Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Getting to Know Hydrosols

"Hydrosols contain all the plant in every drop, just like a hologram."
Suzanne Catty, Hydrosols, the Next Aromatherapy

When someone asks me what a hydrosol is, my first response is that hydrosols are aromatic plant waters. That is the simplest, easiest way to describe this type of plant medicine. But it doesn't really describe what a hydrosol is. Many folks hear this and go right to the assumption that hydrosols are therefore essential oils diluted in water. This is close, since hydrosols and essential oils are often both made by the same process and have many commonalities, yet it's not quite right. Hydrosols are a thing all their own, a unique creature in the world of herbal medicine. And even though the essential oil has become the flashy popular girl, the hydrosol is perhaps her quieter, subtler sister who may not immediately grab your attention, but perhaps offers a deeper, more sustainable connection once you get to know her.

glass still

Let's start with the process.... steam distillation. Through this process, water is heated until it turns to vapor. As it rises, this vapor carries oils and water soluble molecules from plant material that is either soaking in the water itself, or suspended above it in separate container. The vapor is then cooled and condenses back down into a liquid that is collected in yet another container. This finished liquid is the hydrosol of the plant. It is a clear, sometimes cloudy, liquid that often has strong aromatic properties. Essential oils are not part of the hydrosol. Most often they will be floating on top and have to be separated from the plant water.

essential oil floating on top of clear hydrosol
Most people get really excited about the idea of making and collecting their own essential oils, but for the small time distiller, this is not an easy process. Very little essential oil is yielded from a plant, even after several hours of distillation (unless you are working on an industrial level and distilling massive amounts of plant material at a time). For some plants, like roses, I don't hold a shred of hope in getting any essential oil at all (by some sources, it takes about 60,000 roses to make one ounce of rose essential oil). No matter though, because the hydrosol is really what I'm after here, essential oils are more of a byproduct of this process, as they have been for thousands of years.

copper still

Hydrosols, sometimes called plant waters, are mentioned in historical texts as old as 5000 years from Pakistan, and also in the Indian vedas. The Persians kept distillation techniques alive after the fall of the Roman Empire. These techniques were relearned in Europe from the writings of Jabir Ibn Hayyan in the 7th century, and Avicenna in the 11th century. All this time the goal of the process was to create plant waters, not essential oils. By the 18th century, hydrosols were commonly used in France, with over 200 used as medicine! Modern chemical medicine has pushed more traditional medicines aside in recent years, until even with the resurgence of essential oils, there is little understanding of the ancient and beautiful hydrosol.

lemon balm in the glass still

But what exactly is a hydrosol, and how is it different from essential oils?

Hydrosols contain water-soluble (hydrophilic) molecules. They also contain a very small amount of oil soluble molicules (lipophilic). As Cathy Skipper teaches, "hydrosols are not just water with essential oils in them, they are not diluted versions of essential oils!" And while they haven't been studied as extensively as essential oils, we do understand some of the differences between these two types of medicine.

Essential oils are very concentrated medicine. They are in essence, the immune system of the plant. Any aromatic plant contains essential oils, and we get these essential oils in our teas when we infused herbs in water (especially if we cover the tea as it steeps) in safe doses. As isolated oils, however, they are very strong and powerful, with the potential to do harm. Essential oils should never be ingested without the supervision of a qualified aromatherapist, and they should never be used undiluted on the skin except in rare instances and with great care.

Hydrosols, on the other hand, are mostly the hydrophilic plant molecules of the plant (some aromatic and some not), carried and held in suspension by water. They are more dilute and much safer than essential oils. They can be used for much the same aromatherapy properties as the essential oils, but are safe to spray directly on the skin, and many can even be ingested safely (research each hydrosol before ingesting).

But there are even more subtle differences still. Many herbalists believe that hydrosols contain the energetic imprint of the plant, or the "intrinsic vibration", as Cathy Skipper puts it. We can feel this energy and its effect when we partake of hydrosols in the practice of a hydrosol encounter.

To do an encounter, spray a few sprays of hydrosol in a small amount of water. Still yourself, then slowly begin to experience the hydrosol, first by inhaling its fragrance, and then my sipping the water. Closing your eyes and tuning in to the energy in your body really helps you feel how the hydrosol is effecting you, and thereby helping you to learn about its medicine. This is a fun activity to do with friends because it really helps to get validation that you are experiencing similar sensations. When we do encounters, we really feel how subtly different hydrosols can be. Holy basil gives me a high vibration burst of energy in my chest and head, while nettles grounds my energy down into the earth. Meanwhile, angelica feels like everything is being pulled upward, lifting my spirits and lightening my mood.

wild ginger roots

And when we make our own hydrosols, we can use plants that simply aren't available as hydrosols from retailers. This year, my students and I made a wild ginger hydrosol from freshly dug wild ginger roots (Asarum canadense). The resulting hydrosol was so lovely. It was mildly spicy and warming, but not nearly as strong as traditional ginger. In an encounter, this hydrosol feels very grounding to me, and calming.

So once we have our hydrosol, how do we use it? The simplest way is to keep your hydrosol in a spray bottle and use as an aromatic room spray, car spray, facial toner, or spray on the body depending on the plant's medicine. Lavender, for instance, is wonderful to spray on overheated skin, mild sunburn, or hot feverish heads and necks. Rosemary, however, is very stimulating and helpful to spray on the temples when we need to focus on a project. Rose geranium is a wonderful skin toner, treatment for acne, and helps hold moisture in the skin.  I also love to use hydrosols as room sprays when family members are sick. I combined eucalyptus, lemon balm and lemon verbena in to a formula called Clear the Air that helps disinfect the air in the room, and doubles to cool down feverish bodies. My son even took this one to bed with him so that he could spray his face when he got overheated at night.

Hydrosols can also be used as the water component in other herbal preparations. I especially love to use them in face and skin creams. Rose geranium is really lovely here, as my students and I discovered this year.

You can also use hydrosols internally (only from plants that are safe for internal use). This may have great potential for folks who are sensitive to alcohol-based medicines. I have personally seen meadowsweet hydrosol calm a gassy stomach in someone who had extreme sensitivity to many other forms of medicine. When taken internally, the dose is usually a teaspoon to a tablespoon, diluted in water.

honeysuckle in the glass still

There are a few cautions when working with hydrosols. Because this is a water-based medicine, there is the risk of bacterial contamination. We take precautions against this by making sure our equipment and storage containers are sanitized, our hydrosols are stored in dark, air-tight containers, and refrigerated if stored long-term. The shelf life of hydrosols varies from plant to plant. While bay laurel may only last a few months, oregano hydrosol, when stored properly, could be viable for years. If your hydrosol starts to develop floating matter, it's time to dump it. For this reason, use your hydrosols up quickly. They won't be good forever.

If you are using hydrosols, please get to know the plant and its properties. We don't have a whole lot of research on hydrosols as medicines, but we can start with what we know about the plants in general. If we know that a plant has certain cautions connected to its use, it is a good guess that the hydrosol may have the same cautions. Be wise medicine people.

preparing the still

On the whole, hydrosols are very safe, subtle and powerful medicines. They are much more sustainable than essential oils (taking far less plant material to manufacture), and easy and versatile to use. My experience making and using hydrosols only extends back a few years at this point. But I can't imagine my life without this beautiful medicine. I use them almost every day for myself and my family, and I'm constantly distilling and experiencing new hydrosols. Because this is a practice that nearly died out and is in the process of revival, we have much to relearn. I'm grateful for the teachers out there sharing their knowledge, and to all the herbalists out there distilling and sharing notes so that we all may learn from one another, as well as from the plants.

 Special thanks to Cathy Skipper for offering her experience with hydrosols through her teachings on this side of the pond.

PS... If you would like to get to know new hydrosols every month, check out my hydrosol subscription offer.  

Saturday, February 24, 2018

We Meet the Plants One at a Time

sitting with mullein

When I first began to study the healing plants, I wanted to meet them all. I was so excited to learn another name I had never heard before, to identify a new friend, to make medicine with a plant for the first time. Soon I realized that there are indeed a heck of a lot of medicinal plants out there. Many tens of thousands in fact. No one can possibly learn them all. One can easily become overwhelmed by this. Fortunately, we don't need to study thousands of plants to be effective herbalist for ourselves, our families, or even our communities. 

I was fortunate to hear very early on my journey, from some very wonderful teachers, that knowing a great many plants is not nearly as important as knowing a smaller number of plants very intimately. This is so important, and one of the greatest lessons a student new to herbalism can learn. I explain it to my students like this... Imagine you are attending a big party. There are hundreds of guests in attendance. Do you go around introducing yourself to each and every person and try to memorize everyone's name and face before the end of the party? Or do you try to hang out with a few people during the evening, getting into some really good conversations, and maybe making some true connections that may lead to enduring friendships? I don't know about you, but I would rather get to know a couple people more deeply than make surface level connections with everyone.

The plants are very much the same. They are complicated, multi-faceted, many-layered beings with so much to teach and share with us. If we are used to learning about medicinal herbs through 10 minute you tube videos, or cursory blog posts (A'hem), we may mistake ourselves into thinking we know them... (Oh yes, lavender is the calming herb, and peppermint is for headaches...), but this doesn't come close to the depth of intimacy that unfolds slowly over the course of years working with a plant, growing it, meeting it in the wild, harvesting, preserving, making medicine, formulating, even communicating with the plant (they often say very surprising things). 

This shouldn't surprise us. After all, people are the same way. If you only know someone because you exchange a few words with them once a week, of course you will never experience that person intimately enough to know their joys and sorrows, their history and their ambitions, or even what true gifts they have to offer the world. 

Relationship building takes time. And this is equally true with the plants. 

lavender buds

After years of working with lavender, I finally understood the subtler meaning of her medicine. She is not just "a calming herb that helps us relax". Her medicine is better defined as Joy. More specifically, she invites a child-like joy. Yes, she can help someone relax. But relax in what way exactly? I've had people come to me and say, I tried to use lavender to settle down the kids at night and it seems to have the opposite effect. I smile, and think... yep, she would do that. Young children are often light and carefree, unburdened by the cares of the world and the stress of daily responsibility. Lavender would only enhance that energy, making it appear like she doesn't actually relax at all. 

However, if someone has lost touch with their inner child, if they have come to take themselves too seriously and become too self-absorbed, then lavender can have an amazing effect, which if often interpreted as relaxing. Think about it. If you are overly serious and never able to lighten up and loosen up, you are usually holding tension in your body somewhere, often all over. If you are like this all the time, relaxing can be very hard indeed. Lavender's medicine is to first connect you back to your child-like nature, that part of you that held less worries and knew how to take delight in the moment. When this happens, we naturally relax. 

lavender blooms

Knowing this more intimate and deeper level of lavender's medicine helps us to more effectively make us of it. We may not reach for the lavender for the energetic child at bedtime, but possibly for the friend going through a tough time, who hasn't been able to ease up and just enjoy herself lately. 

Getting to these deeper understandings with the plants takes time. And we don't stand a chance of having this type of intimate relationship with hundreds of plants. But we can absolutely get to know a few dozen plants on this level. And that can make all the difference. The plants we choose to cultivate a deep relationship with are called our materia medica, they are the ones we draw from in our practice. And every time we connect with them, we deepen our relationship.

I tell my students that their materia medica should not look like my materia medica, or anyone else's. The plants we choose to connect with may be those growing around us, or they may be the ones that grab our attention for some reason. They may be the ones that helped us in the past, and so we have a soft spot in our hearts for them. Or they may be plants that others have brought to our attention. There are many ways in which the plants come into our lives. We can move deeper into relationship from this first meeting. They can become good friends and trusted allies.

We meet the plants one at a time, but we really get to know them over time spent with each one.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Local medicine from local farmers... A Visit to Lancaster Farmacy

Do you know where your herbs come from?

Local food is all the rage, but I'm still waiting for the local medicine movement to take off. What is local medicine? Local medicine is the medicine that grows within our own bioregion. It consists of the medicinal plants that exist in the same climate, adapt to the same stressors, weather patterns, and other conditions as ourselves. Many herbalists claim that when we use local plants as our medicine, it is much more effective.

Eli leading our tour

But local medicine also means fresher, more vital and potent medicine. It means we have a direct connection to the plants (because we grow or wildcraft them ourselves), or to the farmers that grow them. It means that they are not shipped from halfway across the world, using precious fossil fuels, and spending countless hours in warehouses and transit. It means more sustainable, vital, and effective medicine. With herbal medicine becoming more popular every year, it's time to start talking about local medicine.

outside the high tunnel

In my Folk Herbalism class, I always try to stress to my students just how much better quality the herbs they grow themselves are compared to what they can buy in shops or catalogues (even from really good, reputable suppliers). There is just no comparing freshly harvested and properly dried plants to even organic herbs if they have been shipped from somewhere across the ocean. When they see the difference with their eyes (vibrantly colored instead of faded), smell the difference in aroma, or taste the difference in flavor, the lesson sinks in. If we want herbal medicine that works, that is effective when we need it to help us maintain wellness, we need to strive for local medicine.

fragrant perennials

But not everyone can grow their own.

digging roots with Folk Herbalism students

Even those of us who strive to grow as much as possible cannot grow everything we need. And so we need local medicinal herb farmers to meet our need for local medicine.

freshly harvested roots

Every year I take my students to visit our own local organic medicinal herb farm, just over the border into Lancaster County. Lancaster Farmacy offers locally grown, organic medicinal herbs to the community. Farm proprietress, Eli Weaver, takes us on a tour of the farm as she talks about the herbs they grow and walks us through their harvesting and processing operations. Students get to see first hand how lovingly the herbs are tended, and how carefully they are processed to maintain vibrancy and potency. In this way, these medicine makers in training get to form a direct relationship with a local grower. They know they can confidently purchase their herbs from a local source with a commitment to the quality.

St. John's Wort

Just like the chef who buys local produce from trusted farmer, medicine makers can form the same valuable relationships with local medicine growers to make quality, local medicine for their communities. I feel blessed to have such a beautiful and dedicated growing in my own backyard, and it is my joy to help other form this relationship as well.

Eli in the farm store

If herbal medicine is going to continue to grow, we need to strive for sustainable ways to practice our craft. Growing ourselves is one option, but we need herb farmers more now than ever. They provide the solution to problems such as overharvesting at-risk plants, adulterated material from unethical sources, and less than vibrant medicinals from far away sources.

Lemon grass fields

To learn more about Lancaster Farmacy, visit their website at

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Angelica Medicine

Angelica archangelica is a beautiful and magestic plant in the parsley family (apiaceae) which is native to northern Europe and Syria, but grown and naturalized in much of Europe and North America. It likes to grow in wet places, such as along rivers and shorelines. Although the seeds and leaves have been used, the root, dug between the first and second year, is the primary medicine. The taste and energetics of angelica is pungent, oily, bitter, sweet, warm stimulating, and diffusive, with organ affinities for the lungs, lymphatic system, digestion and reproductive system. It is useful for tissue states of atrophy and depression. This is an oily, nourishing bear medicine, much like it's close relative osha.

Angelica is a warming aromatic bitter, antiseptic, expectorant, carminative, diuretic, cholagogue, tonic, and, some argue, alterative. It's constituents include volatile oils, resin, wax, bitters, furanocoumarins, flavinoids, sugars, arganic acids, and phytosterols. 

second year plants coming up in the spring

Matthew Wood talks about how this water loving plant "brings air to watery realms". In this way, it has been used in cases of old brochitis and pleurisy, helping to dry and warm cold and damp lungs. It seems to have an overall effect of moving fluids, breaking up congestion, promoting peripheral circulation, and opening lungs and skin. This pattern of opening and moving makes angelica useful in cases of swollen glands, congested lungs, and uterine congestion. It can be helpful to relieve cramps, and help to warm and stimulate menstruation.

Gail Faith Edwards mentions that angelica is high in iron and helps to build blood and increase vital energy. This makes it useful in cases of anemia. This herb has a history of use in Europe, going back to the middle ages, as protection from illness and promoter of long life. It was an ingredient of Carmelite water, "a centures-old longevity elixir". 

As a warming and aromatic bitter, angelica stimulates digestion and strengthens the liver and kidneys. It has been used for relief of nausea, gas, and colic, and included in Swedish bitter recipes for toning the digestive system. Matthew Wood writes that it will "stimulate the cortisol side of the adrenal cortex, to increase appetite, digestion and nutrition".
The oils in angelica help to build cartilage and nerve sheath, making this plant helpful in cases of joint pain.

Some angelica species are used sweatlodge to open the skin, but also to open the mind. When the roots are burned and fumes inhaled, this can help to move us into dreamtime, increasing imagination. This definitely seems to be a plant that gets things moving. 

Julia Graves states that "angelica aligns you to walk with your guardian angel", and Gail Faith Edwards uses the flower essence to "foster awareness of angelic presence and for help opening to communication from these realms". She calls angelica a visionary herb, which helps us align with our life purpose.

It certainly is an impressive plant, growing up to 6 feet tall or more and with flower heads like exploding fireworks. It seems to draw attention and folks always ask, "what is that plant?"

This spring I dug the roots of a few returning second year plants. After washing and drying these aromatic roots, my hands and home smelled strongly of unique pungently sweet fragrance. From the freshly dried roots, I made a precious little bottle of tincture that retains this intoxicating scent, and tingles the tongue.

freshly dug roots

Matthew Wood also recommends small dosages for angelica tincture, 1-3 drops, 1-3x/day, stating that while small doses can be relaxing, larger dosages can lead to central nervous system depression. When making a tea, decoct for an aromatic bitter, or steep for a tea that is more astringent to the stomach lining. 

There are also a few cautions with angelica. It should be avoided during pregnancy (though it can be helpful for expelling the placenta after birth). Also, it's coumarin content means it should be avoided it on blood thinning medication. Some seem to experience photosensitivity while taking angelica, and this should be considered as well.

Matthew Wood, The Earthwise Herbal (Old World), 2008, pgs. 91-5.
David Hoffman, Medical Herbalism, 2003, pgs. 527-8.
Gail Faith Edward, Opening our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs, pgs. 65-8.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

This is my Garden

My garden is a riot of life.


Sitting here at the height of summer, I am surrounded by flurries of activity and everywhere I look there  are creatures and beings singing, eating, dozing, flying, building, arguing, or doing any other number of things. I have watched this small plot of land transform over the years from a simple yard to an oasis. And I can tell you in one word how it happened… plants.


The first to arrive were the birds. There had always been some, but once we began planting with trees and shrubs, increasing the perching and nesting areas, the bird populations multiplied quickly. As the trees grew taller and filled in, and berry bushes started to produce fruit, we saw even more species. Our garden ecosystem is home to cardinals, finches, wrens, robins, jays, woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadee, sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, juncos, kingfishers, owls, orioles, catbirds, mockingbirds, doves, hummingbirds and many more. In the mornings we are greeted with a cacophony of bird song that I wouldn't trade for anything, and our days are filled with their calls in every waking hour.

Trees and bushes bring the birds.


This pattern has played out for other creatures as well. As our garden has grown, more of a ecosystem landscape really, life of all kinds has moved in, and it's always been welcome. By day we are surrounded by birds, squirrels, cats and buzzing insects, the nocturnal shift brings out the opossums, raccoons, bats, frogs, toads and snakes. If we are lucky, we catch a glimpse of the bunnies in the morning. Rarely seen, but always present are the moles and voles, chipmunks and fox. In the richly composted soil reside magnitudes of macro and micro critters, and ants are simply everywhere.

All of this makes me happy. It gives me hope that life can always thrive and we can live in harmony on this earth. And all it comes down to is habitat restoration (i.e. build the soil and allow plants to grow).

If you read this blog, you know I have an affinity for the healing plants. My aim from day one in this garden was always to grow, cultivate and harvest medicinal plants. But I have always taken a larger view of my gardening efforts. I never imagined a medicine garden patterned after commercial gardens or farms, with single crops lined up in rows, where the soil is tilled every year and all other plants (weeds) are expunged. My view was more inclusive. Instead of crops, I imagined communities. I wanted a living space, with niches and microclimates, with spaces that invited sitting, and wandering, and tree climbing. I dreamt of multi-storied corners and a sunny spot for the medicine wheel. I used permaculture as my guide and never looked back. The result is an every changing habitat that is home to countless other creatures, that provides my family with the beauty and spirit nourishing gifts of Nature, that feed us fruits and vegetables, that gives my children the places to climb, swim, play and hide that are so precious in childhood, and that provides me with the medicine I need to do my work and take care of my family.

All this happens on three quarters of an acre.

california poppies

There are many meanings to the word medicine. As an herbalist, or wortcunner, I use the word mostly to talk about the herbs and their healing effect on the body. But in my garden, I am awash in medicine. The plants are here, yes. But the true medicine comes in the totality of all the components of life in this garden, from the smallest to the largest. How can I possible describe the feeling I get in my heart as I sit in the shade of a tree I planted 10 years ago (now 25 feet tall) and feel the breeze cool my skin as I hear birdsong and an insect buzzes by on it's way to pollinate the meadowsweet, which I inhale into my lungs and gaze upon the many shades of green, accented by fuchsia, red, cream, pink, orange, yellow and violet flowers? It is a state of blessing.


This is my garden.