There is a hint of alchemy in the air when using a traditional 'alembic' copper still to create your own hydrosols. It could be because of the way the copper glows, or the meditative practice of gathering and preparing plant matter for the still, or the quiet rumbling sound as the water starts to boil, or the joy of seeing the first few drops of vapour make their way through the condenser and into the waiting jug. Then there is the smell. Bliss.
In her book '375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols', aromatherapist Jeanne Rose says that "Hydrosol represents the true synergy of herbalism and aromatherapy." It is more than aroma that makes hydrosols so special. They are one end product of the steam distillation process and contain the water-soluble volatile components of the plant being distilled, while the essential oils contain the oily, lipid volatile components of the plant matter used. These compounds contribute to the complex therapeutic efficacy of a plant. The aromatic hydrosols tend to be milder and less irritating than the more concentrated essential oils, making them a valuable addition to a range of skincare products and useful around the home. I use hydrosols as an active ingredient in toner sprays and moisturisers, carefully selecting them based on these qualities. For example, chamomile hydrosol is soothing and anti-inflammatory, while geranium hydrosol is valued as a skin balancer.
The practice of creating hydrosols and essential oils for use in medicine and beauty has been recorded over the past few thousand years. It was a female alchemist and scientist, known as Maria Prophetissa, in the ancient city of Alexandria around the third century, who is credited with inventing a distillation machine that harnessed steam and so enabled the art of creating hydrosols, alcohol and essential oils. She described the essential oil it produced as 'an angel who descends from the sky' and when one smells the beautiful fragrance of freshly distilled aromatic plant matter such as lavender, rosemary, or fir needles, it is easy to agree with her.
The distillation process is simple: plant material is placed in the copper still along with water, which is brought to the boil. It is believed that the best stills are made from copper because it removes the yeast and sulphur that can make hydrosols smell bad. The steam runs through a cooler where it condenses and the non-alcoholic liquid distillate, or hydrosol, is gathered. The essential oil will appear as a thin film on top of the hydrosol. These are then separated.
It is worth noting that the compounds that make essential oils or hydrosols are produced in various places depending on the plant, which of course will determine which part you use to make your distillation. In rose and jasmine the essential oils are found in the flowers; in geranium, peppermint and kawakawa they are in the leaves; cardamom the seeds; vetiver the roots; cedar the wood; pine, fir and cypress the needles and branches; cinnamon comes from the bark; frankincense from resin and some plants produce different volatile compounds in different parts of the plant such as the bitter orange tree whose flowers create neroli, leaves petitgrain and rinds bitter orange.
Another part of the magic of distillation takes place outside the still and is all about how it can bring people together. There is something very sociable about getting a few friends together and cranking up the still. The process requires time and a degree of patience and this can create fertile ground for conversation and connection. I recently held a distillation workshop at the Archeus apothecary with Alembics NZ and it was great seeing people become almost childlike with the wonder of what they created. The day was filled with beautiful scent and lots of laughter. If you can, you should give it a try.
Meanwhile, here are some tips for using beautiful hydrosols:
Spritz directly on body and face to rehydrate dry skin.
Use as a room freshener
Great for freshening clothes and bed linen
Add hydrosol to your bath for a relaxing soak
Use hydrosols in footbaths
Archeus Hydrating Floral Mist, Archeus Geranium & Frankincense Moisturiser
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These products draw on a range of essential oils and hydrosols created through using an alembic still and made to be a beautiful natural treatment for your skin. Archeus Geranium & Frankincense moisturiser harnesses the calming, balancing and soothing properties of lavender, neroli and geranium hydrosols and the antioxidant rich wrinkle-defying attributes of frankincense essential oil. Hydrating Floral Mist is flower power in a bottle, making a refreshing toner or mister to get you through the day. These items come attractively gift-boxed making them a well-earned luxury for you or a gorgeous gift for someone else.