Many flower gardeners and aromatherapy enthusiasts are intrigued by the idea of creating their own essential oils. Capturing these volatile essences requires the proper equipment and technique, as well as a touch of artistry. Small steam distillers are a good starting place for home-distilling because of their comparatively low cost and ease of use.
High-quality flowers are needed to produce high-quality oils. The essential oil content of flowers is directly influenced by where the plant was grown and what quality of nutrients it received. Organically grown plants with a proper nutrient balance of nitrogen and phosphorus yield the greatest percentage of essential oil with the least amount of contamination. A careful, well-timed harvest will return cleaner, more potent oil. For greatest yields, flowers are best distilled directly following harvest.
In a steam distiller, plant material is packed into a steam chamber. Steam heated by a separate boiler is transported through a tube that forces it to pass through the plant material. The heat from the steam extracts essential oils from the flowers, carrying them to the top of the chamber. The temperature of the steam should be kept as low as possible so as not to damage the oils. Lavender, for example, is best distilled around 245 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the essential-oil-laden steam reaches the top of the steam chamber, a narrow pipe directs it into a chilled condenser. Here, the vapors are turned back into water by passing through coiled tubes submerged in cold water. If the water bath is kept cool, the vapor will fully condense and no oil will be lost through evaporation.
The separator works by the principle that flower oils are lighter than water. The condensed vapor-turned-water enters the separator from the bottom; the oils float to the surface and the water stays below. This passive separation process results in two stratified layers. The oil is then carefully skimmed from the top and collected, while the condenser water can be collected and reprocessed to catch any oil that may have not have fully separated.
Darkened glass jars are the ideal container for small amounts of distilled flower oil. These containers, when kept cool and tucked away in a cupboard out of direct sunlight, will preserve the essential oils indefinitely. Be sure that the oils are completely dry before storing. Water is easy to spot in a bottle of essential oil: look for small bubbles at the bottom of the jar and remove with an eye-dropper.