This year, I plan on using the plants from my garden in an entirely new way by making hydrosols or “floral waters.” Hydrosols are steam distilled water-based plant essences that can be used in body care products, flavored waters, baked goods, aromatherapy sprays, and more. Rose water is the most recognizable form of hydrosol on the market.
Photo credit: Fotolia/vesna
Hydrosol is stronger than tea, but much weaker than essential oils. In Suzanne Catty’s book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy she explains that tea typically has a 0.08:1 herb to water ratio, whereas hydrosols have 3 or 4:1 herb to water ratio. Catty calls hydrosols “herbal espressos,” and just like you wouldn’t drink an herbal tea that may contraindicate medication or a known medical condition, you should also research hydrosols before consuming them internally.
There’s evidence that humans were making hydrosols as long as 5,000 years ago, and the useful floral waters predate essential oils by hundreds if not thousands of years. The original hydrosols were made by putting herbs and water in a pot and bringing the concoction to a boil. A sheep’s skin was hung above the pot to catch the steam, and when the pot was finished boiling the sheep’s skin would be wrung and the hydrosol collected. You can also make hydrosols at home using more modern equipment that you probably already own (read “Rose Water Recipe” for step-by-step instructions), and this year I plan on taking my hydrosol creations to the next level by investing in a 10 liter copper alembic still (see photo, below), which will also allow me to collect very small amounts of essential oil. I’ll blog my way through this learning experience, so be sure to check back in over the course of the summer!
Photo Credit: Essential Oil Company
Grow Your Own Hydrosol Ingredients
You need a lot of fresh plant material to make hydrosols, so I’ll add a few new plants to my garden this year including holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. However, to save on seed costs and weeding/watering time, I’m going to prioritize using plants that already grow in my kitchen garden. I’ve done some research to see which easy-to-grow plants will now double as tasty and useful hydrosol ingredients.
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Photo credit: Fotolia/sirins
With a sweet, apple-like aroma, this is a great all-purpose hydrosol with a shelf life 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, chamomile hydrosol can be used much like chamomile tea, as a soothing bedtime drink; simply add a teaspoon to a cup of warm water.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Photo credit: Fotolia/Laszlo
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 skin when experiencing a sunburn, rash, or itch. Like chamomile, 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.
If you live in the south and have struggled to grow lavender, check out the article “Which Lavender Cultivars Grow Best in the Panhandle?” for some helpful tips.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Photo credit: Fotolia/lapis238
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 tastes good and is quite useful.
The citrusy, slightly bitter flavor of lemon hydrosol is best diluted for a refreshing, uplifting, summer beverage. This hydrosol is safe to ingest in limited quantities during pregnancy and can be helpful with morning sickness, water retention, and digestive issues. Suzanna Catty recommends drinking a diluted lemon balm hydrosol for three weeks during cold and flu season to act as a possible prophylactic (dilute 2 tbsp of hydrosol in 1 liter of filtered water per day).
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Photo credit: Fotolia/claudio
Like lemon balm, mint can become invasive so I relish it’s 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. 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 under three-years old, and this fairly unstable hydrosol won’t last longer than one year.
Basil (Ocimuun basilicum)
Photo credit: Fotolia/jamdes
Basil hydrosol has an intense licorice-like flavor and needs to be diluted to bring out the basil taste we all know and recognize. Play with this hydrosol while cooking savory dishes by mixing a bit into your homemade pesto or salad dressings.
Basil is an effective digestive aid and will help ease a nervous stomach. 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 anti-bacterial properties make it an especially good option for oily, acne-prone or aging skin.
Rose (Rosa damascena)
Photo credit: Fotolia/deyan g
The hot pink “rose water” typically sold at grocery stores is too overpowering and artificial tasting for most people. Homemade rose hydrosols, on the other hand, are gentler, subtler, and absolutely delicious. A homemade hydrosol should evoke the feeling of walking through a fresh rose garden and this relatively shelf-stable hydrosol should keep for two years or more.
Rose is a recommended hormone balancer for all ages and can be used 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. Trade rose water for vanilla in baked goods, combine it with saffron and cinnamon for a Middle Eastern rub, combine it with 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!
There are a few plants that I plan on adding to my garden this year specifically for the purpose of making hydrosols: holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. I’ll also experiment with cedar, which I can forage locally and year-round. People who are lucky enough to live where eucalyptus or Douglas fir grow wild can experiment making hydrosols with those two native plants, and a few other hydrosol experiments could include the use of catnip, cucumber (use whole fruit), calendula, and rose geranium.
The possibilities truly do feel endless, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has experimented with their own homemade hydrosols already, specifically anyone who uses a copper still, for which this will be my first year and I’m sure I’ll have many questions. Please don’t hesitate to send me an email with your story or distilling tips at Hkincaid@heirloomgardener.com.
Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah’s posts here.