Distilling Conifers in the Pacific Northwest by Jessica Ring June 29 2018
Distilling Douglas Fir in Oregon USA
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) can be a difficult plant to distill. Contrary to popular belief, not all of the conifers yield large amounts of oil. When I distill ten gallons of well-prepped Dougy Fir branch tips in my copper still I get between 7 and 15 ml of essential oil. It is worth every moment of labor that goes into this process.
The majority of the plants I distill exert powerful effects over the senses, making this an endeavor of focus, a challenge of staying centered when you are enveloped fully by the fragrance and presence of the plant. Some oils become nauseating after a few days of steady exposure (lavender, cedar, cypress), others are intoxicating (vanilla, rose, jasmine, neroli, frankincense), inducing a state of bliss and gratitude and harmonious I-love-everything. Some are bizarre and make you feel like you've been altered in a strange and disorienting way (artemisias). The fragrance becomes the house you are ruled by. No one governs scent: and it translates for no one. It won’t even allow you to name it. What is this thing that has no adjectives? That behaves like, and elicits the most involuntary emotions? Douglas Fir is an oil of joy and clarity, and even after several days of distilling it it does not get overwhelming. It makes me feel happy, capable, centered, focused, and alive….. echoing clearly the medicinal uses of this non-toxic oil.
Distillation is an intensive learning experience with a plant, one-on-one. Depending on the nature of the plant, this can be like a spiritual retreat at a magical hotsprings, or a bootcamp in the middle of a ruthless city. I am consistently humbled with each distillation. Every round of fire on metal leaves me more in awe of the plants I work with and their ability to change the way we feel. When I am distilling Douglas Fir there are moments where I am filled with the most clear, child-like glee at the beauty of the process…..how these branches that were crowding the understory growth, these branches unchecked by fire, were now going to such good use.
Harvested from our family land in Molalla, Oregon, we trimmed these limbs in the cool of the morning from the base of trees we planted twenty years ago. The trees warm up as the day goes on and release more of their oil, so morning is the best time to cut them for highest oil yield. This is a nice age to harvest from for oil – most conifers produce their peak oil when they are between 10 and 30 years of age, during the time period when they are most susceptible to predation by bugs. The essential oil in the new branch tips deters leaf-eaters and beetles, allowing the plant to gain firm root structure during it’s youth. Older trees produce less oil but it often has a more complex character.
The needles of the tree have a waxy coating over the surface of the oil glands, common to all conifers, which protects these plants from water lost to heat and frost. This waxy cuticle has to be softened in order to facilitate easy oil extraction from the needles. Many distillers soak their conifer foliage prior to distillation for between 12 and 24 hours. Others distill the needles for an hour or two an then shut off the heat and redistill the charge the next day for increased yields. Certain conifers, like juniper and cedar can be dried to crack the waxy cuticle and optimize oil yield, but it is important to remember that drying of conifer needles changes the chemical makeup of the resulting oil. I have found the oils of dried conifer needles to be much more irritating to the skin than those from fresh needles. This holds with knowledge that oxidation (induced by drying) of many compounds can result in bi-products that are irritating to the skin.
New needle growth and harvest usually goes on here in April and May, but this year (2015) we had bizarre weather patterns, with an incredibly early spring starting two months ahead of schedule. The trees kicked out new growth but then were sent into drought for a month before the rains returned heavy in May. This put the trees back into a second growth period. I was really curious to see what kind of oil and yield I would get from these early June needles. Timing the harvest of conifers is a tricky thing – there is usually a very short 1-2 week window when they produce their peak yield, and it is difficult to discern exactly when this is based on scent intensity alone.
So the needles went into bags and were placed in the shade while we went off and did some digging and weeding. Later in the afternoon when I went to check on them they were warm and condensation was forming inside of the bags. My initial response was that I needed to dump the bags and let them dry in the shade, since typically dampness is a BAD thing in a harvested crop……if this was lavender I would be getting it into the still as quickly as possible. Yet my intuition was nagging at me to hold up…..I started thinking about how the needles were getting a gentle soak in warm water, just like they would prior to distillation. I decided to leave them in the bags and allow the condensation to work it’s magic, knowing that the trick would be to distill them before any kind of fermentation off-notes occurred. The next morning we started the steam distillation process in my 55 gallon stainless steel unit, which distills about 160 liters of compressed plant material.
In the past I have always distilled Douglas Fir in copper, but have never found it to be an easy distillation. Too much heat and sour/bitter/waxy off-notes would develop. Too little heat and the needles would not offer up their oil. I kept the burner temperature low and my condenser cold for the first part of the distillation, when the delicate head notes were coming over, and then I allowing the condenser to warm up to tepid, baby-bottle temps so that the oil would separate cleanly from the hydrosol. ( Condenser temperature my need to be a little warmer for thicker oils, or cooler for delicate oils or hydrosol-focused distillations.) Toward the end of the 1 ½ hour distillation I lowered the burner, slowing the steam flow rate and cooling the still, and cooled down my condenser to cold. The idea here is that toward the end of a Douglas Fir distillation acrid or organic notes will start to appear as higher boiling fractions start to come through with the prolonged heat. Lowering the temp of the whole system at the end allowed me to prevent these off-notes from permeating the oil.
This distillation completely surprised me. My The oil came out smelling gorgeous and the yield was great: 3 ounces. What was amazing was that the fragrance stayed green and clear and bright with this distillation and came through at a steady rate, whereas in my distillation with the smaller copper still most of the oil came over immediately in the first 20 minutes of the distillation. There were no off-notes even when wider temperature parameters were applied. I think the combination of soaking the material in it’s own “sweat”, distilling it in stainless steel as opposed to copper, and the strange season of weather we have had all tipped this oil in a spectacular direction. This oil has a rich body note with just a touch of “moss in the sun” and a jammy sweetness akin to some of the deeper conifer absolutes.
Many stories convey that this oil has beautiful applications as an antidepressant, particularly for those who long for connection with the forest while living in the city. It is intensely revitalizing to the senses, much like the citrus oils. For sore muscles and adrenal fatigue I adore how it can lift me to a little higher ground when I feel flat and exhausted. I find it helpful for treating headaches, PTSD, congested lymph notes, fluid retention, cranky housemates, and respiratory infections.
Blended with other conifers, it provides a pointed leaf cap for any perfume, sitting high up there in the bleachers of green notes, waving flags and clapping sharply. When blended with deeper balsams, like Black Poplar, it takes on the lush fragrance of trees in summer….warm, balsamic, green, sweet. Combining Douglas Fir EO with resinous bases like frankincense may lead you to the realization that the soul loves perfume, and the body recognizes it deep in the DNA and rejoices at the return of an old, lost tradition.Tied to other florals, in modest amounts, it adds vibrancy, bringing a flat, over-cloying perfume to a point, while lending a pale, dried-grass-like sweetness to the heart notes. Some batches have a slight licorice note that pairs well with other green anise-scented beauties like tarragon and fennel. It can be overdone and needs to be dosed properly or it will mask many of the more delicate top and heart notes.
One of the most vibrant of the conifer oils, Douglas Fir EO is composed primarily of fluctuating amounts of bornyl acetate, camphene,α-pinene, and santene, monoterpenes β-pinene, sabinene, (Z)-β--ocimene, (E)-β-ocimene, α-terpinolene, α-terpineol, citronellyl acetate, α-terpi-nene and limonene that vary depending on terroir and which part of the plant is being distilled (twigs, needles.)
To look at some more examples of our products and essences:
During the distillation this chemical profile is stretched out as a spectrum – with different compounds moving through the still at different times in the distillation. The first head notes of vapor that move through the still are insanely high-pitched – crisp as lemons off the tree – acidic and bright – a swarm of limonene molecules moving through the still after this first exhale of alcohol…..the same compound found in lime and frankincense. Interestingly this is also the order that the flavors of the needles unfold on your tongue – we each ate a leaf bud prior to lighting the burner as my comrade distiller Alexi Hedlund (pictured by the still above) said “To be present with the plant.”
I think this oil has beautiful applications as an antidepressant, particularly for those who long for connection with the forest while living in the city. It is intensely revitalizing to the senses, much like the citrus oils. For sore muscles and adrenal fatigue it is fantastic. I find it helpful for treating headaches, PTSD, congested lymph notes, fluid retention, and respiratory infections. If you would like to take a journey with it, and see what it tells you, you can find it here: http://www.ringbotanicals.com/collections/frontpage/products/douglas-fir-oil
Photos Courtesy of Seth Ring, Leanna Stern, and Jessica Ring.