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.  

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