Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bay Laurel Hydrosol

If you read my last newsletter

you know I’m taking a herbal preparations class at my local natural pharmacy, Rainbow Natural Remedies. The class combines all the pleasures of crafting, cooking and working with plants. The fabulous teacher, Crystal Stelzer, makes something every week and shows us how to do it, then gives us the opportunity to taste it, test it and bring samples home. I’ve set myself the task—I love homework—of making each of the things we’ve learned about every week. I’m about two weeks behind, still working on the assignments from Week 2 when we learned to make hydrosols, spritzers and flower essences.

Yesterday I made my first hydrosol. I love that word. It sounds so official. So scientific. Hydrosol is the term for the water that is left over after the distilling process by which essential oils are extracted. Rose water is a hydrosol; so is orange (blossom) water. Those two have always been saved and used for centuries, but most other hydrosols were thrown away after the distillation process. Now people are recognizing that they can be used. For one thing, because they contain only tiny amounts of the essential oils, so they can be taken internally or used in cooking. I’ve used rosewater for years on my Christmas kourabiedes cookies. Hydrosols can also be used as mouthwash (think mint hydrosol), antiseptic sprays (rosemary and thyme hydrosols), air fresheners (for instance, lavender hydrosol).

I wanted to try making a hydrosol from my bay tree. I have a lovely tree, about seven years old, that I’m shaping into a topiary. Because of that I trim it frequently and end up with many more bay leaves than I can use in cooking. So I covered the bottom of a stainless steel saucepan with a one to two inch layer of fresh bay leaves, added water to cover it, and put a stainless steel strainer with no center pole on top. I set a porcelain collection dish in the middle of the strainer, then got the water boiling with a lid on top to help capture the essential oils.

Once the water was boiling, I turned it down to a simmer, turned the lid of the pot upside down, and put a plastic bag full of ice on top of the inverted lid. The steam condensed on the inside of the lid and ran down to the lowest point of the lid from which point it dripped down into the collection dish. The most wonderful aroma filled the house. It was spicy. Shaw, my daughter, thought it smelled like Christmas trees. I thought it smelled like eucalyptus.

After about ten minutes, I turned off the pot and let it cool. After a long time, and working very carefully, since everything was still hot, I removed the bag of ice, the lid and finally the collection dish. I poured the liquid I had collected into a sterilized glass jar which I labeled and placed in the refrigerator.

Then I had to figure out what to do with bay hydrosol. It smelled great. I can imagine it would make a great aftershave. It has that woodsy, spicy scent to it. I wasn’t sure what else it could be used for. The article at Wikipedia

informs me that bay laurel has antioxidant, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It might also be good for rubbing on sore muscles (though then I would probably rather infuse it in an oil) since it has analgesic qualities.

The fragrance come from the essential oils which include 45% eucalyptol (that was what I was smelling) and also eugenol (one of the main ingredients in clove cigarettes, an old vice of mine), pinenes (that's what my daughter was smelling--the scent of pine trees), linalool, geraniol and terpineol.

I wish I could spray some your way. It’s a marvelous scent. Next I’m going to try to make rose hydrosol from the roses in the abandoned lot across the street. They’re almost gone for the year so I have to make this in the next few days. I'll let you know how it works in my next post.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Birthday Flowers

I've written before in my newsletter and my blog about the concept of Birthday Flowers, that is a flower that blooms on your birthday. My mother associated the Amaryllis Belladonna with my birthday because it blooms in Southern California where I was born on September 4, my birthday. It's also called Naked Lady and there's another flower called Naked Lady, the autumn crocus, which blooms in Seattle, where I live now, on my birthday.

This year I was worried as my birthday approached because I didn't see any sign of my birthday flowers where they usually bloom, in the parkway of a residential street near my work. Then on the day before my birthday, my daughter invited me to go on a long ramble with her through the nearby park. On our way home we spotted some of my birthday flowers emerging from a patch of dirt outside a brick apartment building only a block from our house. It's not a block I usually travel, either when walking the dog or on my way to work or the store or the library. In fact, I'm only on that block when the lindens are in bloom. So it was a nice find. It's one of the great things about being a naturalist in the city, that you can discover something brand new right around the corner.

On the day after my birthday I was on my way to work, traveling along my usual path, and there were my birthday flowers in their usual spot. I don't know how I missed them on my previous trips. I'm not sure how I feel about having the autumn crocus as my birthday flower. It's highly poisonous but also poignant, appearing in the midst of a blighted landscape as a pale apparition of vulnerable beauty.

Do you have a birthday flower?