Hydrosols: Steam-Distilled Floral Waters

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Hydrosols: Steam-Distilled Floral Waters

Transform homegrown plants into aromatic waters fit for royalty with a few simple steps. Whether made with a still or on the stovetop, hydrosols can bring a safe and therapeutic aromatic experience to your daily life.

By Hannah Kincaid
Winter 2018

Photo by Getty Images/Anna-Ok

The three most popular floral waters in stores today are rose, orange blossom, and witch hazel. Some people may view floral waters as frivolous artifacts of a bygone era; however, they’re experiencing a resurgence for their safety in natural body care products, aromatherapy, homemade cleaning recipes, and edible goods.

Distilled floral waters have a rich history, and historians believe that the first clay still, which was found in Pakistan, may have been used to distill floral waters as long as 5,000 years ago. With time, the aromatic waters rose in popularity, and by the 18th century, French chemist Nicolas Lemery described more than 200 of them in commerce. Floral waters faded with the commercialization of essential oils around 1840, for which the same general distillation process and equipment is used. As floral waters took a back seat to essential oils, we slowly forgot about using chamomile water to bathe an upset infant, fennel water to ease digestive upset, or plantain water to soothe an itchy bug bite.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Valerii Honcharuk

To complicate matters, many of the “floral waters” on the market today are simply water with essential oils and dyes added in, which is why they come in an array of unnatural colors and shouldn’t be consumed internally. To differentiate between these low-quality “floral waters” and traditional steam-distilled floral waters, distillers and aromatherapists use the word “hydrosol” (or “hydrolat” in Europe). I’ll use “hydrosol” in this article to signify pure, steam-distilled aromatic waters.  

With the right know-how and some basic equipment, you can make your own hydrosols from a wide variety of homegrown plants, including lavender, lemon balm, peppermint, yarrow, and even plantain. After reading about the best plants for a hydrosol garden, don’t miss the step-by-step instructions for making hydrosols on the stovetop.

Start a Hydrosol Garden

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Basil hydrosol has an intense licorice-like flavor and needs to be diluted to bring out the basil taste we all know. Play with this hydrosol while cooking savory dishes by mixing a bit into your homemade pesto or salad dressings.

Photo by Getty Images/Nazzu

Basil is an effective digestive aid and will help ease a nervous stomach. It’s also a carminative; add a few tablespoons of basil hydrosol to a glass of water for fast-acting relief from gas and bloating.

For aromatherapy, basil’s crisp and refreshing scent is both balancing and calming. Externally, basil’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties may make it an especially good option for oily, acne-prone, or aging skin.

Photo by Getty Images/elenaleonova

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)

That’s right, hydrosols can be made from fruits, including cucumbers, lemons, and limes! Cucumber hydrosols have a refreshing, cooling aroma that makes a lovely and crisp natural perfume. Use cucumber hydrosol as an after-sun spray, particularly in the heat of summer months, or as a cooling mist during menopausal hot flashes. Try soaking a few cotton pads in cucumber hydrosol and then placing them over your eyes for a luxurious home spa.

Photo by Getty Images/sommail

In the kitchen, mix a few tablespoons with a splash of gin or a few cups of sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink. You could also spritz it on a garden-fresh salad to add a crisp and uplifting bite.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Photo by Adobe Stock/saquizeta

Lavender hydrosol has a floral, soapy taste, and many people prefer to sweeten it when taking internally. This hydrosol is ideal for all skin types when used externally, so consider mixing it with oatmeal for a deep cleanser, using it as a makeup remover or aftershave, or spraying it lightly on rashes, sunburns, or itchy skin. It’s safe to use in a baby’s bath water, and it will help people of all ages sleep deeper when it’s sprayed onto linens before bedtime. Keep a spritzer bottle in your car or your desk drawer to enjoy the calming aroma when traffic is frustrating or work feels tedious. Lavender hydrosols should last about two years.

Photo by Getty Images/BarbaraCerovsek

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

A member of the mint family, lemon balm spreads like crazy and begs for uses beyond sun tea. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty using a plethora of lemon balm for homemade hydrosols, which is reassuring because the finished product is quite useful.

Photo by Getty Images/VeraDo

The citrusy, slightly bitter flavor of lemon balm hydrosol is best diluted. This hydrosol is safe to ingest in limited quantities during pregnancy and can be helpful with morning sickness, water retention, and digestive issues. Aromatherapist Suzanne Catty recommends drinking a diluted lemon balm hydrosol for three weeks during cold and flu season to help prevent sickness (dilute 2 tablespoons of hydrosol in 1 quart of filtered water per day).

Photo by Getty Images/Imgorthand

I find lemon balm hydrosol tastes mildly citronella-like, which I don’t particularly enjoy. Instead, I use the hydrosol as a base for homemade bug repellent.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Photo by Adobe Stock/Bits and Splits

Like lemon balm, mint can become invasive, so I relish its abundance while filling a big wicker basket with armloads of this uplifting herb. When taken internally, peppermint hydrosol is stimulating to both the mind and the digestive system; try drinking some in the morning for an instant pick-me-up or spritzing some on your face after spending a hot afternoon in the garden. Peppermint also helps ease pain associated with headaches, so if you feel a headache coming on, then spray the air around you and take a deep breath. As an anti-inflammatory, peppermint hydrosol can be applied externally to help ease the pain of sore or sprained muscles or to soothe uncomfortable bug bites.

Do not give peppermint hydrosol to children less than 3 years old, and this slightly unstable hydrosol may not last longer than one year.

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelumnobile)

Photo by Adobe Stock/kazmulka

With a sweet, apple-like aroma, this is a great all-purpose hydrosol with a shelf life of up to four years. This is the go-to hydrosol for babies and can safely be added to their bath water, used for homemade wet wipes, or rubbed on sore, teething gums. For adults, this astringent hydrosol can be used as a skin cleanser, toner, makeup remover, or soothing eye wash for those suffering from computer fatigue. Internally, you can take chamomile hydrosol for the same reasons you would ingest chamomile tea. As a soothing bedtime drink, for example, simply add 1 teaspoon of chamomile hydrosol to 1 cup of warm water.

Photo by Getty Images/elenaleonova

Rose (Rosa damascena)

One of my absolute top joys is smelling and tasting homemade rose hydrosol. This experience will evoke the feeling of walking through a fresh rose garden, and this relatively shelf-stable hydrosol should keep for two years or more.

Photo by Adobe/©Es75

Rose is a recommended hormone balancer for all ages, and women can use it to help combat symptoms of PMS, including cramps and moodiness. Externally, rose adds and retains moisture and is particularly beneficial to dry, mature, or sensitive skin. Try using rose hydrosol on a cotton ball to remove excess makeup or dirt after washing your face, or add a few tablespoons to a hot bath for an act of pure self-love.

Rose water has a time-tested role in the kitchen, as well, and is used in sweet and savory dishes alike. Combine rose water with saffron and cinnamon for a Middle Eastern rub, stir it into fruit syrups or sorbet, or add a splash to a glass of celebratory champagne. After you taste true, high-quality rose water, you’ll start looking for excuses to use it as often as possible!

If growing roses for distillation, try growing a rose geranium plant for a refreshing, balancing hydrosol. (Photo by Adobe Stock/martinabaierova).

Note: If you don’t have enough space to plant a rose bush, then try distilling rose geranium (Pelargonium roseum) instead. You can grow rose geranium in pots, and the hydrosol is still one of my favorites.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Photo by Getty Images/Svetlana Popova

You can also use hydrosols made from non-aromatic plants, including yarrow, plantain, and nettle. Although they lack the scent profile associated with other plants, they still carry physically and emotionally healing properties. Yarrow is a particularly effective wound healer you can spray on cuts and bruises, varicose veins, eczema, and hemorrhoids. Mentally, yarrow hydrosol is stimulating and energizing; it’s considered a protective hydrosol that you can use in a similar manner to sage or cedar smoke cleansing sticks. Rather than burning sage to cleanse a space (especially as some species are at risk), try spraying yarrow hydrosol.

Learn More about Hydrosols:

Hannah is a passionate organic gardener and herbalist. She has been distilling plants from her garden for three years. Follow Hannah’s plant-related adventures: @Hannah_Aften.

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