Hydrosols: One Summer’s Obsession

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Hydrosols are distillates from the ancient process of steam distillation. When we think of distillation, of course we think of whiskey, gin, bourbon, and moonshine, made from grains or sugar cane through steam distillation. Hydrosols can be from plants, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Witch Hazel is one of the best-known hydrosols, although true witch hazel hydrosols are not found in drug or grocery stores. Hydrosols are considered “plant waters” with 1% essential oil.

The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used hydrosols extensively for their healing properties.

Hydrosols are similar to essential oils but in far less of a concentration. Hydrosols are subtle, aromatic, and capture the essence of the plant. These condensate waters contain everything that was in the plant and are often more aromatic than essential oils. The resurgence of hydrosols is in part due to the harmonic and therapeutic aspects of these waters. They are far more gentle than essential oils, and they can be used topically, or taken internally.

Hydrosols are considered supercharged waters with the deeply active elements of the plant. As herbs are to homeopathy, so are essential oils to hydrosols.

The chemical components in hydrosols include acids, which acidify the water, providing a therapeutic antiseptic. Bacteria do no live well in acidic environments.

Creating Hydrosols: 

In the summer of 2013, we started experimenting with the making of hydrosols. Using a kitchen stove, a big canning pot, 1 lb. of lavender flowers and leaves grown in my garden, a brick, a Pyrex measuring cup, well water, and lots of ice, we made our first lavender hydrosol. This is a time-intensive process, requiring patience, bouts of curse words, much debate, and conjecture.

The one pound of lavender yielded only 4 ounces of hydrosol. I poured the cooled hydrosol in a small, glass spray bottle, and started spraying everything: my face, the dogs, sheets, towels, rub rags, and a chicken.

We then moved on to making hydrosols of garden sage, Clary sage, and rosemary. As the wild elderberries started to bloom, we made a hydrosol from them, and then roses, basil, mint, oregano, and then my garden calendula.

By this point, we had our kitchen process figured out, and had learned that the purest, most highly concentrated portion of the hydrosol is the first distillation, not the last distillation. As hydrosols are very fragile, we kept them refrigerated, although we now know that vodka is often used as a preservative for hydrosols, giving them a much longer shelf life. Professional hydrosol distillers use copper stills to increase shelf life and stability of the distillates. We had made so many hydrosols that one entire shelf and half of another in the fridge was taken up by glass bottles of hydrosols.

I became obsessed with hydrosols. I made hydrosols from cucumbers, for the cooling properties; I whipped up my own body lotion with apricot kernel oil, beeswax, and hydrosol. I added basil or thyme hydrosol to pasta sauce, and salads; added mint hydrosol to freshly cut peaches and tea. I misted freshly-sliced garden tomatoes with hydrosol. I added hydrosols to the horses’ feed, and to dog food. I misted my face with hydrosols on planes, in the car, at work, on the phone, before stall mucking, after stall mucking, and even in the waiting room at the dentist. I misted the chickens, the cats, the farrier, the indoor plants, and the Fed Ex guy.

It was at the time of making yet another new batch of the calendula hydrosol, that my partner, Peter, grumbled: “what the heck are you going to do with all this,” pointing to the packed refrigerator shelf of various hydrosols, that one of the horses came in that morning from the pasture with rub marks on his face from trying to get his fly mask off. The hair was gone, leaving pink, slightly inflamed skin. As I went to grab the coconut oil when I thought: Calendula Hydrosol.

Calendula is a plant known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, antibacterial properties. Its historical uses include: rashes, hotspots, abrasions, wounds, sunburn, scars, as well as a topical for aches and sprains. Calendula contains antioxidants: beta carotene, lycopene, and rubixanthin. This plant has been used for medicinal purposes since the 12th century.

So I poured some calendula hydrosol on a cotton ball, and applied it to his face. By noon, when I went back and checked, the skin was no longer irritated. Hmmm, I thought, Hmmm…

Not a day later, Peter got ambushed by wasps. His bare legs had at least 10 stings on them, and they were swelling. I had been reading about how the ancient Egyptians made hydrosols and stored them in clay pots, so the idea came to me to mix hydrosol with earth. I grabbed two clays (Calcium Bentonite and Kaolin) added some witch hazel and the calendula hydrosol, mixed it together, and slathered it on his legs. As soon as I had applied it, he stopped complaining, and walked around remarking how quickly the pain of the stings had gone away.

I replicated the recipe of clay, witch hazel, and calendula hydrosol, and set about applying it to anything that moved…including one incredibly annoyed cat, a dog with a slightly swollen ankle, Peter’s elbow, my knee, and some small bug bites on several horses.

Once I applied the hydrosol poultice on the dog, Spirit, I wrapped some gauze around it to keep him from licking it. The surprise was he didn’t even try to remove the bandage, which for him is saying something. Spirit usually needs the Conehead Cone of Shame around his neck to keep him from dismantling any kind of bandage, even vetwrap. I surmised that it must feel good to him, because he left it completely alone. When I removed the wrap 8 hours later, there was no swelling and he quite happily trotted off to boss the chickens.

With the horses, I just applied the poultice to the wet skin with no wrapping at all. As the clay mixture dried, and starting falling off, the bumps from the bug bites were gone.

The advantages of hydrosols for healing purposes are that as plant-infused waters they are gentler than essential oils and therefore less irritating to sensitive skin. This is particularly important with thin-skinned horses, and those with white socks, and legs.

Because hydrosols are water, and water makes up 60-70% of the human, equine, and canine body systems, hydrosols are in a way intrinsic to the body system at large.

While muscles and kidneys contain the most water, the brain and heart are composed of up to 70% water. Even bones are 30% water.

Clays need moisture to become poultices. Hydrosols provide therapeutic plant water that hydrates the clay, and also provide the plant co-factors: flavonoids, flavonol glycosides, saponins, antioxidants, and triterpenes.

Hydrosols and Essential Oils: Poultice

Clays provide an excellent medium for combining hydrosols and essential oils. While we think of water and oil not mixing without an emulsifier, clays actually provide the emulsifying factor: blending with the water, binding with the oil. The clay thus becomes impregnanted with both hydrosol and the essential oils.

Out of the Lab: 

The unique combination of hydrosols with essential oils and clay are the foundation of the new line of Biostar Artisan Poultices, due out in 2014. The ingredients of these poultices are edible, human-grade. You can use the poultices on horses, dogs, children, spouses, friends, cats, gerbils, goats, and chickens.


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