Lavender Distillation in the Pacific Northwest June 29 2018
A typical harvest day finds me rising to the summer light at my home in Portland and driving my way out to the family farm in Molalla, about an hour south of the city. I usually have my son with me who is accustomed to our aromatic adventures and comes equipped with his own gloves and pruners. My mother and I have our morning coffee before we head out to the field….harvest begins once the dew on the plants is dry. We walk the field and check on crops as we go, observing how the rosemary and other flowers are coming along. I am always keen on the state of the medicine plants on the property and usually go home with leaves or roots to dry or tincture for my apothecary.
The first week of the harvest is ethereal – hands moving to the hum of the bees, the light slanting on our peaceful faces. My son usually falls asleep on the drive home as we head back to town with our wagon load of purple and pink flowers. There are always a few drunk-ass bees who refuse to leave the crops and have to be set free a ways down our winding return road. The work begins immediately upon my return: the copper still is loaded and the water is slowly brought to a gentle simmer. The copper in the distiller pulls stinky, sulfuric compounds from the oil, giving great advantage over stainless steel. I run each batch for about an hour and half – after this point the plants start giving up harsher smelling compounds. Hydrosol is drawn off, bottled and refrigerated as I go. Late in the evening I drift to bed – my visions and dreams inseparable from my waking life.
The last half of July is no picnic….exaustion sets in a couple of weeks into the harvest and it becomes more and more difficult to focus. Constant inundation with lavender makes me grumpy. The only thing that seems to antidote the overwhelming smell of the flowers and the headache they offer is the smell of charred meat on the grill. While the lavender is at first a peaceful sedative it later becomes stimulating and insomnia sets in. In short: too much of a good thing. The irony is not lost on me.
For the most part we just grow the augustifolia varieties of lavender save for a couple of high yielding Lavandins (“Grosso”, Provence.) These Lavandin plants are thick-stemmed and bulky, offering up an oil that is excellent as a decongestant and infection-beater due to it’s camphor content. The augustifolias are sweet and special – several of the varieties have been bred specifically for our rainy Oregon climate. My favorites are the “Buena Vista”, "Hidcote Pink", and “Melissa.” ( We purchased our first set of “Melissa” clones from the lovely couple who bred the variety - Andy and Melissa Van Hevelingen. ) The oil from these Oregon beauties rivals any high altitude French variety. “Buena Vista” smells incredibly fruity – layers of watermelon, ripe berries, and exquisite floral notes emanate from the plants. This last year they gave off a distinctly aglaia-like note (think ripe apples and grapes, traces of hyacinth, jasmine and neroli, and dried pears) The pink lavenders are their own amazing creature – often the oil is not even recognized as lavender, the sillage is so powdery and precious. Pink lavender (“Melissa” and “Hidcote Pink”) has none of the soapy herbal medicinal notes generally associated with lavender distillates. Children are particularly fond of these oils. I do some special distillations after the peak bloom as seeded lavender yields a rich, earthy distillate that is both unusual and beautiful.
For perfumery, Pink lavender and Buena Vista make gorgeous additions to almost any perfume. Whether you are rounding out a blend or looking for a lead role in your fragrance these oils impart just as much magic as jasmine or sandalwood. They are a joy to work with. For centuries lavender has been used for treatment of burns, bug bites, bee stings, acne, wrinkles, skin care, eczema, anxiety, depression, headaches, muscle spasms, sore muscles, infections, bruises, massage and a whole plethora of other uses.
Distillation of these plants is something I take very seriously. Grown from babies they represent years of hard work and good intention. I think of myself as the conduit through which the plants yield their medicinal spells, the archway between which something beautiful may pass from the earth to you. I offer up the fields of summer in violet glass bottles. I envision all their good uses in the hands of mothers and midwives, sleep-seekers and perfume lovers and it makes me happy.