plant medicine, I am offering a 200 hour online class called, ‘Plant Communication’

https://courses.aromaticstudies.com/product/plant-communication-with-cathy-skipper/