It’s my favorite time of year in Central New York. In late May and early June we get blue skies, puffy little clouds, and lush green foliage not found in other parts of the country. We have a lot of water here. Our spring is late, and it’s short. It’s not uncommon to need a winter coat on Monday and a pair of flip flops and sunscreen on Tuesday. Really.
As a plant lover, this time is incomparable. Here are some of the in-bloom plants I’ve been harvesting for hydrosols and solid perfumes.
What’s a hydrosol, you ask? A hydrosol is distilled plant water made from fresh or dried plant material. Distillation produces an essential oil and a hydrosol. Hydrosols are abundant, fragrant, and have unique chemical properties all their own. Most natural hydrosols are effective toners and astringents. If you’ve ever purchased rosewater or witch hazel, you’ve already used a hydrosol. Most commercial hydrosols contain alcohol or other additives that alter their character and affect their use on the skin. Alcohol raises the pH level of a hydrosol and has a drying effect on the skin, for example. Each plant produces a hydrosol with an acid pH level, which varies depending on species and preparation. Avoiding additives maintains the true character of the hydrosol but limits its shelf life.
Hydrosols can be made in any type of still. Copper stills are traditional and preferred by herbalists. Stainless steel is an acceptable second choice. You can make a simple homemade still by taking a large copper or stainless steel pot, placing a collection vessel in the center, putting the plant material and water in the moat surrounding the collection vessel, and inverting the lid. When the plant material is simmered, steam will condense on the inverted lid and drip into the collection vessel. Placing ice on top of the lid accelerates the process.
Here are three of my favorite spring hydrosols:
1. Elder Flower
Elder flower water has been in popular use in Europe for generations. Women use elder flower water on the face as a gentle bleaching agent to clear blemishes and lighten dark spots. They believe it promotes a youthful complexion and refines the texture of the skin. Elder flower hydrosol has a subtle, dry and slightly powdery floral fragrance. It has a relatively long shelf life of about 2 years. This mild toner can be used year round.
Rosewater can be made from a variety of cultivated or wild roses. Rose is used to cool and tone the skin, provide moisture, and as a light deodorant. Commercially, Rosa x damascena (Damask rose) is used in the production of rosewater, and yields a rich, sophisticated fragrance and long shelf life. But for the wildcrafter, a sufficient amount of any rose can be used. No two batches are the same. In my area, the multiflora rose is rampant and invasive. I use its small white flowers to make a hydrosol that is deliciously sweet and airy. The downside: its fragrance may only last a few months. A truly fleeting summer treat.
3. Lemon Balm
This innocuous looking little herb is a powerhouse in disguise. Lemon balm is the “gladdening herb” used to uplift the spirit and calm the mind. Lemon balm essential oil has activity against herpes virus, and is sometimes applied topically in an attempt to prevent cold sores or accelerate their healing. The problem? Price. Half an ounce of lemon balm essential oil can cost two to three hundred dollars. An affordable solution is to try the hydrosol. It’s less potent, to be sure, but the mellow, lemony fragrance makes it worthwhile. Like other mints, lemon balm is easy to grow and lasts from spring to fall. It also makes a delicious tea.
Infused Oils and Solid Perfumes
Some of the more delicate spring flowers don’t hold up to steam distillation, and can’t be enjoyed as hydrosols. These flowers are candidates for oil maceration or enfleurage. Immersion in a fixed oil or fat extracts the fragrant molecules from the plant material. The flowers are spent after a few weeks in the oil, and are discarded. The oil is filtered through a fine mesh or cheesecloth. This scented oil can be used as-is or thickened into a solid perfume by adding beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, or a number of other skin-friendly combos. When using a solid fat as the extraction medium, the scented fat can be tinctured with an odorless grain alcohol or vodka to produce liquid perfume. Sound fun? Some good floral candidates are lily-of-the-valley, lilac, and honeysuckle. My current experiment is an oil maceration of bubblegum-scented iris. If it works, my children will be delighted.
When selecting plants for the skin, remember that skin absorbs much of what is applied to it, including the small, aromatic molecules that produce fragrance. If a plant is contaminated with pesticides, fungicides, or certain plant foods, those chemicals can contaminate you as well. Always know your source and how it has been treated. Don’t collect by roadsides. Some plants and plant pollens can be allergenic or directly toxic. Research the properties of a plant and whether it has a protected status before you harvest it. Happy collecting!