The process of distilling volatile oils out of herbs and flower in order to make essential oils creates hydrosols, or flower water. This can be done in fancy copper stills, or we can use supplies that most us already have, or can borrow from friends/family/neighbors, to make our own simple setup. Hydrosols can be used in homemade herbal concoctions - from cosmetic to medicinal - as well as in community health settings. We don’t need to buy Rosewater, Lavender Water, or Orange Blossom Water, which may contain sketchy fragrances and pesticides, be produced by companies that treat their workers unjustly or that harm the planet in their harvesting and overall business practices, etc. We can make our own hydrosols!
A note on essential oils: Many recipes for do-it-yourself Rosewater, Lavender water, and other hydrosols/sprays contain essential oils. Even organic, 100% pure essential oils can be harvested in unethical ways, may deplete a community's resources of a particular (medicinal) plant, and have other negative impacts that are difficult to know about due to the long chain and many middle-(hu)mans from harvest through production and sale. By capturing the volatile oils directly from the plants which we can harvest ourselves, we can feel more empowered and a part of the process, using plants that grow locally and abundantly, and being able to ensure that the plants (and people!) involved are treated with respect.
Uses for Hydrosols (aka Flower Water)
*I have included homemade Lavender and/or Rose water in my Street Medic kit to use as a cooling spray at marches, rallies, and other events on sunny days. It’s also great after-care for hot days out in the garden, working in the fields, and at the beach, as well as for hot flashes. You can add Lavender essential oil to this for its calming effect, as well as flower essences. I like to add Yarrow flower essence for energetic protection and clear boundaries, especially if this spray is going to be used at events that are potentially triggering and overwhelming, or if there's simply a large group of people and all their energy. Corn flower essence is also grounding for these situations.
(I've also carried sunscreen and water in a sports bottle - so it can be squeezed directly into folks' mouths without getting germs on the container - in my Street Medic fanny pack to prevent overheating and protect from the sun. Prevention is best. Hydrosols aren't going to prevent a sunburn, but can provide soothing, cooling relief to overheated skin after the fact. More here: Arnica drops and Lavender Spray: Creating Herbal/Emotional Support at Marches and Demonstrations.)
*If you’ve got a sunburn, you can mix the Lavender and/or Rose water with Aloe juice or gel and/or Lavender essential oil. I use real aloe that needs to be refrigerated, not the ‘100%’ aloe that often contains sketchy preservatives and colorings. This is how I make Sunburn Soother.
*You can use homemade hydrosols in recipes that call for distilled water. I personally don’t want to give a cent to water-commodifying multinational corporations like Poland Springs/Nestle, and I definitely don't want to use their water in the remedies that I make for my loved ones, my communities, and myself. By making our own flower water, we encourage self/community-sufficiency and we are also capturing some of the healing properties and fragrance of the plants.
*You can use your homemade hydrosols as a natural alternative to sprays with toxic ingredients to use in the home: room spray, bathroom air freshener, linen spray, and whatever area needs some freshening up, such as the car. Even "natural" store-bought sprays may contain sketchy fragrances and other chemicals.
*You can create a bedtime hydrosol spray with relaxing herbs to help unwind before sleeping and/or have more vivid dreams and remember them.
*You can use Rose water to soothe pink eye so that you don't have to touch your eyes and possibly share your germs (transmitting it to the other eye if it's only in one, or to another person). Simply close your eyes and mist them with rose water kept in a spray bottle. (I've also used moist chamomile tea bags and yarrow compresses for pink eye/conjunctivitis)
*Use as freshening up spray for when traveling, camping, or have other limited access to regular bathing. This is part of community health because if we're so ripe that other folks don't want to be close to us, it makes collaboration difficult, right?!
*If you have a plant ally that's aromatic, making a hydrosol is another way to connect with the plant. If there's a plant you're drawn to, a particular one that's caught your attention that you want to learn more from and share time with, making a hydrosol is one of the many ways you can get to know the plant and make medicine with it. (You can also just sit with the plant, listen to it, notice it, take photos of it, see who else is enjoying it/pollinating it, draw it, taste it (if it's not toxic), sleep by it, etc). By making a hydrosol, you can capture the plant's vital energy and scent, and preserve it to have with you throughout the year.
*Making hydrosols is a great way to use aromatic plants that you're cutting back in the autumn and/or if you have fragrant plants that are still very vital, but maybe a bit chewed up by bugs or turning yellow, etc. If you've harvested what you'd like for tinctures, teas, infused oils, etc., and the plants still have a lot of life left, you can use them to create a hydrosol.
Directions for Making Hydrosols (aka Flower Water)
Thank you to Kami McBride's Healing Power of Aroma.
1. Put a large enamel or stainless steel pot on the stove and put a clean brick or flat stone in the bottom of the pot.
2. Pour enough water into the pot so that the water comes to just below the top of the brick or rock, but you don't want to completely submerge the brick in the water.
3. Add six handfuls of fresh aromatic herbs, or 3 handfuls of dried aromatic herbs, to the water. You can use one single herb or a blend of several. Some aromatic herbs that you can make hydrosols from are: Lavender stem, leaf and flower, Rose petals, White Pine needle, and the leaf and flower of: Tulsi (Holy Basil/Sacred Basil), Lemon Balm, Peppermint, and Catnip. All of these plants can be used in either fresh or dried form.
4. Put a stainless steel metal bowl or glass Pyrex measuring cup on top of the brick inside the pot.
5. Put the lid on the pot upside downward so that the top of the lid is pointing down into the inside of the pot. This part is important.
6. Fill the top of the inverted lid with ice cubes. You can also make one large ice cube by freezing water in a yogurt or other plastic container. This larger ice cube melts much slower than many smaller ones.
7. Turn the heat on and once the water has reached a gentle simmer, turn it to low for 20-30 minutes. The steam that rises to the top of pot and meets the icy-cold lid contains the essential oils of the plant. It condenses and drips down into the bowl and that's your hydrosol/flower water! Be sure to keep the heat down - you want the water to be hot enough to create steam, but you don't want it to boil and get plant matter and un-distilled water into your bowl. Be sure that lid is on straight too, so that steam (and those good volatile oils) aren’t escaping.
8. Carefully remove the lid once it's filled with the melted ice and dump that water into the sink, or pour it into another container to cool and then use water your plants, etc. Take care not to let the melted ice water drip into the bowl. Replace the lid right away so as not to lose too much of the medicinal properties and fragrance in the steam and the hydrosol/flower water that you've created.
9. If you feel like the plants still have more essential oils to give, you can put the lid back on (upside down!) and add more ice to continue to the distillation process. Listen to your intuition - I like to feel like I'm getting all the vital oils from the plant, but I also don't want to dilute the hydrosol by adding steam after the plant has given all its volatile oils.
10. Once your hydrsol is finished, remove from heat. Pour the liquid from the metal bowl into a sterilized mason jar or a spray bottle. You now have an herbal hydrosol! I like to let the hydrosol cool to room temperature with the lid on before pouring it into containers, especially if pouring it into plastic.
Your herbal hydrosol will ideally be stable for six months to one year. I like to keep mine in the refrigerator. This helps them keep longer and makes them especially refreshing to spray on in hot weather. If you have Rose and/or Lavender water, keeping it in the fridge will make it even more cooling if you're using it to cool hot/sunburned skin, hot flashes, and other hot skin conditions. Also, the cleaner that everything you're using is, the less likely it is that bacterial will enter, causing your hydrosol to go off. So if possible, sterilize or wash well your pot, bowl, and what you're pouring your finished hydrosol into.
In general, you use more of an herb when it is fresh than when it is dried, as the moisture has evaporated out of dried herbs, making it more potent. If you have less or more of the herbs than what's listed above, use what you've got! There's no need to pack in tons of herbs, but if you have an abundance, feel free to add more. Likewise, if you have just a wee bit of a special plant, go ahead and use what you've got. It may be weaker than if you had more, but it will still capture some of the scent and medicine.
When making a hydrosol, it’s good to have lots of ice on hand. I like to fill a large freezer bag filled with a few batches of ice cubes so I have plenty on hand. Or make a larger one as written above.
You don't need to go get a special hydrosol-making pot. You can use a large canning/lobster pot. Be sure to clean everything well so that you’re capturing the scent and properties of the plants you’re using, rather than the chili/tamales/lobster that have been cooked in the pot!
Large ice cube made in a yogurt container on top of inverted lid,
while making fresh Catnip hydrosol using a glass Pyrex measuring cup.
(Post updated 10/19/15 and 9/30/16)