The most magical time of an essential oil distillation is right when the oil and hydrosol (distillate) begin to drip and collect in the essencier (oil/water separator)! Here is a time-lapse video of the first 10.5 minutes of oil collection, condensed to 2.5 minutes! This was our last Fresh Organic Ginger distillation with juiced whole Ginger root pulp from Buchi Kombucha; juiced and distilled on the same day.
We’ve had a busy 6 months since moving to our forest farm! The summer was beautiful in this wild paradise and each week presented new delightful plant species. We found wild strawberries, blackberries, wineberries and native purple raspberries to name just a few edibles. We also had fun experimenting with distilling a variety of native aromatic plants such as Carolina Sweetshrub, Spice Bush, Sweet Birch and Goldenrod as well as Chinese Bitter Orange!
We will soon be offering limited quantities of some of these special essential oils here on our website!
We had the honor of having a White Pine distillation documented by Priya Jaishankar from the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition. They produced two beautiful documentary videos that we couldn’t be more proud of:
In the second video we delve into more detail about harvesting and sustainability:
Forest Road Work
In August, we helped our farm’s owner repair the property’s degraded old logging road; incorporating erosion control measures in cooperation with the USDA and USFS. For a week we smoothed out the road with an excavator, moved soil to build water deflection bars (dips/humps), lined water outlets with coconut-fiber turf mat, seeded with regionally-appropriate grasses and applied hay. In total, we built or improved 24 water bars in about 1 linear mile with a 400′ elevation change. The erosion improvement was immediately effective at preventing the flash flood of muddy water that used to rush down the mountain after a downpour.
Spring Source Development
We also had the opportunity to learn about spring water development. The first half of the summer was rather wet and it caused the source of our spring water to partially collapse.
After repairing the collapse and enlarging the collection area, the rain stopped. The second half of the summer was extremely dry, causing significant drought across the region. Once again, the spring water ran out and we found ourselves digging up the source. This time, following a hunch about a shiny piece of metal in a small deep hole, we dug up hill just a bit and slowly uncovered an old concrete spring collection box buried under 3′ of clay.
It felt like an archaeological dig!
Apparently, this spring head got covered (and collapsed) when loggers built the road above it 20+ years ago. Fortune smiled on us because the spring was still overflowing the collection box at 20 gallons per hour in the height of a drought! We had been collecting just a tiny portion of this overflow. So we got this box cleaned up and reinforced a bit and now the storage reservoir stays full of pristine mountain spring water!
Running out of water was a significant setback in terms of our ability to distill many batches this summer but in the long run we can be happy in the assurance of sustainable pure, high-elevation spring water for drinking, distillation and drip irrigation.
The widespread drought has also caused numerous large wildfires across the region burning more than 49,000 acres in North Carolina alone as of this writing. Firefighters from all over the country and beyond have come to help out but continued drought, high winds and large amounts of dry leaf litter are making their work very difficult. Areas around the town of Lake Lure (famous as the filming location of Dirty Dancing) have been evacuated as a fire (one of the first to start) burns into its second month.
We are fortunate that there are no fires near our farm but we have experienced many days of heavy smoke. This is usually a dry time of year and wildfires are a natural and healthy occurrence but this year is clearly exceptional. Please thank a firefighter when you see one and do a little rain dance for us! And if you smoke, be conscious of your butts!
We’re not really sure what to expect from this winter. Local word is that since the Forest Farm is located on the northwest side of a particular ridge line it’s in a micro-climate that consistently stays colder and gets more snow than Asheville. Expect photos! The farm has transformed from a lush green paradise with deep-dark forest canopies to a sprawling majesty of panoramic views and the beautiful contrast of granite and dark green pines, rhododendron and laurel against red, brown and yellow leaf carpeting. Yet, year-round the distant mountains have that same Blue Ridge hue. And the stars. No humidity (or smoke) or proximity to large light sources is a beautiful thing at night!
We’ll be distilling a bunch of conifers this winter (and Ginger) and replenishing inventory of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniper Leaf), Eastern Hemlock, White Pine, Leyland Cypress, discarded Fraser Fir Christmas Trees and hopefully Red Spruce. We’ll also be working on another spring development and irrigation system for the agricultural terraces with an eye toward organic cultivation for essential oils in 2017.
2016 has been a crazy year for a lot of people, as it has for Blue Ridge Aromatics. Our sales and reach have grown significantly since the beginning of the year when we weren’t quite sure that this business would make it. You, our supporters and customers, with your enthusiasm for our vision and artisan essential oils, have encouraged and propelled Blue Ridge Aromatics to a happy place! Our essential oils are now in stores in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California! They are also in people’s homes in soaps, salt scrubs, natural perfumes and aromatherapy blends from artisanal crafters around the country!
So thank you! We’re going to honor your trust and confidence in us by remaining true to our core values of quality, sustainability and value, as well as a long-term mission to grow local economic cooperation and opportunity.
We’ve been hinting at a big announcement and here it is! On May 1st we moved onto a 45 acre farm in Madison County, NC!
This remote farm is the top of a quiet cove off the Big Laurel River, ranging from 2400′ to 3300′ in elevation. It is mostly forested with a couple cultivatable terraced acres facing southwest. There are three mossy creeks and several year-round springs on the property and all of our future distillations will use this filtered pure mountain spring water!
We haven’t had a chance to explore the whole property yet but the biodiversity is incredible! Already we have found dozens of species growing wild that are of interest for essential oils, including:
We’ve also discovered: Bloodroot, Reishi mushrooms, American Ginseng, Bee Balm (Monarda), Lemon Balm (Melissa), White Pine, Sweet Birch, Eastern Hemlock, Mayapple, Solomon’s Seal, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) and Wineberries!
We’ll have a chance to experiment with many of these and will soon begin planting mints and basils in the field for late summer/fall distillations, as well as lavender and other Mediterranean perennials for next year!
Part of our job here at the farm will be to help support a forest conservation plan which includes controlling drainage and invasive species. Many invasives are actually used in Chinese Medicine, including Kudzu. We are particularly interested in Multiflora Rose as it is plentiful here, we must control it, and we may be able to steam-distill it’s flowers and rose hips.
So the short of the long is that as this year progresses, we will be adding ever more variety to our essential oil offerings, thanks to this beautifully diverse forest farm! We’ll update you with more pictures and cultivation progress as we go. Thanks for reading and be sure to check out our website store if you haven’t been in awhile, we’ve added a few new oils.
We’ve made a few changes to our online shop. We’ve taken shipping costs out of our product prices so they are now lower! Shipping is a flat $4 per order and free for website orders over $50.
We have also added two new species to our offerings, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern Red Cedar.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Harvested from storm-damaged, wild-crafted trees. Distilled from the needles, cones and twigs. Woodsy, pine, earthy, masculine. Also called Canadian Hemlock, this oil is grounding and promotes balance.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) This complex needle oil has bright citrus and pine top notes with a tapestry of other earthy elements subtly noticeable on the exhale. Juniper species’ leaf oils are commonly used in meditation practices and detox routines. Wild-harvested to protect a no-spray apple orchard from cedar rust.
We won’t say much right now but in the next few weeks Blue Ridge Aromatics will announce an exciting new opportunity that will mean an expanded variety of native and desirable exotic species to distill!
Thank you for reading this and enjoy the turning of the season!
Much has happened in Blue Ridge Aromatics land over the last several months! Two extremely fortunate circumstances have helped propel the company to the next level: Christmas trees and Kombucha!
Ever wonder what is done with Christmas trees after they are discarded? Some sellers just burn the trimmings they generate from selling trees. When the trash company picks up a discarded tree, it is usually mulched and incorporated with all the other plant material the city collects. This mulch is then sold to consumers or used in city projects and landscapes. Not a terrible use of these discarded Christmas trees.
But we’re partial to distilling, so you can guess what happened next… we collected 24 discarded Fraser Fir Christmas trees from North Asheville neighborhoods and began the process of turning them into essential oil.
Not only did they produce an exceedingly beautiful-smelling oil, unavailable on the market, they produced a lot of it! In all, we processed 475+ lbs of recycled Fraser Firs and produced more than 3 liters of amazing essential oil!
We have the wonderful pleasure of working with Jeanine and Sarah, the founders of Buchi Kombucha, to source two other incredible essential oil feedstocks; Organic Ginger and Organic Turmeric roots. Buchi regularly juices Ginger, and occasionally Turmeric, for use in their all-natural probiotic Kombucha teas. We now have an arrangement with Buchi to convert their “waste” juiced pulp into essential oils!
Whole Peruvian Organic Ginger or Turmeric root is juiced in a commercial juicer by Buchi and then on the same day we purchase the “waste” pulp and steam-distill it. In the true sense of Cradle-to-Cradle design, one process’s waste stream becomes the source material for another process. The result is incredible fresh root essential oils produced for a much lower cost than if we were to buy whole fresh Organic roots. Despite being juiced, Buchi’s Ginger and Turmeric pulps still produce significant essential oil.
If you have never compared essential oils of fresh vs dried Ginger or Turmeric, you are in for a huge surprise! Essential oils from the dried roots of these species have a completely different aroma than the fresh roots; darker, muskier, smelling of brown. However, essential oils made from the fresh roots smell almost exactly like you just sliced open a fresh root. The ginger has a strong citrus top-note followed by that warming spicy aroma you might expect. The Turmeric smells bright, green, and has a hint of fresh cucumber. Both are delicious when 1 drop is added to a beverage! Stock of the Turmeric oil is extremely limited so we have not yet added it to our website products.
As you may have read in our last update, we have finally begun having our essential oils analyzed by a 3rd party laboratory. This is not inexpensive so we had to make some sales before we could have any of our oils analyzed. The first ones we sent off for analysis were our Fraser Fir and Ginger essential oils because they were what we had the most of and were also the oils that many of our customers had questions about.
Mostly, questions about the Fraser Fir oil centered on the fact that growing practices for the Christmas trees are unknown. While we can say with some confidence that the trees were likely grown in NC (the species is native to western NC only and NC is the largest producer of this species), we can not identify which tree came from which farm and therefore cannot know what growing practices were used. We had concerns about pesticide and synthetic fertilizer usage.
Fortunately, the analysis shows no signs that pesticides or synthetic chemicals made it into the final product! A summary of the major chemical constituents of our Fraser Fir oil can be found here.
One of our customers wondered whether our Ginger oil is perhaps missing some chemical constituents when compared to fresh ginger oil from whole roots (rather than juiced). The analysis shows that the ratios of constituents are within +/- 2% of Ginger oil comparables, but Buchi Ginger has a slightly higher ratio of Curcumin. Those who are familiar with essential oil chemistry may recognize Curcumin as the major chemical component of Turmeric oil. This is the chemical that is being researched for its apparent capacity to selectively destroy certain cancer cells. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory. We are still unsure whether the higher level of Curcumin is a result of the juicing process or due to the root’s Peruvian origin.
We have (finally) shipped all of our Indiegogo perks and it feels wonderful! We are eternally grateful to our pilot supporters and received overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses about our oils! As an extended thank you to our original supporters, we’re sending you an email with a coupon code for 15% off your next order!
Distilling the Spring
In addition to Ginger and Turmeric, so far this year we have had the pleasure of adding Eastern Red Cedar leaf and Eastern Hemlock essential oil to our stock! These oils are still aging and should be available for purchase by the middle of April. The Hemlock was knocked down in a storm, otherwise we do not harvest this species since it is threatened by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.
Looking forward, Blue Ridge Aromatics is excited about 2016! We can’t wait for our next Red Spruce distillation as it is such a special essential oil and we only get access to it once or twice per year. There are many other things in the works for this year and we look forward to sharing these with you as they progress!
Thank you again to all of our supporters and we wish you a fantastic 2016!
We are now offering pure Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) essential oil, just in time for the holidays! Have a plastic tree? Add the beautiful, familiar scent of a real tree with our Fraser Fir essential oil! This is 100% pure essential oil distilled from “waste” trimmings of Christmas trees grown in Western North Carolina. These trees were not grown organically so we caution against using this essential oil therapeutically, however it makes an amazing fragrance oil! You can purchase this essential oil in our online shop right now (with shipping included)! As of this writing, we have not been able to find any other suppliers of Fraser Fir essential oil.
For those interested in the therapeutic uses of Fraser Fir essential oil, please be patient and check back soon as we are currently seeking relationships with organic growers.
You can now purchase our essential oils and will soon be able to shop our growing line of hydrosol right here on our website! Just click on the “Shop” link in the menu! We use Paypal and will bottle and ship your order when you place it! Shipping is included in the pricing! If you are interested in larger quantities (up to 120 ml) please contact us directly.
Hello friends and supporters, this update is long overdue and I really appreciate your patience over the last few months. It’s been a wild ride so far and I am happy to say that I am thrilled to still be 100% committed to the success of Blue Ridge Aromatics!
In this update I will talk about:
- Fulfilling the perks for our Indiegogo supporters
- Building the still and our 13+ distillations over the last 3 months
- Planting our aquaponic greenhouse
- Our first essential oil sales
Good news everyone! Perks will begin shipping out on the 1st of September! Two plant species have been staples of our Summer 2015 distillations; Red Spruce and Leyland Cypress. Read more about these essential oils below. In all, the essential oil that we pre-sold amounts to about 2 liters and we have produced about 1 liter (we have however, produced many gallons of hydrosol). Therefore, we will be shipping the perks in batches in order of Indiegogo contribution (first contributor is shipped first).
I want to say again, thank you for your patience! In short, we have encountered some surprises and navigated a few mistakes that turned into high-value learning experiences. The biggest surprise was the length of time required for the distillation of conifers (especially Red Spruce): 7-9 hours for a 35-50 lb batch (which yields about 5 to 6 of the small Indiegogo perk bottles). Seems an eternity compared to fleshy herbs, which distill in 15-45 minutes!
Building the still was time-consuming and challenging but we are totally pleased with the final product! It can hold up to 50 lbs of plant material and automatically maintains constant low-pressure, low-temperature steam for up to 9 hours without refilling. It was built with 100% stainless steel using recycled materials wherever possible. For instance, the stainless barrels held cinnamon essential oil for a ubiquitous Atlanta, Ga based soft drink maker; the stainless screening for the plant material baskets came from unused but discarded washing machine drums (a pallet or two must have been bent in transit); the stainless waterproof electronics box, all of the stainless tubing and many stainless fittings were fortunate scrap yard finds. The dome for the top of the still was a traditional giant stainless Mexican cooking dish known as a Cazo. Of course, stainless steel was used for all welds.
Another key to the distilling puzzle is the receiver/separator; it collects the cooled steam (hydrosol) and oil from the still and gives it space to separate. The oil floats on top of the hydrosol; the latter of which drains from an outlet at the bottom of the separator. We tried building our own separator from stainless tubing… but quickly learned it needs to be adjustable and we need to see what’s happening inside. So we found a great local glass blower to custom build a laboratory-quality one based on some general principles and drawings. It works absolutely flawlessly! Plus, look at it… Beautiful.
Our first big batch (PR-001) was on May 21st, my birthday! It was 180 lbs of Red Spruce harvested near Hot Springs, NC at an elevation of 3700 ft. We trimmed the boughs and branches that were dragging the ground and catching vines on a small stand of trees. The 7-8 hour batch times surprised us with a marathon distillation lasting 3 days! Since then, harvests have been smaller but more frequent.
Red Spruce (Picea rubens) essential oil is perhaps a little sweeter and more floral than a Christmas tree in a bottle. Truly delightful aroma. Spruce oils are known in aromatherapy for their stimulating effects (energy and body systems) and lung and sinus health.
Leyland Cypress (Cupressus leylandii) essential oil has elements of pine and citrus. Most people really like this one! Cypress oils are considered relaxing and beneficial for skin as they are astringent, antiseptic and work well as a deodorant.
*Few studies exist on the analysis and uses of Leyland Cypress and fewer still specifically discuss Red Spruce. In general, chemical components of related species (i.e. Black and Red Spruce) are mostly the same in slightly different ratios. We recommend testing any essential oil before topical use in a 10% dilution in a carrier oil such as jojoba or coconut.
In all we filled the still 13 times since May 21st and had the opportunity to distill a few small herbal batches, including Southern Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pycnanthemoides) and Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), both of which we will be doing again in much larger quantities!
We have started trimming (specific) residential trees for free in the Asheville area in exchange for plant materials and have a large Leyland batch coming up!
On August 1st we moved into our greenhouse! This is a different greenhouse than the one described in the Indiegogo campaign. It turns out that the grow towers were sun-rotted and crumbling. The initial investment in new tower pots, growing medium and nutrients would have been way out of reach. Then we found Smith Mill Works! This is a 25+ acre former Poinsettia growing facility that is being renovated one greenhouse and warehouse at a time for small-businesses with a focus on local and sustainable goods and services.
Here I met Michael with Aquaponics 4 All and reached an agreement to rent his equipment and half of his greenhouse. We started planting immediately! In aquaponics, fish eat, then produce waste, which is converted to plant-usable nutrients by beneficial bacteria in the floating-raft grow beds. In turn, the plants clean the water of these nutrients and return it to the fish clean and clear. It is a recirculating all-natural and self-regulating system that uses far less water than traditional soil or even hydroponic agriculture. We currently have about 75 beautiful tilapia in the system, ranging from 1/4 inch fry to the foot-long “Goliath” and they are very happy, eating and reproducing vigorously! It’s a much smaller greenhouse and we won’t be able to scale up as quickly but the smaller system is more versatile, sustainable and affordable. It also has the added benefit of 3000 gallons of water as a heat sink for the cold winter months, reducing heating requirements and facilitating simple passive/waste heat options.
Plant starts were purchased locally from Reems Creek Nursery and Sandy Mush Herb Nursery while open-pollinated seeds were sourced locally from Sow True Seed. We have been propagating the following species for distillation (after a month, the grow beds are half full with little plants):
- Hairy Mountain Mint
- Tulsi (Holy) Basil
- African Blue Basil
- Chocolate Mint
- Lemon Verbena
- Genovese Basil
- Lemon Balm
Based on propagation and growth rates, our most likely first greenhouse distillations will be Spearmint, African Blue Basil and Chocolate Mint (I’m in love with the Blue Basil)!
Our First Essential Oil Sales
Cash is king right? In a start-up business, I think it is. Without large equity investors or soul-robbing debt, a new business has to be scrappy. A stretched build time and under-estimated costs led to a further need of capital… so I sold a car, traded a small sailboat for a motorcycle, sold it, and sold my other motorcycle. But that’s totally ok! This is my passion and I would do it again.
We’ve laid the groundwork for wholesale customers and interest has definitely increased since we started having oils to sample! We have to balance this need for cash with our obligations to you, our supporters, with the wholesale relationships we’ve been cultivating and with opportunities to sell our products at full retail in festival/farmer’s market settings. We have allocated half of the oil we have made to our Indiegogo supporters and will continue to do so until the perks are fulfilled. We sold several bottles at a small craft beer festival in Waynesville, NC and have several more at Blaizing Lotus Healing House in downtown Asheville. Blaizing Lotus is owned by my dear friends Joe and Allie and they opened with excellent reviews right around the same time as Blue Ridge Aromatics’ first distillations!
For the next month while our plants grow we’ll be focusing on wild-harvested distillations but we expect to have cultivated oils available by November 2015. We are grateful and amazed at the support we have received in the launch of Blue Ridge Aromatics! Thank you to our crowdfunding supporters, our new customers, and for the enthusiasm from natural healing practitioners and makers!
– Ian Montgomery
Aromatic Alchemist, Blue Ridge Aromatics
Spring has been amazing around here! It was a reminder of why I love the Southern Appalachians so much! Lush. Like a jungle. Fragrant! New scents ride the breezes from every direction and the senses are delighted with sweet springtime goodness!
We encountered this on a Red Spruce scouting expedition to Rich Mountain in Pisgah Nat’l Forest near Hot Springs. Trillium, May Apple, Fern, Clover, Violet, this 4200′ elevation forest floor was something to behold in April! It is also home to a healthy and mature stand of Red Spruce that will be sustainably trimmed for essential oil very soon! We will publish pictures of the trees before and after trimming when we harvest.
Blue Ridge Aromatics is blessed to be friends with raft guides on the French Broad River who love to go on play trips!
The river has been an incredible way to see Summer roll in! Free-flowing, warm, fun and quite pristine, this river is fantastic, and home to several Bald Eagles that like to show off their gigantic wingspans! And communing with the river is such a great meditation!
The next post will be more business-oriented. We’ll talk about building the still, testing and improving the process, our first big harvest and distillation (coming up in less than a week), and fulfilling our crowdfunding supporters’ perks. We’re in motion now folks!