Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Day We Made Oil

Turkeys left some feathers

Saturday was an exciting day. The Lovey and I had a big lavender day! We've been investigating this path for over a year (since June of last year to be exact) and so this day, this activity, this - was a huge deal.

First we had to harvest the lavender. As we have learned, harvesting lavender at the peak of their oil production must be done with two things in mind. First, at least half of flowers on the lavender spikes must be opened. Second, harvesting must be done prior to 11:00 am, when the heat of the day begins to peak and the flower begins to pull back it's water and oils.

So we harvested all that we could and wrapped them in bunches. Really this only needs to be done if you are selling in a market, but we did it anyway.

Then we put the harvested lavender in 12 gallon containers and put them in the shade. 

Later that day we were off to Carmel Lavender to get our lavender distilled into essential oil and hydrosol. What is hydrosol, you ask? Hydrosols, also known as floral waters, are products from steam distilling plant materials. Hydrosols are like essential oils but in far less of a concentration. When a distiller brews plant material with water in a large cooker the steam fills the pot and, as it rises, it causes the glands of the plants to burst and release the oils and essence of the plant into the steam. The oil rises through a condenser and collects in a separate vessel. This is what we know as essential oil, but what about all that fragrant water that was steamed with the original plant material? That is our hydrosol, or floral water.

With one distillation, we get two products. Both can be used in the making of soaps and lotions, or they can be used alone. In time, we will determine what works best for us, but for right now, let's just talk about the distillation process! 

I had some dried lavender flowers from a harvest earlier this year that we added into the pot.

First we filled the distilling pot. This one can hold up to 35 gallons (think of the size of a metal garbage can) and is made of stainless steel. 

Next, John attached the pot to a hydraulic lift, weighed our harvest, and then moved it to the boiling pot.

Before distilling, John added a copper coil into the pot. There is a chemical reaction that happens with the interaction of lavender with copper, so this is a necessary step. Here is a good shot of how much we harvested. We could have fit another 2/3 product in there!

The lid goes on and gets tightened. You can see a hose at the top of the lid. That is where the steam goes out, and along with the oil, is taken to a separator.

Here is where the magic happens. Inside this triangle shaped cube (I am sure there is a proper geometric name, but you get the idea!) - is a condenser. Water (at 79 degrees) cools the steam and it is here that the steam returns to water and the oil separates from the water and rises to the top. See the glass at the top? That's where the oil rises.

If you look REALLY closely, you can see the dividing line of oil and water. It was exciting to watch bubbles of oil rise to the top.

We processed the lavender for 90 minutes. The oil separated quickly at first and then slowed down to a steady drip. Literally, a drip. Sometime there was a burst of bubbles, but mainly it was just a slow, slow process.

At the end of the process, the very hot pot was lifted from the steam kettle and the spent flowers were dumped on the floor. This eventually goes off to the compost pile.

At the end of a less than two hours, we had made a new friend, learned a lot about lavender, varieties, oil, marketing in addition to leaving with a small amount of essential oil and hydrosol. Next year, we will do this again, with a larger harvest.


  1. Thank you for enlightening me on the process. I admire your energy, fearlessness, and endeavors. Your photography was awesome as well.
    Thank you both....the original SA

    1. Oh thank you, SA! David is the inspiration for fearlessness. He encourages me to keep going.