As the name would suggest, essential oils are the “essence” or pure fragrance of a fruit, flower, or botanical. They’re pretty potent, so a little goes a long way in DIY recipes for bath bombs, cleaners, lotions, or in aromatherapy. However, the magic of essential oils is also a cause of concern. To get just a few drops of oil, many plants need to be processed. Since most of the plant material is not used, the majority of the plant goes to waste. In some cases, thousands of individual plants are needed to make a few drops of essential oil. For instance, it requires about 242,000 rose petals to distill approximately 5 mL of rose oil and three pounds of lavender flowers are required to produce just 15 ml of lavender essential oil. Unfortunately, most of these plants are grown and harvested in unsustainable ways.
So are they worth it? Are essential oils sustainable enough to use in our everyday lives? Keep reading to find out more about the industry, extraction methods, and everything we’re doing here at Appalachian Botanical Company to make the most out of our beloved little lavender plants.
Are Essential Oils Sustainable?
The average plant contains about 1% to 2% essential oil. These oils are considered “essential” in that they are the very essence of odour and flavour of the plant; it’s the best part of your favorite plant, in one very concentrated drop. Some plants, like citrus, have much more oil, while some, like the herb lemon balm, contain much less, and they are priced accordingly.
To get these oils, many different things can be done. The most common and efficient method of essential oil extraction is called distillation. In this process, plant material is placed in a distillation chamber and steam is passed through them to open the flowers up and carry the essence out within the steam. Then, as the steam cools, the water is separated, leaving only pure essential oil. Only the pure essence of the oil is extracted, which leaves lots of plant material behind. For instance, doTERRA shared that it takes 50 lemons to produce one 15 ml bottle of their lemon essential oil.
Since the amounts of nutrients and water required to cultivate different herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits vary, their level of environmental sustainability varies. For instance, frankincense is a highly sought after oil, but it requires a lot of water and is typically grown in drought-prone areas. Not only does this make harvesting and production riskier, it also means that a lot of valuable water is being devoted to growing a plant in which most of its matter goes to waste. Plants can also be harvested unsustainably due to ease, meaning that they are over-harvested and can’t produce for the next harvest, thus wasting soil, water, and other resources.
So, the bottom line – is it sustainable? Well, it depends on the plant, the producer, and the application. While farms that follow sustainable practices tend to make more essential oils, some plants are naturally more sustainable than others. It may seem staggering to think of the amount of plant matter required for just a couple drops of essential oil, but it’s important to remember just how potent they are. This means that just one drop (especially when diluted) goes a long way, whether it’s in skincare products, on bug bites, in your bath water, and so on. Additionally, when compared to artificial chemical-laden fragrances which get washed into our waterways, essential oils are a much more eco-friendly option. Lastly, the production and harvesting methods of essential oils leaves a lot of opportunities for zero-waste products!
ABCO’s Lavender Essential Oil: From Plant to Finished Product(s)
At Appalachian Botanical Co., we’ve put a lot of care, attention, and resources into growing our lavender plants and want to make sure that we honor that by using as much of the plant as possible. Our 32-acre Appalachian farm is home to two varieties of lavender: L. Angustifolia and L. x intermedia. With ideal growing conditions, one acre of our Angustifolia produces about 0.6 gallons of oil for every 2,000 plants. Our intermedia on the other hand is much more fruitful and yields anywhere from 1.3 to 6.4 gallons of essential oil for every 2,000 plants depending on the variety. Lavender hits the sweet spot of essential oil extraction. Not only that, but it does extremely well in dried rocky soil (such as the abandoned coal mine land on which we are based) and needs very little water or fertilizer. From the start, lavender has been a great fit both for our soil, and for a bountiful organic essential oil harvest. With that said, lavender yields, and all plant yields for that matter, are inherently unpredictable due to the maturity of the plant and environmental factors.
We use steam distillation to extract our lavender oils, but we don’t let the waste go to waste! For instance, when we harvest our lavender plants, we cut them down enough to get the flowers but do not overharvest. Flowers that are harvested past their “peak” time can be used to create lavender sachets or infuse wildflower honey. Rather than letting the lavender stems go to waste, we save them, dry them, and create lavender stem bundles that can be tossed into a bonfire or used to smoke meats with a lovely and unique floral flavor! After we’ve used steam distillation to extract the oils, we also save the leftover water, AKA lavender hydrosol, to use as a safe-on-skin body mist, linen spray, or room fragrance. We also reserve the plant “mash”, or leftover plant matter, to compost and apply to our fields. In short, we see potential in our plants at every step of the way and think it’s too precious to let go to waste! We’re always looking for new ways to get the most out of our lavender harvest to create products that will be well loved by people in Appalachia and all over!
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