Essential oils are concentrated oils that contain fragrant compounds from plants with potent aromatic or healing properties. Among the most common are lavender essential oil, revered for its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and relaxing properties, and eucalyptus, which is used as a deodorising product and decongestant (although like all essential oils, needs to be used with caution).
Since the late 1990s, falling prices for traditional crops such as wheat have led British farmers to seek alternative harvests that will flourish in native soil. As demand and interest in aromatherapy to promote mental and physical wellbeing increase, essential oil production seems a natural choice. While hardly a new idea (the Romans cultivated lavender for its relaxing, reviving and rejuvenating properties), new technology allows farmers the chance to make essential oil production and marketing a viable option.
A surprising number of fragrant crops can be cultivated in the British climate - in fact some of the finest lavender and chamomile varieties thrive in the English summer. Common essential oils include chamomile, German Chamomile, yarrow, angelica root and seed, Mitcham Peppermint, Melissa (or lemon balm), hyssop, dill, clary sage, lavender, rosemary, lovage, fennel and thyme. Floral waters (or hydrosol) are produced during the distillation of the essential oils, and are typically collected and bottled for sale in both retail and wholesale markets for use in perfumes and other fragrant products Other products, such as lemon and frankincense essential oils, can be made from products imported from overseas and distilled in the UK. Superior producers will be able to provide a record of the process from seed to bottle.
A Heady Challenge for Farmers
A solid engineering tradition developed from food processing has given some UK farmers a head-start in developing distillation processes for popular essential oils.
A distillery will typically contain cylindrical vats where the dry-harvested herb is placed by telescopic forklift. Once filled, the lid is put on and steam introduced at the base of the vat, which passes through the herb and extracts the essential oil. This steam carries the extracted essential oil as vapour into the condenser, where the steam is cooled so that it condenses and collects in the separator (Florentine vessel). In most cases the essential oil is lighter than the condensed steam (water) and so it can be removed by further separation, filtering and cleaning before it is bottled for storage.
The ability to guarantee the purity of essential oils is a challenge that sets the producers of the finest essential oils apart. A great deal of work will go into ensuring that the crops remain pure and weed free, which will be tested throughout the production process.
The future for British Essential Oils
Through the internet, British producers are able to compete in global markets, allowing essential oils to reach new audiences. This means that, hopefully, the distinctive purple-blue of lavender fields will remain a feature of British landscapes until well into the future.