The most sought after product a lavender farmer produces is lavender essential oil. Have you ever wondered how the oil gets from the plant to your bottle dropper? If so, you’re in luck! I’m going to share the basic process for all you non-chemistry students out there.
How is lavender essential oil made?
There are many different ways to extract essential oil from plants. Steam distillation is the most common way to extract lavender essential oil, and it is the process we use here at the farm.
What is steam distillation?
According to Wikipedia, steam distillation is “a separation process that consists in distilling water together with other volatile and non-volatile components. The steam from the boiling water carries the vapor of the volatiles to a condenser; both are cooled and return to the liquid or solid state, while the non-volatile residues remain behind in the boiling container.” Steam distillation is often used for extracting volatile essential oils from plant material, and the process of lavender essential oil distillation is sometimes also referred to as “extraction”.
In simplest terms, the process of steam distillation for lavender involves heating water and the plant matter up to the boiling point, capturing the essential oil vapors as they rise, then cooling the vapors and allowing them to condense back into liquid so the essential oil can be collected. That’s it!
Basic Essential Oil Distillation Steps
The basic steps for steam distillation are:
- Place plant material in still
- Boil water under plant matter
- When steam rises through plant matter, collect the oil vapor and steam as they travel into condenser tube
- Cool/condense vapors in tube back into liquid
- Collect essential oil and water (now hydrosol) liquids from tube
What kind of still do you use to distill lavender essential oil?
We use a traditional 30 gallon copper still, built originally for whiskey distillation and modified slightly for our purposes. The image above is our much smaller, but still functional (and more photogenic), copper demonstration still.
What is the process for a lavender farmer distilling lavender essential oil?
Step 1: Harvest!
The first step in distillation is to harvest the lavender when your yield per run is highest. Different lavender farmers have different methods, preferences, and ideas about when that is. Farmer Rick prefers to wait until the lavender is at the end of its life cycle, when the flowers have died and the buds are just beginning to drop from the plant. Unlike harvesting for bud (where we need long stems to hang dry the lavender), when harvesting for essential oil we try to cut as little stem as possible. While there are trace elements of oil in stems, it isn’t enough to justify the space the stems would take up in the still – we want as much bud stuffed in there as possible to get as much oil as we can out of the run.
Step 2: Pack Still
After harvest, we tightly pack the lavender in the still. The lavender is packed above a screen to keep the plant material from dropping down into the water (which will boil in the bottom of the still). We pack approximately 40-50lbs of lavender per run (or 10-30 plants, depending on the variety and age of the plant). When the pot is fully packed, we place the bonnet on top.
Step 3: Add & Heat Water
Next, we boil the water in the bottom of the still. Since the boiling point of lavender oil (204°F) is lower than water (212°F) then by the time the water boils, the lavender essential oils have already started to vaporize. As the steam and oil vapors rise from the still, the bonnet collects them and forces them into the condenser tube.
Step 4: Condensation
The next step is to cool the condenser tube, so the steam and oil vapors inside it condense back into liquid. Because the condenser tube is angled down (away from the still), gravity causes the newly condensed liquids to run down the tube and out, where they are collected together in a graduated cylinder. Because oil and water don’t mix, the lavender essential oil floats on top, making it easy to collect. We monitor the temperature throughout this process, with the goal of keeping the temperature of the condensed liquids consistent.
At this point, the “water” has now been converted to “hydrosol” – a mixture of water (hydro) and soluble material (sol). Lavender Hydrosol has many uses, including as a natural house cleaner. While it is considered a byproduct of the steam distillation process, because of its popularity, most lavender farmers (including us) save and sell the hydrosol. Lavender Hydrosol is 100% natural and contains only water and soluble lavender. It has a distinct “green” fragrance that is pleasant but uniquely different than lavender essential oil.
Step 5: Essential Oil
The lavender essential oil is now floating on top of the hydrosol in the graduated cylinder. To collect it, we simply pour it off! As it gets to the bottom of the layer, we use a pipette to gather the very last of the oil from the surface of the hydrosol to avoid pouring any hydrosol in with the oil.
Why is pure lavender essential oil so expensive?
The entire process, from harvest to completion, takes approximately three hours, and anywhere from 10-30 lavender plants. Each run of lavender produces a different amount of oil, depending on a multitude of factors, including the lavender variety, weather conditions/yield that season, how tightly the still was packed, etc. A three hour run can produce as little as 60ml or more than 700ml of lavender essential oil. Part of the nuance of lavender farming is taking good notes, doing good research, and paying attention to your crops to determine which lavender to distill and when to distill it. Think of it this way: it takes 50 lbs of plant matter and three hours of distillation time (not including the time to grow and care for the plants), just to produce a bottle or two of oil. That’s a lot of lavender love!
We are fortunate to have so many different varieties at our farm to experiment with. Over the years we continue to select and refine which varieties of lavender we (and our customers) love in their essential oil form – and we now offer 18 varieties of lavender essential oil for sale online! Hopefully, this blog gave you a better understanding of the time and process it takes to get that drop of essential oil from our farm to your diffuser. (And if you’re ever in Sequim during the summer, stop by Lavender Connection and you can watch the distillation process in person and smell the different varieties at our Essential Oil Bar – it’s like a wine tasting, for your nose!)
pssssst – Thanks for reading our blog! Want to smell for yourself if 100% pure lavender essential oil is worth the hype? Enter code n9vdvhby at checkout for 5% off all lavender essential oils!*
*1ml samples not included