Fig. A: Gently strip the leaves off the rosemary sprigs
with your fingers. Fig. B: Fill the pot with water.
Fig. C: Pack the plants loosely to let steam pass through
from below. Fig. D: Add as many stages as you like.
Fig. E: The receiving bowl must be centered and level.
Figs. F and G: Place the ice-filled condensing bowl over
the receiving bowl. Fig. H: Pour the contents into a
different container each time you harvest.
you need to lift off the bowls and strainer(s) to check
visually, it won’t hurt anything as long as you remember to protect your hands with oven mitts against
possible burns from escaping steam.
The boiling water produces steam, which passes
through your plant material, where it collects volatile fragrance compounds before rising to the top of
the pot. There, it encounters the cold outer surface
of the large bowl and condenses, with its extracted
volatiles. Condensate flows down the surface of
the bowl and accumulates at its lowest point, from
which it drips into the receiving bowl. Depending on
how much material you extract and the particular
distillation conditions, the contents of the receiving
bowl may form a clear floral water, a cloudy emulsion, or separate layers of water and oils.
9. Collect the fragrance.
Photography by Abby Wiltse
Check on the distillation periodically to empty the
small receiving bowl. Be wary of steam burns when
you remove the condensing bowl, and don’t try to
handle the receiving bowl with bare hands. Use pliers
or kitchen tongs to grasp the receiving bowl by its rim,
lift it out of the still, and pour off into a jar (Figure H).
Each time you empty the bowl, use a different
container so that you can compare the smell and
appearance of each fraction. This will help you
decide when the distillation is complete, and will
prevent diluting the more potent, earlier fractions
with the later ones, which will be weaker.
Essential oils can be used to scent homemade
soaps, lotions, or candles. Drop a cup of floral water
into your bathwater for a scented bath, or heat
some in a vaporizer for aromatherapy. Mom adds
some to her humidifier, or to a dishcloth that she
tosses in the drier to scent the laundry. Experiment!
Sean Michael Ragan is a chemist, writer, and artist living
and working in Austin, Texas.