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Hello, welcome. On today’s show Sancit, we have Clare Licher. She is a aromatherapist and has aromatherapy oil company called PhiBee Aromatics. Hello Clare, welcome to the show today. How are you doing today?
Hi Aron, I’m great. Thank you.
Tell us about how you got into oils in aromatherapy?
Well, let’s see in 1987, I started studying both Chinese and Western herbs and in 1991, I moved to Arizona. And the first thing I did was enroll in a native plant class and I took a couple books along with me that were ethnobotanical books so that as I was learning the plants, I started to learn the medicinal qualities of the plants as well. And then I met my husband. He and I did lots of hiking together and he has now become botanist. But at the time, we were just starting to really learn and kind of dive deep into the native plants and you know on our hikes and in our explorations and working with the plants, we realized that there were a lot of aromatic plants in our region in the entire Southwest. We wondered why you know when you looked at the essential oils that you would find in health food stores or markets that you never saw any of these plants. So it takes a while to get around the things so we had this conversation for probably about eight years and then finally we took an aroma therapy weekend course together and just got so excited about it that we went out and bought a small 5 gallon copper distiller.
So we started working with some of the herbaceous plants and shrubs and just in our yard and in the close local area. We worked with this distiller for about two years and really enjoyed ourselves. We got enough essential oil from this size of a distillery that it continued to inspire our efforts and experiments. At a certain point we realized that we really wanted to be able to work with the trees. And you need to do much larger volume of plant material than five gallons worth. You could produce a really nice hydro with five gallons. But actually I should probably talk in liters that would be about 20 liters. You could make a nice hydrosol with that size but your oil production from the trees where you’re working with the needles would be very low so.
So we bought a 55 gallon drum stainless steel distiller, it’s actually stainless steel and glass and I think we bought that in 2007 or 2008. And since that time, we’ve worked with 86 different species of plants in our area. Most of them are native plants. Some have been cultivated; quite a few of them just in our own garden and yard. But the majority of what we do is work with the native plants and we just have enjoyed ourselves immensely with this. It’s been a really inspiring long term research project for us because. Even though there’s a long ethno botanical history of medicinal use of these plants.
There’s well, almost no essential oils were distilled from these plants in the past and so we’ve had to figure out how to use a lot of these. And the way that that we’ve done that is one by just looking at how they’ve been used traditionally and generally you can draw the same conclusions about how you would use the essential oils. And then we’ve also had chemical analysis done of. Almost all of the plants that we’ve distilled and that can show you the I mean that looking at the chemistry can show you what some of the medicinal benefits might be as well.
So between those two things and our own experience and feedback and testimonial from other people we flow they’ve been able to build just like a repertoire of essential oils and so we often give workshops and do short term apprenticeships and it’s just grown in many ways that I would have never dreamed.
What is distiller?
The basic principle is that you have a source of heat that heats water and that heated water or that steam is below your plant material. And so if in the case of our stainless steel distiller, we have a separate steam generator and a hose that connects that steam generator to the bottom of the root torque which is the 55 gallon drum and which contains the plant material. And as they’re steam passes through the plant material it volatilize is the essential oils from the plants and the steam then carries these tiny tiny droplets of oil through another hose that takes it to a glass to Stiller. And there are all kinds of different designs for essential oil distillers, they come in glass and stainless steel and copper and they’re even done in India they use clay pots. So then as the steam carries the essential oil into the condenser then it condenses it back to him to water not water but what we call distillate and the distillate is a combination of hydrosol and essential oil. And because as water and oil don’t mix your oil will either float on top of the water after its been re-condense or the hydrosol or it will sink to the bottom. It depends on the weight of the essential oil.
Most of the essential oils in our area are lighter than water and they float on the surface of the hydrosol. But when you start working with spices and some woods and roots, some of those tend to be heavier than the hydrosol and those will sink to the bottom. So that’s basically what an essential oil distiller is.
Aron: How long does it take you to make from the plans to oils?
Clare: Oh, there was something that I was going to mention and I’m glad that you asked that question because I forgot in the middle of when I was just sitting there. It depends very much on the plant material. Some of the herbaceous plants have essential oil glands right on the surface of the leaves. So, some that we’re most familiar with would be something like lavender or Melissa. These plants have they have tiny little essential oil glands and if you look at them under the microscope, it’s quite beautiful and it looks like jewels on the surface of the leaves. So plants like that distill very quickly. In a commercial operation where they aren’t necessarily looking for a complete distillation but they’re looking for the bulk of the essential oil, they may only distill those plants about a half an hour. When we do lavender or lavendin, well actually the lavender will usually distill about three hours. Because we will distill until there is absolutely no more oil coming from the plant.
We’ve had lavendin distillations last up to seven hours which is remarkably law on and it doesn’t happen that way every year. I think this year we distill maybe 4 to 5 hours before the distillation was done. When you start working with the needle oils such as Fir, Pine, Spruces the essential oils are held within long tubular shaped glands within the needle. And these are covered by the waxy coating that’s on the surface of the needle. So in order to draw that out and volatize the essential oil it’s a much longer process. Usually, anywhere from 7 to 10 hours before the distillation is complete. And then when you have a heavier material like a wood, those can last up to twenty four hours and we work with Alligator Juniper wood on a fairly regular basis. And another would we distilled Honduran Rosewood which yield very little oil whatsoever.
But the Alligator Juniper would yield… It has quite a large yield sometimes up to a pound or the better half a liter for one distillation and those are very long way, they last easily 24 hours but it can. It’s just depends on when the plant material stops yielding the oil. So, every so often will take some of the hydrosol and will pour it through the central funnel in the condenser. And when you clear out this funnel then you can observe it and you can see how quickly essential oil is building up again. And if you observe it for 5 minutes and you see that the oil has collected in that funnel then we’ll continue to let it go. But if we watch it say 15 minutes and no oil has concentrated in that funnel then we’ll consider the distillation finished.
There are some plants that are even longer distillations. And this past spring, I went to Jamaica to teach a series of essential oil distillation workshops and this was a volunteer program through partners of the Americas which is funded by USAID and so I was sponsored to go and teach these workshops. In Jamaica, they have wild Vetiver they grows everywhere and I was so excited to try the oil because it’s one of my favorite essential oils. So we dug some clamps and washed all the clay out of the roots and then we removed the roots from the root ball and dried them for about a week. Sometimes people dry these for months but I only had two weeks that I was there, so we try to print out a week.
I had read that these distillations could be anywhere from 36 to 72 hours and I thought well that must be because well pretty much all of the Vetiver distillation practices are commercial practice and so they’re very large scale and they have huge distillers. So I figured well that must be the reason for such a long distillation. But it truly is an extremely long distillation and ours lasted about… We did this over a 48 hour period and the oil came very very slowly but it just continued to make the oil and at a certain point we just had to shut it down. We couldn’t really continue distilling anymore because we were working with a smaller distiller and we were needing to use ice to cool to condense for water. So at a certain point it just wasn’t practical and we were exhausted. So anyway state they can last a very long time and it absolutely depends on your plant material.
How do you know when the plant is finished distilling?
Well, that has to do with what I was trying to describe which is difficult to describe if you can’t actually see the images. But it’s when you clear out the funnel that is there’s a funnel that between your condenser and your separator. And that just helps keep all of the distillate from spraying out in all directions it goes through a funnel. So as you’re producing as the essential oil is being produced that funnel will be full of oil and so what we do is we just clear that funnel out. Say we’re working with a Fir and we know that generally that the Fir can be done within 7 hours. So maybe about 7 hours we will take some of the hydrosol that’s been produced and will pour it through that funnel to completely clear the final out. And then we can we can look and see how much oil is produced within the next 5 to 15 minutes and if there are some that collects there then we know that that we should let it go for another hour or so and if nothing really collects then it’s done.
Is hydrosol one of the methods used for and why there’s a method that you guys use?
Oh, the hydrosol is the water portion of the distillation process. So if it’s the water that was turned into steam that has volatize the essential oils from the plants and then is re-condensed back down. But when it’s re-condensed back down, it contains water soluble constituents and a small amount of the moistified essential oil. So this for a long time the hydrosols were somewhat disregarded in terms of their medicinal benefits and qualities and people were distilling mainly for the essential oils. And initially, I think you know people often were focusing on the perfume qualities of the essential oils.
So, the hydrosols have been given much more attention and study in the recent years and it’s been found that they have tremendous healing qualities. They can be used internally by diluting them. Say, you can use maybe a half a teaspoon of a hydrosol in a cup of warm water and drink this as a tea. It can have remarkable healing benefits. They can be sprayed on the skin for skin care. They can be sprayed in the hair or they can be used as cleaning materials. There’s a huge range of uses for them and they’re tremendously beneficial.
Is all your oils hydrosol based?
Well, hydrosol is always produced in the essential oil process and there are some that it’s interesting how much the aroma varies. In some of the hydrosols there is a very strong connection to the aroma of the essential oil like lavender, for example. When you smell lavender hydrosol, you know that this has come from a lavender plant. Some of them are very different aromatically from the essential oils and some of those sieges for example smell nothing at all like the essential oil. So we don’t save all of them. Some of them smell a bit like steamed vegetable water. And these are ones that tend not to be as attractive to people. But the ones that we know about their medicinal benefits and have nice aromas those are usually the ones that we save. And we’ll save the first couple of gallons the come off much more hydrosol is produced than essential oil in the distillation process.
So fir in essential oil say let’s just go back to working with the fir again. So we work with a fir and we get 4 or 6 ounces of essential oil. We might generate 5 gallons of hydrosol all together. Usually we’ll save the first anywhere from one to two gallons. And those first gallons tend to have the best aromatic quality and high level of the medicinal properties. When you get later and later into the distillation, you’re getting deeper into breaking down the plant material and the plant proteins and aromatically they’re not quite as lovely at that point. So what was your question again?
My question is I just wondering how the distillation can affect the plants but I think I’m going to my next question. Can you drink the oils? You mentioned put them in tea. Can you use this?
Oh, so with the hydrosol, the hydrosols blend very beautifully with water or in a tea. The essential oils do not they float on the surface of the water and so it’s something really interesting about the quality of an essential oil. The essential oils are hydrophobic and lipophilic. Hydrophobic meaning they move away from water which is why they aren’t generally not emulsified in the water and lipophilic meaning they go towards fat. So if you put a drop of an essential oil on a cup of tea or in a cup of tea, it will float on the surface and then if you take a sip of that tea and it goes into your mouth. It goes towards the mucosal lining or the fatty layer in your skin and away from the water. So basically the warm water will very quickly force the essential oil into the tissues of your mouth. And for the most part this is very uncomfortable. And also the taste is overwhelmingly strong.
So if a person wants to ingest an essential oil, it needs to be mixed in a fatty substance such as coconut oil or olive or sesame oil. I prefer to use coconut oil but this is something that has to be done with great care. There’s a fair amount of internal usage that’s being promoted. Right now that I feel is not being done with enough care. Taking ten drops of any essential oil and this is my opinion again, I believe that’s too much to take at once. Because being a distiller, I know how much plant material it takes to make that ten drops of essential oil. It takes a tremendous amount of plant material and when you think about trying to ingest that much plant material at once, it would make you sick.
So when you’re able to consider those ratios or relationships… I think it gives you a better picture of the amount of essential oil that should be consumed at one time. Some people believe that you should never consume essential oils. I tend to be kind of in the middle ground about this that that a small amount of a very small amount which would be say one drop per teaspoon or more of a carrier oil and edible carrier oil. I feel that this is a safe dosage and can be remarkably helpful. And just an example for myself, a year and a half ago we our family went to Iceland to help set up a distillery there. We went through four airports before we arrived there and we were absolutely exhausted and of course I picked up a virus of some kind and we arrived there and I had a sore throat. We had only ten days and the last thing that I wanted to do was in those ten days sick.
So I had brought some Oregano oil with me and I put it in some olive oil and I put one drop her teaspoon. And I took this mixture once every one to two hours and by the second dose my sore throat was completely gone. And after a good night’s rest, I felt completely energized and ready to go and there’s no question in my mind that had I not done that. I was due for being sick for many days if not the entire time because it was an acute sore throat. So you know there are times where I think it’s a very appropriate very beneficial and effective use but I do believe that it needs to be used with caution and not on a regular basis. I feel that it’s necessary to take essential oils internally on a regular basis.
Could you push other mixtures into that while taking this orally?
You can use hydrosol blends and essential oil blends for internal use but the same rules would apply. So say you mixed three hydrosols together, as a medicinal blend you could use one teaspoon for eight ounces of warm water. Or say you made a blend of three oils, you could use one drop or less in a teaspoon of a carrier oil to use internally. So when you put this drop or half drop of essential oil into the carrier oil, the oil it’s fully blended into that carrier and in that case very dilute. This protects your mucous membranes and so it allows you to safely use that oil without burning your mouth or your mucous membranes.
The oils that you guys make, are there any oil that you love using every day?
One that I use on a fairly regular basis is alligator Juniper wood and I use that in place of a deodorant, put a drop or two in my hands and then often times of use another oil with it, maybe one drop of Arizona Cork-bark Fir or something really sweet and lovely and I’ll just use that as a body deodorant. And then I would say that the rest of the oils that I use really are determined by what I feel my needs are. And if I don’t feel any particular need, then I won’t use any. There are some times where I just want and uplifting aroma which you know it may not be a physical need in terms of you know feeling like I’m fighting off an illness or need strengthening but maybe I need upliftment So I’ll use something that has some bright top notes like maybe a Douglas fir that has tangerine top notes or I might use a floral maceration that I’ve made. I’ve made them from Cliffrose flowers and desert Verbena flower and also from Honeysuckle all three of these are very uplifting.
So if I just wanting a perfume or something to make me feel happy light then I might use them that way. If I feel like my immunity might be low then I would reach for a different oil. And if I’m feeling like just my energy is low, I would probably reach for something like a blue spruce. That’s known for really supporting the adrenal glands and your energy over a long-term. So I really choose them according to my need. I would say that in the beginning I used a lot more essential oils than I use now and I think the reason for that is that I am somewhat saturated after having distill for 11 years. I think that through using them for all of these years, working with the plant material, being in the presence of the distillations that I do have a lot of these constituents fairly saturated in my system. And this was quite interesting. This is something that I learned from Kurt Schnaubelt from the Pacific Institute of aroma therapy. I went to one of his workshops years ago and one of the things that he mentioned was that when you look at tribal societies that they don’t use essential oils and really they don’t have the physical need that we do in societies where we don’t live as closely with the earth.
The reason for this is that they are eating the wild plants around them and they’re eating the animals that eat the wild plants and the animals they eat a lot of the wild plants that we as humans can’t consume. But the constituents from all these plants are in their system so when you’re eating those animals and when you’re eating nice plants that are in your environment, you’re absorbing all the constituents and all the gifts that these plants have to offer that support your system for that environment. They help adapt you to the environment that give you what you need for an enhanced immune system but in our western societies and now you know most of the world societies were eating plants that for the most part are cultivated and maybe there are plants that aren’t native to the area that we live which certainly in the States you know almost nothing of what we eat is native. So nothing that we’re taking in really is connected to the Human Adaptation to the landscape and to the environment.
So you think that the food we use is regarding the oil which we getting in our environment.
Well, what I’m saying is that if you’re eating from your native environment, you’re getting very very small amounts of essential oil in your system all the time. So, like there in Ireland. If you’re making teas from the herbs that are growing wild around you, you’re getting small amounts of both water and oil soluble constituents out of your plants. And these are present in the environment to help the plants adapt to the environment and when we use them it’s the gift from nature to help us adapt to the environment. So the more that we eat from our environment generally the stronger we are.
Is there a way that people can make these plants into oils themselves?
Well, the last time that I was in Ireland. I was really very excited by the amount of oil like beautiful oil plants that you have around you and actually that reminds me of something else is that not all plants produce essential oils. Many plants only have water soluble constituents. It’s really the aromatic plants that contain essential oils. So generally, you can tell by rubbing the leaves of the plants. Sometimes the essential oils are carried in the roots of the plant. So say you were digging a root. You know you might want to chop it and see what the aroma was like of that plant. So if you go out and you’re walking around or taking a hike and you rub a plant and then your fingers smell like that plant, most likely this will be an essential oil bearing plant. So this would be one that if you bought yourself a small distiller, you could work with. You could start experimenting with the plants around you and this is something that lots and lots of people are starting to do.
I think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg for [unintelligible??] distillation. It used to be that essential oil distillation mainly happens through commercial distilleries and which you know usually would be associated with large field cultivation or depending on the time and the place possibly with wild crafting. But we’re starting to see lots and lots of people buying small scale distillers such as ourselves who bought the 20 liter unit 11 years ago and then you know some people are using them just to make medicine and blends and perfumes for themselves. And then other people go on to produce larger amounts so that they can sell themselves and research and have small businesses. So I think we’re just seeing the very beginning of that. And there are lots of companies that are selling smaller distillers that you can find on the web now.
In Morocco, they use the oil to make perfumes. Is their way of doing that through essential oils?
Oh, well I mean most of those are essential oil based. And usually the perfume industry was completely essential oil based. It wasn’t until the early 1900s’ the chemicals started to be synthesized and so yes you know if there is a very healthy essential oil industry in Morocco, in many places in North and South Africa and well actually pretty much all over Africa. There are many more essential oil industries that are popping up and so you do have to be careful though about perfumes whether they are all essential oil based or whether they are blended with chemical. Many of them are blended with chemicals or with synthesized essential oil constituents, that’s very common. So, I mean I guess it depends like if you want a perfume that also has medicinal benefits then you would pay attention to that. If you wanted a perfume just for the sake of perfume, then most likely like anything that you would buy out of a department store is going have said the chemicals.
When you say synthesized chemicals, what chemicals are there?
Well. For example, if you look at the chemical analysis of an essential oil and we’ll just use lavender for example because that’s one that everybody knows. There are constituents in its chemistry which are very high in its chemistry which are responsible for the aroma of lavender So the linalyl acetate is one for example, linalool is another for example. So now those constituents can be synthesized to smell just like natural mineral acetate or linalool. So they can be artificially produced and something that frequently happens is that oils will be adulterated with these synthesize chemicals in order to extend the oils. So someone might produce so many gallons of lavender oil but they would actually like to sell a lot more that still smells like lavender and that will aromatically pass the test. So they might add synthesized linalool and stretch the oil that way. That’s something that commonly happens. Anyways, I guess it depends on you know what you’re wanting from your perfume whether you need to look deeper into the ingredients in your perfume or not.
Tell us about how oils get tested?
After you distill your essential oil, you can take 1-2 ml and send that off to a chemist and they do a test, it’s called GC/MS and that stands for Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry. The gas chromatograph is like a graph printout that the chemist knows how to read but the average person does not. Then the Mass Spectrometry [so it is a hard word to say] that’s read as a list of essential oil constituents. So these are the chemical names of these constituents and then it will show you the percentage of your oil. So, say I’ve sent off a sample of my Pinon Pine oil. And it comes back and it says that it’s 54% Alpha pinene and 13% beta pinene. It means that of my oil that 54% of that oil is that one constituent. Then but there might be a one hundred constituents in this oil and the restored are usually very tiny amounts of things. But this is what makes up the beautiful uniqueness of each essential oil. And it’s really like a galaxy where you see all these stars that the stars make up the galaxy. Well, these tiny little constituents are like the stars in the galaxy of the essential oil. And we actually don’t even know what all of them are yet. And frequently when I’ve looked at a Gas chromatograph of one of our oils, frequently I’ll see a peak on this graph and it will just say unidentified.
So there are many constituents that have been identified and of those really only a small amount have been researched to where we know what the medicinal benefit of that particular constituent is. There are many many that have been identified where we don’t really know what the physiological effect is yet. And then there are many that haven’t been identified at all. So if you take an aroma therapy certification course, a longer course not a weekend workshop something that where you actually delft into some essential oil chemistry. You can learn enough that you can take that and mass spectrometry and you can look at the constituents and you can have a basic idea of what the medicinal benefit of this essential oil will be.
So Clare, can you add vodka over something that has really clear quality to the essential oils make as a perfume.
I’ve never taken a specific perfumery course. I know that many many perfumes are alcohol based you know usually the spray perfumes. I’ve never done that myself. Most of those that aromatic blends that I’ve done. I’ve made solid base perfumes which is so combination of say beeswax and coconut oil. But yes, they’re used that way all the time and they used rather than Vodka, I believe people use a perfume alcohol which has less aroma. I’m not really sure because I’ve never bought any myself but I would assume so that it’s very pure and probably has the least amount of aroma that might interfere with your blend of essential oils.
How do you make your own perfume?
I will do an aromatic blend of the oils and then I will heat beeswax and a little bit of another material like say butter or coconut oil or whatever other materials might blend well with the essential oils that I have chosen. And so all heat those and melt them and then you don’t want to add your essential oils immediately because the heat will volatilize them. So when it’s just starting to solidify then I might add my essential oils at that time and then they’ll be captured with the oil and the beeswax and not just volatilize. So that’s how I make my little perfumes. I’ve never developed a line with a label that I sell on the Internet. I just offer my essential oils and co-distills that way.
What oils and co-distills do you provide to people?
Well, I have seven different native Junipers that we distill plus the alligator Juniper wood. And we have three different pines and two of which we distill their pine cones as well the white pine and pinon pine cone. We distill for different native firs. And we have distill two native spruces although we just carry blue spruce on our website. And we have a number of native herbaceous plants that are very interesting. We do three varieties of Rabbitbrush and we do Mexican Arnica which is an amazing plant and Snake wee and gosh what else we have a handful of cultivated plants that we offer as well. Lavandin and Rosemary, Cineole and Eucalyptus. And see you know that doesn’t cover all of them but I think we have somewhere over 40 essential oils that we offer on our website. Oh yeah, there’s Seges and Artiemisias as well. Those are more from the more extreme desert regions.
How do you collect all these oil with them being so high altitude [announced??]
Well, we wild craft everything and with the exception of the cultivated oils of course but some of them are high altitude like the Arizona Cork-bark fir, the blue spruce, common Juniper and sub Alpine fir. And actually some of the other firs and pines are high altitude as well but generally some of them are close enough that we could drive there and back within a day. Often times we have to do overnight or we’ll take road trips basically and when we take the longer trips we often take a trailer with us. And we will collect the lower boughs of the trees for example and at the same time we’ll clean up any dead wood that’s also hanging around on the bottom of the tree. So what this does is it actually benefits the tree. So that and it feels right for us for it to be a relationship of give and take with the plants that we’re working with.
I think it’s very important to support the trees and the plants that we’re working with because I mean with the trees for example once sleep worked on a tree that’s usually it. There’s no need to go back to that same tree again because there are plenty more out in the forest and our permits cover fairly large areas. So basically we’re just cleaning up the tree and then we move on to the next one. With some of the herbaceous plants we might visit those again. So we’ll clip those in such a way to promote new growth next year and to benefit the plant itself but there will often give the plant a rest. Like maybe we’ll only collect from that same plant once every other year to give it a chance to like fully rebuild itself.
So anyways, you know that something that is also very important about this is that over time you personally build a relationship with the plants and then over a longer period of time you build a relationship with the forest with a larger area of the landscape and an environment and you slowly get to know this place. You get to know where the drain edges are? Where the hills are? Where there are pockets of certain plants and pockets of different plants. And it’s very satisfying to have this relationship with the landscape and with nature. It’s something that I enjoy very much and we have seven regions that we go to on a regular basis and then other regions where you know we just visit once in a while. But so we collect in the Northern Sonoran Desert. And we collect on the Kaibab Plateau which is the near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s fairly high elevation. We collect on the Coconino plateau which is near the south rim of the Grand Canyon and it’s about a 1000 feet lower elevation than that rim.
We collect on the San Francisco Peaks which is near Flagstaff Arizona. And then on the eastern side of the San Francisco Peaks is a completely different bio region, completely different. It’s far more area and you can feel that you’re closer to the desert in this area. And then traveling northern from there, we go up through the Navajo tribal lands and we don’t collect there but we collect around the Million Cliffs. And then east of us we collect in a region called the Mogollon rim which is a high elevation region where we collect many of our conifers. And then we go in Arizona. We go as far east as the White Mountains.
Clare, I want to say thank you very much for coming in the show and sharing your story, your knowledge and experience.
Well. Thank you so much, Aaron. It was very nice talking with you.