Making lavender oil and lavender water

The absolute classic, and probability also the most produced essential oil and hydrosol worldwide, is lavender. It is not only in France that lavender has always stood for cleanliness. The name comes from the Latin lavare, which means “to wash”.

Aside from the botanical classification of the types and subtypes of lavender, it is divided into three types in connection with the extraction and use of lavender oil:

  • so-called “fine” lavender is or was cultivated above all in southern France for extracting the lavender oil, and only grows at higher altitudes
  • lavandin is a cross between fine lavender and spike lavender.
  • wild lavender

Fine lavender and lavandin

Since fine lavender only thrives at higher altitudes (1000 m in southern France), and agricultural exploitation with modern machines is very difficult due to the steep terrain, it was crossed with spike lavender, which grows well in low-lying fields. The resulting lavandin has three blossoms per stalk, while fine lavender only has one. In addition, lavandin has a higher yield, is more resilient and is better suited to large-scale cultivation in low-lying flatland. Lavandin is now the most commonly cultivated form in France, and around 80% of the fields are lavandin.

Lavandin oil is rich in linalool, the main aromatic substance in lavender oil. However, it doesn’t smell as elegant as the fine lavender oil. Lavandin oil contains more camphor and is very aromatic, so the scent is almost aggressive. On the other hand, lavender oil smells sweeter and more balanced. Fine lavender has always been considered to be the best. The scent of the lavender oil is more elegant and richer from an olfactory perspective. Therefore, lavender oil is still a valuable raw material of the luxury perfume industry. Lavandin oil is used, for example, for soap or fabric softener.

This difference is also noticeable in the price. In 2015, the purchase price of lavandin oil for dealers in southern France was EUR 20/kg. In contrast, fine lavender oil cost around EUR 150/kg.

Since, strictly speaking, both lavandin and fine lavender smell different in every field, the individual batches are checked very carefully by experts and afterwards mixed in such a way that the same balanced scent results for both lavandin oil and lavender oil. This is very important for perfume production; otherwise if the recipe did not change the scent of the perfume would change from year to year.

Wild lavender

Because this type is only available in small quantities and mainly always has to be painstakingly harvested by hand, it no longer plays a major role in the perfume industry. However, it is still highly valued as a medicinal plant and therefore also highly sought after for aroma therapy. In the Middle Ages, lavender was part of the pharmacopoeia and was used as a medicinal plant. Wild lavender also only grows at higher altitudes – the higher it is, the more ester and linalyl acetate it contains. Both substances have a calming effect and help people who have problems falling asleep. Even three drops of lavender oil on the pillow has a calming effect: you breathe more deeply, fall asleep more easily and feel fresher the next morning. The oil also helps with minor burns and insect bites.

Harvesting time and drying

The scent of the lavender oil is different depending on when the lavender or lavandin are harvested and whether it is dried before distillation. For example, it is popular to harvest wild lavender after it has already lost its blossoms. Then its aromas are not as lively and pronounced, but rather more subtle and sweet. Lavandin or fine lavender is normally harvested when the blossoms lose their color and become grey – this is when the plant contains the most oil.

Lavandin is distilled immediately after the harvest. A second tractor with a distillation container drives alongside the tractor with the cutting machine. As soon as the container is filled with cut material, it is taken to the distillery, sealed with the respective lid, the steam- hose is attached underneath and the distillation begins. In this system, the container itself is also the kettle for the distillation.

The older method of leaving the cut lavender to dry in the field for several days before distillation is actually only still used for fine lavender. This method, however, is risky, because for example rain could destroy the entire harvest. However, prior drying is very important for the aroma, because it reduces the grass aromas and ensures that the coveted flowery aromas develop better.

In a direct comparison, lavender oil distilled immediately after the harvest smells somewhat greener and fresher, while the other method produces lavender that is more floral and dominant with more coumarin and less camphor. The difference can be explained by the fact that the plant loses water when it is dried, hence less water is distilled, which makes the scent more concentrated. It doesn’t evaporate as quickly and provides a certain depth.

In any case, for perfumiers neither oil is worse than the other. To them, it is only important that they have a choice between two different scents. Many people like the fresh note with lavender oil, while others prefer something heavier, intensive and more sensuous. In this regard, the condition of the plant before distillation also plays a role: if it was quite dried out before the harvest, then the lavender oil is very fatty, like linseed oil.

Normally, essential oils have to mature for some time in order to smell nice. In years with favorable weather, however, it is also possible for lavender oil to give off a very good scent immediately after distillation.

Making lavender oil yourself

However, the amount of lavender oil made worldwide falls far short of the amount of lavender oil sold. Hence, it is obvious that not every lavender oil that is offered is also made from the plant. So if you make your lavender oil yourself, you will know with certainty that your oil is also genuine and pure.

The distillation of lavender at home is certainly one of the easiest, and it is also one of the most successful plants regarding the oil yield. This makes it very well suited for getting started with making essential oils and hydrosols. An added advantage is that on a small scale it is easily possible to only use the blossoms. The large-scale production described above always processes the entire panicles including the long stalks. If only the lavender blossoms are distilled without the stalk, the yield is much higher. By distilling approx. 3.5 liters (approx. 400 g) of blossoms, you obtain around 20 to 25 ml of essential oil.

In terms of the yield of lavender oil, it is important for the lavender to have already withered, because only the dry seeds contain a lot of oil. Sunny weather before the harvest is ideal, and the plant should be dried for at least a couple of days. Naturally, it is also possible for the herbage of the plant, i.e. the green leaves and thin branches, to be distilled, or also a mixture of herbage and blossoms. It goes without saying that in each case the lavender oil will have a different scent if only the blossoms alone, the panicles with the stalks or the herbage are distilled.

lavender blossoms

Seminars and stills

It goes without saying that lavender oil will also be made as part of our seminars and courses.

If you would like to make lavender oils and lavender waters yourself at home with a still, then both the Leonardo Classic and the Grande are suitable for this. Which equipment is right for you depends on the amount of the plant available to you. The Grande is the right choice for more than five large lavender bushes.

Essential Oils – Starter Set

Basic equipment for distilling essential oils and hydrosols yourself.

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