Distillation appears to have been practiced throughout ancient times. Based upon the current interpretation Paolo Rovesti’s discovery of an earthenware distillation apparatus, the production or extraction of aromatic oils by means of steam distillation, has been known for 5000 years. During the fifth century AD, the famed writer, Zosimus of Panopolis, refers to the distilling of a divine water and panacea.
Throughout the early Middle Ages and beyond, a crude form of distillation was known and was used primarily to prepare floral waters or distilled aromatic waters. These appear to have been used in perfumery, as digestive tonics, in cooking, and for trading.
Although an extensive trade of odoriferous material has been shown to have occurred in the ancient Orient and ancient Greece and Rome, the oils used were not essential oils per se, “rather they were obtained by placing flowers, roots, and other plant material into a fatty oil of best quality, submitting the glass bottles containing these mixtures to the warming influence of the sun and finally separating odoriferous oil from the solid constituents”. In 900 AD, Avicenna, the famous child prodigy from Persia who wrotemany documents on plants and their uses and also instructions for massage, was accredited with refining the process of distillation by improving the cooling system.
Today distillation is still the most common process of extracting essential oils from plants. The advantage of distillation is that the volatile components can be distilled at temperatures lower than the boiling points of their individual constituents and are easily separated from the condensed water. During distillation the plant material is placed upon a grid inside the still. Once inside, the still is sealed, and, depending upon the above methods, steam or water/steam slowly breaks through the plant material to remove its volatile constituents. These volatile constituents rise upward through a connecting pipe that leads them into a condenser. The condenser cools the rising vapor back into liquid form. The liquid is then collected in a vehicle below the condenser. Since water and essential oil do not mix, the essential oil will be found on the surface of the water where it is siphoned off. Occasionally an essential oil is heavier than water and is found on the bottom rather than the top, such as with clove essential oil.
Hydrosols, also known as hydrolats, are the by-product or product (depending on the distiller purpose) of the distillation process. Hydrosols contain the water-soluble constituents of the aromatic plant and retain a small amount of essential oil. Every liter of hydrosol contains between 0.05 and 0.2 milliliter of dissolved essential oil, depending on the water solubility of the plant’s components and the distillation parameters.
Visit the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy to learn more about aromatherapy.
Visit the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies to take an online course!