Extracting the Essential Oils of Baltic Amber and Linden June 29 2018
Extracting the Essences of Baltic Amber and Linden
It has traditionally always been viewed as difficult, if not impossible, to draw the essence of certain delicate flowers. Linden is notorious for offering up an essence that is so changed from it’s original form as to be displeasing to those wishing to claim that perfect bright-honey fragrance with the gentle, soft, green heart notes that smell like fresh sweet pea flowers over a bed of green cucumber. This delicate combination of fragrance, laden with indole, is both hypnotic and soothing. A gentle nervine medicine, often made into tea, the flowers call the honeybees to the sunny crowns of the trees, and the bumblers to the base branches where the flowers are last to bloom.
Underneath the trees, in the linden-leaf light, you can see and feel the similarity of these trees to black poplar. The shape of the leaves echoes the same fortune, and the light catches in the pale green veins and reflects flip-wise to the breeze. In proximity to this shade, to this whisping of the light, the soul quiets.
Many days of harvesting linden from various trees taught us much about how the scent changes in the patterns of cool light spring rain and hot just-summer weather. When the heat is high, the scent is very sweet, honey-heavy, and a dense nectar flows forth and coats the leaves closest to the flowers. We pick the flowers and the aromatic sepals and prepare them in many ways. The trick to extracting delicate flowers is a combination of proper timing, and a delicate hand. It is almost unanimously understood that high heat destroys many of the more angelic, most-delicate volatiles…..the ones you catch in that first heavenly breath of lily, or heliotrope….the sweetest scents that radiate around the plant, and disappear quickly after picking. To distill linden inside a hot distiller would basically destroy almost all of the essence that we equate with linden. In order to accurately transfer the scent of linden we need to spend a lot of time thinking about the flowers and get creative with how we might coax the shy perfume forth.
Baltic amber is as good a lure and anchor as anything. The approach I devised after a dream of extraction, is thus: Use the smoke of burning baltic amber to draw the scent from the linden slowly and gently. In this way, we will be utilizing the base not properties of amber, that dark, incredible tenacity, to grab onto and bind to the more ethereal linden, which will otherwise escape right into the air. As I employ this idea, I am leaning on natural perfumery methods of using heavy, dense, not-very-volatile essences, to adhere to and keep in place, the more delicate essences. This concept is what allows a perfume to stay lasting on the skin for more than a few minutes. Should I extract a delicate essence such as citrus, and then put in on my wrist, it will be a beautiful, but fleeting experience. Whereas if I make a perfume with baltic amber essence mixed with citrus the citrus notes will last for upwards of hours, depending on the ratios of the ingredients, the ambient air temperature, and the skin chemistry of the wearer.
For our linden-driven purposed, we place the freshly harvested flower on a screen, as well as onto a glass tray with a solid base of black poplar oil solidified with river-bottom beeswax. The tray and the screen of flowers are suspended on a rack that sits about 18” about two incense warmers. The incense warmers are key here; we are not completely burning the baltic amber powder, we are warming it up gradually, delicately, and liberating a hot stream of vapor and ghostly pearlescent smoke. This allows us to release the 40-80 million year old essential oil of pine trapped in the baltic amber. This essence, rises up as a hot vapor solvent, grabbing onto the essence of linden as it rises up to the top of the box that is covering the whole operation and holding in the smoke. As the box fills with amber smoke, the linden flowers are coated with amber resin, sealing in some of their essence. What linden essence escapes is bound up in baltic amber vapor and carried to the top of the box. On top of the box is a tray of ice, which cools the smoke, and forces it to descent down the center of the box and into the tray of black poplar infused fractionated coconut solidified with beeswax. The poplar infused wax is basically a very strong salve that is being used as an enfleurage base. Enfleurage is the use of a solid fat to extract delicate floral molecules otherwise lost to heat-based extractions. Many people use solid beef or pork tallow for this process; I have chosen black poplar as my base because it allows me to use a vegetarian base, as well as affording me the additional excellent fixative and balsamic preservative value of the black poplar.
Black Poplar is a wholly oil, cherished by the ancients, as a remedy for grief and despair, as the balsam for trauma and breakage of the heart, and the essence of the bereaved, moving back into the shimmering light. Black poplar, lovingly harvested by bees and herbalists alike, holds the deer from starvation in bad years and wakes up the forest with it’s first-day-of-sun scent. It has a smell like honey and beeswax mixed with river clay, of fresh air through green leaves. The color of poplar is the same as amber: deep golden ranges of red and yellow, with a clarity to match the fossilized resin it is now paired with. In the ancient world, both poplar, and baltic amber were used synonymously, and there is many an ancient myth of the humans, lost to tragedy, being changed by gods and goddesses into poplar trees, which were known to weep amber into the rivers, reminding the earth of it’s losses, while synonymously healing our wounds.
Amber amulets were made, and the powder ground away to reveal a smooth form, was made into incense and medicine. Today, I work in the same way, obtaining my amber powder from a friend in Lithuania who makes necklaces for babies and women in the traditional forms. She sends me the powder from her grinding wheel and the little chips that come from the carving process. She was happy to find someone to take this material so it did not go to waste. For centuries, so far back as to be indelibly carved into my modern mind, facts of the ancients pour through in these symbols I seek to now marry. The marriage of amber, and poplar, and golden linden, in this perfume, represents a combination that we as humans have identified as gold for the soul and spirit, since we began making our stories and our medicines. You can imagine the beauty, during dark times of famine and disease, of these substances that have deep curative powers. The chemical compositions of both amber, poplar, and linden, have co-evolved with the biochemistry of humans just as much as they have tied in relationships with the bees and birds that feed and shelter in them.
As a young woman I often associated the flipping leaves of poplar with the spirits of those recently passed, waiting and watching for a bit in the summer-worn leaves, to make sure the souls of those left behind would be ok. As a young teenager, in the water of my home-forest stream, I would collect the buds of newly leafed out poplars, covered in bright orange balsam, canary-happy, so wildly sweet and berry-beautiful the scent covering my hands, as i moved upstream into the realms of early vinemaple light. The relief of golden sun, and sweet plant heart medicine, after a long NW winter, so clear in my eyes.
So the amber burns lightly, a sharp, intense, leathery smoke with creosote elements rising, like a hawk from the desert junipers, like brittle pinecones cast on hot stones, like old books on older temple steps. Of all the essence I work with, baltic amber has the most tenacity, lasting on a test strip for weeks. The queen mother of fixatives, it is typically only available as a crude distillation, which means the amber is burned, with no water present, and the smoke that rises is cooled and condensed. This process of smoking the flowers inside a box with ice on top, is basically a very gentle dry distillation of amber. We could use a multitude of other resins or burnables in the incense warmers if we wished to do so, achieving various effects on the incense-smoke-perfume spectrum.
After 8 hours of smoking, and several breaks to replace the amber powder in the incense warmers, the poplar oil base is smelling very very ambery and smokey, with soft floral notes present but not dominant. This base tray of poplar will continue to be used with various flowers for enfleurage. When the floral smell becomes strong enough, I will mix the poplar salve base with alcohol to “lift” the essence from the solid oil.
So now I have these amber resin coated linden flowers, that are slightly more dry from the process and are smelling wildly gorgeous. I set some aside for incense as-is, and take the rest and place them in a one gallon jug. I add black poplar oil and more baltic amber powder, a handful of dried vanilla leaf (to amplify the sweetgrass smell and add fixative value) as well as the already scorched amber powder from the process (this turns to a nice crystaline glitter with give the solution a lovely sparkle) I would also wager, that this broken down amber powder is a good medicine rich in succinic acid and would make a stellar inclusion in a facial cleansing grains. After the addition of poplar oil, I roll the oil around for about a half hour, dissolving a lot of the amber resin coating off the flowers, and then add an equal amount of 190 proof can alcohol. The idea here is that the oil will draw certain aromatics out better than the alcohol and visa versa. This will later allow me to either 1) Separate the oil from the alcohol and obtain two different perfumes with very different aspect of the linden and amber contained within OR 2)Distill the mixture to obtain a very small amount of gorgeous, delicate, linden-poplar-amber essence.
As an incense maker, the process of utilizing all of the plant material, for multiple end-uses, becomes a very satisfying part of the creation process, one that closes the alchemy loop. The spent plant material can be dried and crushed and incorporated as base materials for incense blends, body scrubs, facial masks, paints, or burned down for spagyric salts. The quad of farming, distilling, making perfume, and creating incense allows me to use everything I take and produce in a sustainable way.
I look forward to sharing more about this process as it continues. In the end, there will be several linden perfumes created and offered for sale from this nice summer gift from the sweetest of trees….Poplar, Linden, and Baltic Amber Pine <3