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By Jeanne Rose


The act of distillation is the process or art whereby the invisible is made visible…Jeanne Rose 2001

     Distillation is the art of extracting the essential oil from a plant by the use of steam and/or water. In steam-distillation, steam is pumped through the herb material under pressure that softens the cells and allows the essential oil to escape in vapor form. The essential oil and steam as vapor and steam collects in the head of the still and eventually works its way down the neck into the receiver where it is cooled by the external application of cool water outside of the coils. The steam condenses to water (the hydrosol); the vapor condenses back into the fluid called essential oil. Since the essential oil in most cases is lighter than water, it floats to the surface where it can be removed. Some of the resultant water is now called the hydrosol. All types of plant parts including buds, leaves, bark, and roots can be processed in this way to remove the essential oil. This method, distillation, is the most popular method used to extract essential oils.

     Cohobation is used on plants with very little essential oil. The distillate water is recycled over and over again through the still to extract the essential oil. Thus, there will be no useful hydrosol.

     Until very recently, it was widely held that distillation was invented by the most famous of Persian physicians, Ibn Cina, who was known in Europe as Avicenna and who lived from 980 to 1037. However, during the course of a research expedition to Pakistan led by Dr. Paolo Rovesti in 1975, a terra-cotta distillation apparatus dating from about 3000 BC was discovered in the archaeological museum at Taxila. On this evidence, distillation is very much more ancient an art than was formerly believed. Whatever the origin of distillation, and whoever first devised it, Avicenna seems to have been the first to apply the process to the preparation of Rose Water and other aqueous perfumes from flowers by blowing live steam into the distillation vessel filled with plants. Thus, it seems certain that Avicenna invented steam distillation.

     A feature of the appearance of many of the distillation waters collected through this initially crude process would have been the presence of oily droplets, the significance of which was not at first recognized. The drops of oily matter were, in fact, regarded as impurities in the distillation waters and were removed and thrown away. Then, in Europe at some time around 1150 came a truly tremendous breakthrough. Someone unknown, by either accident or design, cooled the hot vapors issuing from the distillation vessel and in so doing, invented the condenser.

     From this time, distillation became a much more efficient procedure wherever the condenser was applied. Far greater quantities of aromatic waters were collected from distillation of the same quantities of material, but also much larger amounts of oily 'impurities' appeared in them.    

3 sizes of stills are available:
 Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear.

      It was found that the layer that floated on the distillation water and in some cases formed a lower, oily layer in them or sank was infinitely more powerfully aromatic than the waters themselves. These oils, the first essential oils to be purposefully produced, were carefully separated from the condensate water and were sold as perfumery materials in their own right. From this point in history, ca. 1500, the essential-oils industry came into existence.

     Distillation in a copper still* helps keep the essential oil and the hydrosol sweet. Copper ions collect and attach to yeast cells and sulfur and keeps these out of the distillate. We find in our Distillation classes that the aromatic hydrosols collected from the distillation in Copper Stills is very nicely fragrant, clean, and stays free of bacteria and mold. There is no still note or off note.

Examples of plants that are distilled for essential oil are: Eucalyptus Leaves, Rosemary Herb, Lavender, Clove Buds, etc.
*Distill in a small stovetop copper still for the best results.





All rights reserved 2001. No part of this article
From Aromatherapy Course – Home & Family may be used without the prior permission
of Jeanne Rose. © Authors Copyright Jeanne Rose

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