Perhaps you already have an herb garden for cooking and salad garnishes. But have you considered using herbs you grow to make your own essential oils?
Essential oil consists of plant-derived aromatics that offer both therapeutic and medicinal benefits. "It's the essence of the plants' flowers, bark, spice, resin or herb plant matter -- the natural chemical compounds found in nature that make up the plant's fragrance and healing properties," explains Diane Maurice-Brault of the Herb Garden Lady (http://www.herbgardenlady.com).
"The oils of peppermint, patchouli, basil and geranium come from the leaves and stems; clove oil comes from flower buds; and oils of jasmine, rose and tuberose come from the open flowers," writes Harriet Flannery Phillips of Mother Earth Living.
Helge Schmickle, coauthor of "The Essential Oil Maker's Handbook," explains that the compounds in herbs that create scents, flavors and aromas are called the volatile components. They are the chemical compounds that in nature disperse into the surrounding air to attract insects for pollination or to protect the plant by warding off parasites and herbivores, and it's not difficult to harness these compounds at home.
*How to Extract Essential Oils
There are several methods used to extract essential oils from herbs, including expression, when the oil is pressed directly from the plant, seed, fruit flesh or peel; steam distillation, where heat is used to extract the oil using a still; or using a chemical solvent to extract oils before the solvent is then burned off.
While steam distillers can be purchased online, both Maurice-Brault and Sarah Trogdon, founder of Goldie's Natural Beauty -- a line of beauty and home products made from 100-percent organic essential oils, spices, flowers, herbs and other ingredients -- say that for home gardeners, the easiest way to extract the medicinal properties from your plants is by infusion, also known as maceration. This is where herb plant material is placed in a carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil. This process has the benefit of retaining more of the herb's therapeutic value because it captures larger molecules than distilling.
First, pick your herbs in late morning, after the morning dew has dried. This is when the essential oils are at their best quality, according to Maurice-Brault. Clean and dry them. Use a paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible, because moisture can turn your oil moldy. Whether the herbs are whole, in pieces or chopped, place them in a sterilized Mason jar and pour the carrier oil over to completely cover. Cut a circle of wax paper on top; then screw on the lid tightly; seal, label, and put in a cool dark cabinet (ideally for a few months, depending on the herb). Shake the jar every few days.
"After the completion date, I strain the liquid oil and discard the herb plant material, and if I need a stronger batch I repeat the process then strain several times until the oil is nice and clear, pour it in small bottles and label for use," says Maurice-Brault.
*Plants for Beginners
Maurice-Brault recommends mints -- great for digestion, fatigue, headaches, skin irritation, toothaches and travel sickness -- as the best and easiest herbs to grow for essential oils, especially spearmint, because it grows and spreads easily, producing an abundance of leaves for picking.
Trogdon's favorites are rose, chamomile and sage. "Aromatic rose oil is so calming and beautifying, and rose water is a beautiful skin toner. I also like to freeze rose infusion in ice cube trays and keep them for smoothies and teas. A strong chamomile infusion, preserved in vodka, is great for the hair. It smells beautiful and helps your hair catch natural highlights." And from sage, Trogdon makes soothing essential oil as well as tea and sage vinegar.
Experts also shared some additional do's and don'ts for successfully growing herbs and making oils:
--Know your growing zone. Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map at www.usda.gov and do a soil test so you can be sure you're growing herbs that thrive in your climate.
--Know your herbs' growing requirements: how much sun, shade and watering they need.
--Never make skin or culinary applications from plants that have been treated with pesticides and chemicals. For natural pest deterrents, Trogdon recommends neem oil and soap.
--Don't plant herbs next to high-traffic roads that expose them to exhaust fumes, oil and gas leaks.
One final tip from Maurice-Brault: When you're starting out planting herbs, resist buying too many. Start with a simple herb garden to test your favorites for making oils.