Distilling Wild Ginger Essential Oil

Distillations, mistillations and musings

Essential oil of wild ginger-Wild Ginger in woods - Ontario

Summertime with Wild Ginger in the woods – Ontario

No matter how much experience and knowledge we have, how much care and control we exercise, we will still, on occasion, make critical mistakes.
We are quick to record and share our successes, but usually, slow to share our failures. However, if we adhere to a philosophy that  there are no right or wrong, good or bad experiences, just living, learning and growing, then in theory, we shouldn’t hesitate to share our failures just as openly as our successes. Who knows, perhaps by reading this someone will avoid mistakes I have made.

   So,,,, I burnt the last Wild Ginger essential oil distillation :-(.   Well, I burnt the pot, whether any of the contaminated burnt vapours reached the already distilled essential oil, is left to be seen. After hours of carefully harvesting, drying, building a cool new distillation table, and setting up tools and equipment. I may have blown it…

New distillation table. Look Ma, no legs! Keeps the small work area uncrowded.

New distillation table. Look Ma, no legs! Keeps the small work area uncrowded. Condenser water supply and return, from above.

As Lao Tsu says in the “I Ching“, “Foresight leads to folly”. Overconfidence can undermine us at any time. In fact, now it feels like it will do so, just out of spite. Just because. Some existential law of balance and counterbalance in the cosmos. Reminding us we will always have much more to learn, and we will always be less than perfect, because if we were perfect, there would be no point to us being here.

The old Alchemist’s caution, to practice humility, comes to mind.

Measuring exactly how much water I put in the pot still, was my clever gauge to know when the distillation was reaching its end. The height of distillate in my receiver would warn me when I was getting close to the end of the distillation, and time to take it off the heat. Great idea in concept…

Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil with homemade pot still

Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil with homemade pot still. This is the measure of water going into the still. Wrong assumption that this is the measure that will come out when distillation is done. DOHHH.

Working blind, with an aluminum pot-still that is not transparent, it seemed a clever way to get around the bother of installing an external glass tube that would be a window to the height of the water in the still, (Like those institutional coffee percolators). My cleverness, and laziness betrayed me!

The dried Wild Ginger of course, absorbed a large amount of the water in the still, leaving me a third short in my estimate of when the still would run dry. Hindsight says “Duhhh”.

A sudden, puzzling decrease in distillate coming out of the condenser was my alarm, but by the time i caught on to why things had stopped flowing, the hot plate had burned the sludge, and the bottom of the pot.  Even though I whipped the receiving flask away from the contaminated stream as quickly as I could, only time will tell if this batch is toast.

The generic odor of burnt seems attached to everything in the room, making it hard to tell if the oil, or my perception is contaminated. I think we all share a traumatic, deeply ingrained association in our racial or genetic memory of  the odor of  “burnt”. In fact, the phrase “Burned into our memory” could just as well refer to the penetrating permanence of the smell of burnt, rather than a metaphor of branding in our brain. Triggered from something as harmless as leaving the broccoli to steam too long, chiseling blackened rice from a pitted pot bottom, or the loss of possessions, countless nights sleep and nightmares after a house fire. “Burnt” never bodes well for us humans. Nothing good about it. I don’t mean that campfire wood smoke burnt fragrance, or “fireplace burnt” , both which trigger communal genetic memories of safety from predators, winter cold, and promises of roasted meats and marshmallows for our tummies, but “BURNT”, that triggers feelings of melancholy and loss.

Burnt, stays with you for a long, long time. It gets lodged in your nose, and no amount of scrubbing ever seems to rid one of the impression on your cells. Burnt is appropriately associated with hell and not heaven, ( as, of course essential oils usually are). I suppose if we accept that smells can uplift and inspire us, even heal us, then we must accept that they can also depress us,  crush us emotionally and cause us discomfort, if not real harm. Yin and Yang. The perfect symmetry of the duality we live in.

Transferring the last of the distilled Wild Ginger essential oil from the receiver to a separatory funnel.

Transferring the last of the distilled Wild Ginger essential oil from the receiver to a separatory funnel.

Ahhhh. Wild Ginger essential oil

Washed, and air drying prior to distilling essential oil, I think  that from now on, Wild Ginger should be called Canada Salamander root, instead of Canada Snake root. the new shoots always stagger out from their sides as if they are trying to scurry away and hide under a stone.

Washed, and air drying prior to distilling essential oil, I think  that from now on, Wild Ginger should be called Canada Salamander root, instead of Canada Snake root. the new shoots always stagger out from their sides as if they are trying to scurry away and hide under a stone.

Asarum Canadense, or Wild Ginger essential oil is a “local exotic”, one of those well-kept secrets and a true treasure for perfumers and aromatherapists. It is just as versatile for herbalists, naturopaths , formulators of herbal products, culinary artists and confectioners. With a sweet creaminess,  a feminine kind of spicy, a hint of the forest and woods, and a smooth, warm uplifting character full of subtle nuances. Wild Ginger essential oil is heart warming in the kind of way that makes your heart flutter when you get a whiff of it. It is one of those natural fragrances that is almost a complete perfume on its own. It falls into the category of beautiful. O.K., There should definitely be such a category.  There is no official planetary rulership for it as yet, because it has never been a well-known or mainstream plant, but, I have no doubt, luscious earthy Venus, ruler of esthetics, art, beauty, sex and love harbours this fragrance exclusively and closely to her lovely bosom. Warming, stimulating, grounding, Wild Ginger plant or essential oil is soothing to sore throats and tummies, excellent for colds and chills, the flu and coughs, and soothing to tired achy muscles. Wild Ginger most definitely falls under Venus’s rule and her Taurus dominion.

Wild Ginger, as a perfume element, reaches up to blend seamlessly with top notes like Pettigrain and citrus, dances with other spice notes, and weaves itself smoothly into base notes like the Frankincense family, Spruce, Fir, Oak moss and other  forest neighbors. It has a stimulating hint of spicy tropical ginger in its makeup, which makes it perfect for invigorating or sensuous massage oils. A well-rounded middle note, Wild Ginger is a complex fragrance that requires little else.

If you would like to distilled this oil yourself, or plan on doing so someday, please read the post”Wild Ginger Flavorful Fragrant  Northern Treasure”, and give some quiet thought to making ethical harvesting, if not outright stewardship, part of your essential oil, or herbal practices.

Wild Ginger, when distilled, has some unique idiosyncrasies. It usually needs a little tweaking after distilling. Sometimes this means just leaving the cap or stopper off, and carefully airing it for a few days. So if you do feel disappointed when it first comes over in your receiver, worried, a little stressed that it does not smell right, or wonder if you made a mistake, relax, you are likely doing just fine.

"Washing" essential oil of Asarum Canadense, Wild Ginger with distilled water.

“Washing” essential oil of Asarum Canadense, Wild Ginger with distilled water.

Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense freshly distilled essential oil needs a little time to catch its breath, or to breathe after distillation. Usually, it comes over with a bit of green sharpness, or sharp greenness that mellows with time and airing. In fact sometimes it comes over literally Emerald green, and only with the passage of time, transforms to its true and permanent colour of warm amber.  Often the freshly distilled oil also has an unpleasant “sulfur” note to it, so don’t panic.  If the Sulphurous note does not dissipate on its own after a few days of airing, shaking it regularly while it “Cohabitates” with distilled water seems to help. I have read that others have passed it through salt, to extract traces of water and/or unwanted notes. I will add a link if I can find that post again.


If there is indeed a burnt note to this batch of essential oil, it will only be after the process of airing and maturing the oil that I will know.
I feel a responsibility to the plant and feel bad I may have wasted such a fragrant, promising harvest. It is important that the relationships we have are mutually beneficial. Especially our relationship with Nature. I believe one of the secrets to producing truly refined and exceptional products, is understanding we are part of the process and equation, which means having an exceptional relationship with Nature,  a philosophy and way of life based on giving, not on getting and honouring all life.  This is one of the principals we abandoned when we severed chemistry from Alchemy a few hundred years ago. Though Nature is incredibly forgiving and accommodating with our one-sided, self-serving, inconsiderate  relationship with her, our poor treatment of the planet, her systems and citizens, she is also impartial, and gives back to us exactly that which we give her, or invest in our relationship with her.

Our world culture is dominated by a model of taking, not giving.  Not only is this our paradigm for relating to the planet, Nature and her resources, but this is how we treat each other, as individuals and as countries. We seek to nourish and enrich ourselves. First. What would happen if we all changed just this one little thing in our attitudes and approach to life? If instead, our first thought was how could we benefit others and the world around us?  Where is there a need that I can fulfill? A lack to which I can offer my surplus? If we all did this, we would very quickly end world hunger,  poverty and many other of our societal ills, on a global scale. Immediately, almost like magic. POOF.  Pretty cool.   All we need to do, to see this happen, is actively seek opportunities to give, and give only the best we can muster. To each other, to the planet and Nature around us.  Everything else will take care of itself.

Back to work now. I have a few kilograms of Wild Ginger from fall 2012. If I don’t go out in the next couple of weeks to harvest fresh material, (With numb cold fingers), this will be my last distillation of Wild Ginger for the year. So, bottom line, regardless of experiences, mistakes, failures, life goes on. If there were no lows there could be no heights, no valleys if there were no mountains, there would be no shadows if there was no light, and yes, would there even be successes if there were no failures?  Probably not. We might as well enjoy the ride.

Wild Ginger Harvest-Fall 2012 ready to be distilled for essential oil

Wild Ginger Harvest-Fall 2012 ready to be distilled

If you are not drawn to make your own essential oil of Wild Ginger, but would like to make its acquaintance, find someone local who does so painstakingly well. Someone who really cares. If possible, someone with a small and personal operation, not a large national or international company. We can start changing the world by supporting people and companies that are healing the planet, treating it well, nurturing a healthy relationship with it, even if on a small scale. It all makes a difference. If the mega companies, with their mass production needs, receive no funds from us, they will cease to exist. We can “vote them off the island” if we so choose. Problem solved. It may be the only way to reclaim the power we have given to the huge corporations. We don’t want to just sit around and complain about the mess in the world, blame others while we perpetuate it, do we? We, through our daily little choices have created, and maintain all of this, and we are equally capable of changing it for the better.  I don’t see anyone else around except us who can do this.




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