This year, I plan on using the plants from my garden in an entirely new way by making hydrosols or “floral waters.” Hydrosols are steam distilled water-based plant essences that can be used in body care products, flavored waters, baked goods, aromatherapy sprays, and more. Rose water is the most recognizable form of hydrosol on the market.
Hydrosol is stronger than tea but much weaker than essential oils. In Suzanne Catty’s book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy she explains that tea typically has a 0.08:1 herb to water ratio, whereas hydrosols have 3 or 4:1 herb to water ratio. Catty calls hydrosols “herbal espressos,” and just like you wouldn’t drink an herbal tea that may contraindicate medication or a known medical condition, you should also research hydrosols before consuming them internally.
There’s evidence that humans were making hydrosols as long as 5,000 years ago, and the useful floral waters predate essential oils by hundreds if not thousands of years. The original hydrosols were made by putting herbs and water in a pot and bringing the concoction to a boil. A sheep’s skin was hung above the pot to catch the steam, and when the pot was finished boiling the sheep’s skin would be wrung and the hydrosol collected. You can also make hydrosols at home using more modern equipment that you probably already own (read “Rose Water Recipe” for step-by-step instructions), and this year I plan on taking my hydrosol creations to the next level by investing in a 10 liter copper alembic still (see photo, below), which will also allow me to collect very small amounts of essential oil. I’ll blog my way through this learning experience, so be sure to check back in over the course of the summer!
You need a lot of fresh plant material to make hydrosols, so I’ll add a few new plants to my garden this year including holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. However, to save on seed costs and weeding/watering time, I’m going to prioritize using plants that already grow in my kitchen garden. I’ve done some research to see which easy-to-grow plants will now double as tasty and useful hydrosol ingredients.
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum Nobile)
With a sweet, apple-like aroma, this is a great all-purpose hydrosol with a shelf life up to four years. This is the go-to hydrosol for babies and can safely be added to their bath water, used for homemade wet wipes, or rubbed on sore, teething gums. For adults, this astringent hydrosol can be used as a skin cleanser, toner, makeup remover, or soothing eye wash for those suffering from computer fatigue. Internally, chamomile hydrosol can be used much like chamomile tea, as a soothing bedtime drink; simply add a teaspoon to a cup of warm water.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender hydrosol has a floral, soapy taste and many people prefer to sweeten it when taking internally. This hydrosol is ideal for all skin types when used externally, so consider mixing it with oatmeal for a deep cleanser, using it as a makeup remover or aftershave, or spraying it lightly on the skin when experiencing a sunburn, rash, or itch. Like chamomile, it’s safe to use in a baby’s bath water, and it will help people of all ages sleep deeper when it’s sprayed onto linens before bedtime. Keep a spritzer bottle in your car or your desk drawer to enjoy the calming aroma when traffic is frustrating or work feels tedious. Lavender hydrosols should last about two years.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
A member of the mint family, lemon balm spreads like crazy and begs for uses beyond sun tea. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty using a plethora of lemon balm for homemade hydrosols, which is reassuring because the finished product tastes good and is quite useful.
The citrusy, slightly bitter flavor of lemon hydrosol is best diluted for a refreshing, uplifting, summer beverage. This hydrosol is safe to ingest in limited quantities during pregnancy and can be helpful with morning sickness, water retention, and digestive issues. Suzanna Catty recommends drinking a diluted lemon balm hydrosol for three weeks during cold and flu season to act as a possible prophylactic (dilute 2 tbsp of hydrosol in 1 liter of filtered water per day).
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Like lemon balm, mint can become invasive so I relish it’s abundance while filling a big wicker basket with armloads of this uplifting herb. When taken internally, peppermint hydrosol is stimulating to both the mind and the digestive system; try drinking some in the morning for an instant pick-me-up or spritzing some on your face after spending a hot afternoon in the garden. Peppermint also helps ease pain associated with headaches, so if you feel a headache coming on then spray the air around you. An anti-inflammatory, peppermint hydrosol can be applied externally to help ease the pain of sore or sprained muscles or to soothe uncomfortable bug bites.
Do not give peppermint hydrosol to children under three-years-old, and this fairly unstable hydrosol won’t last longer than one year.
Basil (Ocimuun basilicum)
Basil hydrosol has an intense licorice-like flavor and needs to be diluted to bring out the basil taste we all know and recognize. Play with this hydrosol while cooking savory dishes by mixing a bit into your homemade pesto or salad dressings.
Basil is an effective digestive aid and will help ease a nervous stomach. Also a carminative, add a few tablespoons of basil hydrosol to a glass of water for fast-acting relief from gas and bloating.
For aromatherapy, basil’s crisp and refreshing scent is both balancing and calming. Externally, basil’s anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties make it an especially good option for oily, acne-prone or aging skin.
Rose (Rosa damascena)
The hot pink “rose water” typically sold at grocery stores is too overpowering and artificial tasting for most people. Homemade rose hydrosols, on the other hand, are gentler, subtle, and absolutely delicious. A homemade hydrosol should evoke the feeling of walking through a fresh rose garden and this relatively shelf-stable hydrosol should keep for two years or more.
Rose is a recommended hormone balancer for all ages and can be used to help combat symptoms of PMS, including cramps and moodiness. Externally, rose adds and retains moisture and is particularly beneficial to dry mature, or sensitive skin. Try using rose hydrosol on a cotton ball to remove excess makeup or dirt after washing your face, or add a few tablespoons to a hot bath for an act of pure self-love.
Rose water has a time-tested role in the kitchen, as well, and is used in sweet and savory dishes alike. Trade rose water for vanilla in baked goods, combine it with saffron and cinnamon for a Middle Eastern rub, combine it with fruit syrups or sorbet, or add a splash to a glass of celebratory champagne. After you taste true, high-quality rose water, you’ll start looking for excuses to use it as often as possible!
There are a few plants that I plan on adding to my garden this year specifically for the purpose of making hydrosols: holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. I’ll also experiment with cedar, which I can forage locally and year-round. People who are lucky enough to live where eucalyptus or Douglas fir grow wild can experiment making hydrosols with those two native plants, and a few other hydrosol experiments could include the use of catnip, cucumber (use whole fruit), calendula, and rose geranium.
Delightful rose water can be a flavorful culinary addition, a great base for beauty products, or a natural freshener for air and linens.
Roses aren’t just beautiful to look at — they can also be used to make delightful, delicious rose water. It appears in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese cuisines in ice cream, cakes, baklava, and marzipan, and rose water can also flavor lemonade, sodas, shrubs, or cocktails. Also called a “hydrosol,” this aromatic floral water can be added to the base of homemade lotion, sprayed on linens to refresh the scent, or used as a natural air freshener.
Making your own rose water is easy, and it will last for months in the fridge. Find the most fragrant roses possible, and, of course, make sure they’re free of toxic pesticides. (If you use store-bought roses, make sure they’re intended for culinary use.) Try this recipe with other fresh flowers and herbs, such as orange blossoms, lemon balm, or lavender.
For this recipe, use a lidded saucepan with about a 12-quart capacity and a convex lid (a glass lid is ideal for seeing what’s going on inside the pot). You’ll also need two small and sturdy heat-safe bowls, such as ramekins, ceramic bowls, or glass bowls. If you have one, a heat-safe glass measuring cup works well for the second bowl.
• 6 cups fresh rose petals
• 6 cups water
• Large zip-close plastic bag filled with ice cubes, plus more ice cubes as needed
1. Gently shake the petals to remove any dirt or insects.
2. Place a small and sturdy heat-safe bowl upside down in the center of a very large saucepan.
3. Arrange the rose petals around the sides of the bowl.
4. Pour just enough water into the saucepan to cover the rose petals; the water level should remain below the top of the upside-down bowl.
5. Balance another bowl right side up on top of the first bowl; this is what will catch your rose water.
6. Cover the pot with the lid flipped upside down.
7. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. After it starts to simmer, put the bag of ice on the inverted lid.
8. Adjust the heat if necessary to maintain a gentle simmer.
9. When the ice cubes melt, pour out the water and add new ice cubes to the bag.
10. As the steam rises inside the pot, it will condense on the underside of the cold lid and drip into the open bowl.
11. Peek inside the pot occasionally; when you have about 1 cup of rose water in the bowl (which will take approximately 1-1/2 hours), turn off the heat. Let cool.
12. Uncover the pot and carefully lift out the bowl of rose water.
13. Using a funnel, transfer the rose water to a sterilized glass bottle. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months or until cloudy material forms on the liquid.
These exceptionally fragrant cultivars will make delicious rose water.
• ‘Madame Hardy’ (pictured above): white damask rose; hint of lemon; grows 4 to 6 feet tall
• ‘Leda’: white flowers with red edges; winter hardy
• ‘Jaques Cartier’: large, pink flowers; bushy plant; repeat blooming
• ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’: raspberry-purple flowers; grows as a shrub but will climb; one of the most fragrant roses
• ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’: pale, pink flowers; continuous bloomer
• ‘Gertrude Jekyll’: popular; pink rosettes; repeat flowering
Some antique rose cultivars can be traced back to the Roman Empire, but the term “antique” refers to any cultivar that dates prior to 1867. These cultivars are known for their especially rich fragrance and longevity, requiring little upkeep. In fact, many older cultivars shrink with the amount of pruning usually done for newer cultivars — spring pruning or too much pruning can reduce blooms. Most older cultivars that bloom only once per year do well with light pruning after they flower, in midsummer.