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
 
Picture

​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.