Most witches are nature lovers, and even though we may not always appreciate the common ‘dime-a-dozen’ garden, but would rather see a patch of wild land, full of herbs, weeds, and untouched by man, we can still feel admiration for the person who has obviously spent a lot of time and effort to make his garden into something uniquely his own. But there is more to plants than the fact that they cover the soil, have flowers and fruits and look nice. Many plants have medicinal qualities, for example. And we all know the experience of walking along a street on a late summer evening, and drinking in the scents of flowering stocks and other fragrant blooms. A slightly melancholic feeling may creep upon us when we realise that in a few short weeks all this richness will have vanished, literally into thin air. Because although one can dry flowers, and use them for decoration, the scent is a bit more difficult to preserve. Or is it?
In this article I would like to share some very inexpensive ideas about how to preserve scents of many plants, flowers and herbs. These preparations can then be used as a perfume; in cooking; in salads; they can be used to create your own special anointing oil or a bath oil; and for any other use you may find for it. The process is quite simple, and is called ‘maceration’ which means ‘steeping in oil’.
Maceration is only one of the several processes to get hold of the extremely volatile oils which are the ‘scents’ of flowers and plants. These oils are very strong smelling in their pure form, as one may imagine when it is known that it takes some 100 kilo’s of rose petals to get 5 grams of pure rose oil. This is why many of these scents today are created artificially, although with the growing interest in aromatherapy many natural ones are again available. The volatile oils transfer quite easily to another oil, such as sunflower oil or sweet almond oil.
Other possibilities are maceration in alcohol, which can become a bit expensive unless you want to flavour your vodka or gin; and distillation. True distillation uses water, and after condensation we find a thin film of volatile oil on top of the water. This can be separated from it. The water incidentally can be used too and is sold in shops. Since equipment is involved it is not really suitable for the DIY-witch. Distillation with alcohol is possible too. But maceration in oil is by far the most simple method: easy, cheap, satisfying; and if a few simple rules are followed it is possible to create many different scented oils which can be used on all sorts of occasions. There is only one restriction: although some of the oils can be used in cooking, none of them are any use for incense due to the often heavy scent of the oil itself.
So here is what to do.
First, select your scent. Choose a herb or a flower, and if you’ve never done this before, choose one with a strong scent, such as sage, thyme, rue, stocks, freesia, etc. to try out the process.
Pick your flowers when they are just mature, just opening. Don’t use the buds, and don’t use the wilted flowers. Pick them when they are dry, so no rain or dew is left on them. They should be picked before they give off the scent, so in the morning rather than after a day in hot sunshine when much of the scent has gone.
Next, select your oil. Any vegetable or even animal oil will do, but some tips may be helpful. For cooking, use safflower oil, sunflower oil or olive oil if you like the taste. For salad dressing a light oil is often preferred. For health reasons sesame oil or borage oil may be chosen. For perfume sweet almond oil is used most, but sunflower again is a good alternative. Suet and lard can be used to make creams, but they are solid at room temperature so they need a good deal or work.
Thirdly, take a bottle, preferably with a wide neck and a stopper. Fill half of the bottle with your oil, and then put as many of your flowers or herbs in as it will comfortably take. Check again that the flowers are clean, dry, and healthy.
Put the stopper on and let this sit in a warmish place for 12 to 48 hours, occasionally shaking the contents. For speed, the herbs or flowers can be cut to small pieces beforehand, again using clean and dry tools.
When you are done, take out all the plant material by straining the oil through a cheese cloth or a coffee filter. Press the filter to get all the oils out (careful not to tear the paper filter!). Then start again with a fresh batch of flowers or herbs in the same oil, until the scent is as strong as you like it. After the final filtering, put your oil into a clean, dark (sterilised) bottle; cap it; label it; and store it away from heat or sunlight.
The reason for all the cleanliness is obvious: oils can be kept for a long time, but impurities, such as dirt, bacteria, wilted flowers or even water, shorten the lifespan of the oil considerably.
Now what can these oils be used for? Flower oils can be used as a light perfume, or as an anointing oil for your ritual work. The oil can be improved by adding one or two drops of your favourite perfume or of a shop bought essential oil, but be careful not to spoil your work!
It is also possible to create your own special recipe by blending two or three oils together. Experimentation is always important, and you’ll be surprised at the result of combining flowers and herbs!
These oils can also be used to scent your bath, or as a massage oil. Although for massage medicinal effects should be taken into account too.
Oils made from herbs such as oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, can be used to create a nice summery salad dressing in winter time. Other oils can be used for cooking, but experimentation may be necessary for not all oils are suitable for cooking. A guideline is that if the herb and the oil are both used for cooking, the macerated product will probably work too.
For those of you who are really into cooking, here are two different recipes; one for vinegar and one aromatic oil which can also be used for frying.
ELDER FLOWER VINEGAR: Fill a bottle with elder flowers, then pour white wine vinegar over it. Let it stand in the dark for 2-3 weeks. Use with salads or fruity dishes. (Other vinegars can be tried, such as tarragon vinegar, dill vinegar, oregano vinegar for Greek & Italian salads, etc. The process is the same).
AROMATIC OIL: Take one bottle of oil (sunflower, olive or safflower) into which goes 2 branches of rosemary, 6 sprigs of thyme, 1 large clove garlic, 1 green chili pepper, 5-6 small red chili’s, 6 black peppercorns and 6 juniper berries. Let it stand for two weeks before using. Use with salads or for cooking.
It is quite exciting to try and create one’s own perfume and oils in this way, and with a bit of experimentation no doubt you’ll come up with many interesting and useful ideas. Have a go over the summer months and make the scents of summer last through the dark half of the year!
(This article appeared originally in Wiccan Rede Volume 8, Nr. 2, Summer 1987. Voor een Nederlandse samenvatting, zie elders in dit nummer van Wiccan Rede Online).