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Snowy River Lavender Essential Oils

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Lavender: a holistic approach form soil to bottle

Lavenders of the angustifolia species dominate Snowy River Lavender’s essential oil production and coming to terms with what constitutes quality in these essential oils has been necessary to our ‘stock and trade’.  At Snowy River Lavender, aromatic beauty and essential oil chemistry are both key factors in our assessments of quality however, we also see quality as integral to the vitality of plants nurtured organically by the life of the soil and the purity of the environment to which they are tuned: Quality is also in the timing of harvest and in the distillation process where the special synergy of each plant’s chemistry is combined with others and completed in each still charge as a discrete and fully developed process. This recognition of quality, as integral to the culture of production, allows us to view the quality of our essential oils as a holistic journey from soil to the bottle.

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Snowy River Lavender’s approach to the Standards

At Snowy River Lavender GC/MS profiles and the Standards are viewed as necessary tools for understanding both the balance and diversity of our essential oils. Standards show a normative range and balance of compounds distinctive to the lavender, or lavandin, species from which we make comparisons to our own varieties. Annually samples of our essential oils are sent off to a laboratory for GC/MS testing.  Whilst phyto-chemical variations occur each year, reflecting mainly the shifting effects of climate, after many years of looking at these profiles it is obvious that each cultivar has a genetic fingerprint reflected in distinguishing balances of compounds which consistently repeat themselves. In areas where a cultivars’ chemistry consistently deviates from the normative balances set out in the Standards, these markers guide us to an understanding of biodiversity and the potential for different characteristics within the essential oils of the Lavandula species.

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Future producers; newly planted seedlings ready to embrace life in our Snowy River landscape. It will be 4 – 5 years before these plants start to reach a mature level of productivity.
Future producers; newly planted seedlings ready to embrace life in our Snowy River landscape. It will be 4 – 5 years before these plants start to reach a mature level of productivity.

More than linalool and linalyl acetate: a holistic approach to lavender essential oil chemistry

At Snowy River Lavender we seek to understand lavender essential oil holistically taking the total balance of the oils chemistry into account not just the dominant compounds.  To do this is to acknowledge that lavender, as with any essential oil, as a naturally extracted substance is a complex chemistry subject to genetic diversity and ecological influences.  Unfortunately the high ratio of linalool and linalyl acetate naturally present in lavender oil, along with their aesthetic attractiveness as fragrances, has encouraged the tendency to reduce it as a simplification of these two key compounds.  This form of reduction has become damaging to the overall integrity of lavender essential oil as a distilled product. This situation is fuelled in no small way by romanticised notions that there exist top shelf products which display extraordinary levels of these compounds (80 - 90%). This ‘ideal’ type has become an aspirational but unrealistic standard if a natural product is what is required. At Snowy River lavender we have found, not only in our own oils but also in those ‘genuine oils’ we have collected for reference purposes, that a more realistic balance of these compounds will register between 60 -75%, with the occasional one balancing up around 80%. Lavandulol and lavandulyl acetate will register a further 3 – 5%.  In this light, we can safely account for between 60 and 80% of lavender essential oil being for these defining lavender compounds.  However, this also means there is still 20 - 40% of essential oil chemistry inherent in lavender oil which tends to be largely ignored, especially at a commercial level.

Lavandula angustifolia Bee is one of SRL’s foundation lavender cultivars, it is a vividly beautiful display in the summer sun just before harvest.  Tiny sacs of precious essential oil appear as glistening hairs on the lavender calyxes.
Lavandula angustifolia Bee is one of SRL’s foundation lavender cultivars, it is a vividly beautiful display in the summer sun just before harvest. Tiny sacs of precious essential oil appear as glistening hairs on the lavender calyxes.

Lavender as complex plant chemistry

At Snowy River Lavender, we embrace complexity in our lavender oils, believing that the many different compounds we see noted in our phyto-chemical profiles and smell in the oil’s fragrant notes are that which give our oils depth and character

  1. Some of these compounds appear at quite significant levels such as the warm sweet floral front notes of trans & cis – β ocimene, present in our oils, in combination, between 6 and 11%. Some cultivars, such as Avice Hill, register levels as high as 10 to 19% for this combination of compounds.
  2. Another significant compound is the warm sweet peppery sesquiterpene, β - caryophyllene, usually present in our cultivars at levels between 2 and 3 % but again in Avice Hill the levels are between 4 and 5%.
  3. A particularly significant compound for us is the ketone, octan-3-one, an earthy honey aroma believed to contribute some of lavenders sedative and analgesic qualities, this occurs at quite high levels in all our cultivars on average between 2 some cultivars, such as Bee, at times registering well over 4%.
  4. Another soft woody sesquiterpene, present in all our cultivars at levels usually over 1% is α or β-santalene.
  5. While these compounds all supply sweet warm earthy tones, to the floral refinement of lavender’s key compounds, others such as terpinen-4-ol and alpha-terpineol add a green peppery freshness displayed at the significant level of around 10% in our cultivar Pacific Blue, where this freshness is further punctuated by rosy citrus leaf notes of farnesene and limonene at between 3 and 4 %.

From just these few compounds normally present in lavender oil it is easy to see that there are significant levels of aromatic depth which can easily start to add up as a percentage of the overall oil when considered holistically. Also if you look at functional groups, you can find that rafts of low level compounds defined by these chemical groupings can bring significant character to an essential oil. For example, in some of our essential oils the low level ester compounds of lavandulyl, octen-3yl, geranyl and neryl acetate can add up to levels of over 5 % of the total oil. While perhaps not significant individually, as a combined force these compounds add depth and resonance to the traditional floral sweetness of the dominant compounds, linalool and linalyl acetate. We believe to respect these other compounds is to maintain the importance of that which is produced in ‘the still’ and acknowledges steam distillation as the definitive culture of essential oil production.

Some challenging issues

While Standards, through setting norms of plant chemistry, in some ways limit the concept of biodiversity in essential oil plant species. Standards do nevertheless tend to encourage a holistic focus on lavender essential oil, achieved by setting upper guidelines for compounds as well as minimums and by setting standards for a total of 13 key compounds not just the dominant two. In this way the Standards initiate an understanding of lavender essential oil as complex and invite for us to question:

  1. If we inflate the chemistry of lavender oil in favour of dominant compounds, such as linalyl acetate and linalool, where in this inflated chemistry do the other compounds constituting lavender oil find a place?
  2. Furthermore, if we are so ready to push the other compounds aside, do we not believe they have a function within the synergistic chemistry which is lavender oil with all its aromatic depth and therapeutic potential?

These are important questions because if we are ready to forgo this complexity the reality will be that more and more essential oil will be adulterated to meet the unrealistic expectations of this simplified chemistry and the further away from the distilled plant product lavender essential oil, and our own expectation of it, becomes. Lavender essential oil will become a casualty of its own popularity.

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Sparkling drops of distillate leaves the still’s condenser. A stainless steel funnel guides it into the separatory flask to settle until essential oil and hydrosol is respectively tapped off for cellaring.
Sparkling drops of distillate leaves the still’s condenser. A stainless steel funnel guides it into the separatory flask to settle until essential oil and hydrosol is respectively tapped off for cellaring.
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Settling in the collection vessel the distillate separates. The essential oil rises to the top forming a distinctive gold band. Hydrosol settles and clears to be tapped off regularly throughout distillation
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Snowy River Lavender’s boutique essential oils are packaged for sale in tamper proof amber bottles. While selling our essential oils direct to astute buyers, increasingly our annual essential oil & hydrosol production is being directed into our premium ranges of aromatherapy ‘care products’.
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Snowy River Lavender’s Distillery Processes

The final pack ensures the flower is packed evenly right to the edges all the way to the top of the chamber.  If the pack is not even the steam will naturally take the easiest way out neglecting the more compact areas.

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From field to cellar: a chronology of lavender distillation

Once the harvested flower is brought to the distillery, it is important to make sure it enters the still in premium condition. The flower is laid out on tarps, cleared of any extraneous plant matter and tossed with a pitch fork, to assist air circulation around the flower. This helps to maintain fresh condition, or, if progress to the still is delayed, allows the flower to gently air dry. Lavender can be distilled fresh or dry and while we work the flower close to still time, sometimes it is more desirable to get the flower off at the right time and to dry it. When this is the case, the flower needs to be turned twice daily if drying is to be successful.

 

Before distillation: fresh cut flower spikes ready to be packed into the still.
Before distillation: fresh cut flower spikes ready to be packed into the still.

Along with care of cut flower, packing the still is critically important to successful distillation. If the flower is not compacted evenly in the distillation chamber, the steam will naturally find the easiest path out and steam will not envelope all, of the flower. Because we are small scale distillers we compact flower into the still by way of stomping.

Once packed, the distillation chamber is swung into place on to the still base. The still set is completed when the condenser lid is clamped into place. Once set, steam is pumped into the distillation chamber and distilling is underway. Distilling demands care, knowledge, vigilance and record making. Our distillations run 2 hours for the lavenders, and two and half for the lavandins, after which, the still is unloaded and the process is set to go again.

After distillation: the beautiful purple spikes leave the still as lavender straw. This straw is composted and returned to the farm to sustain fertility
After distillation: the beautiful purple spikes leave
the still as lavender straw. This straw is composted
and returned to the farm to sustain fertility

Essential oil is tapped into amber glass bottles and hydrosol into heavy duty plastic cubes. Both are cellared cool, dark and airtight. Essential oils are allowed to sit for 2-3 months and then go through a drying out process where any residual hydrosol is removed. When rebottled the head space above the essential oil is filled with nitrogen vapour to prevent any oxidisation. Both essential oils and hydrosols are cellared for twelve month before being released for sale.

Pre-Distillation Processes

Cut flower, turned and aerated, fills the distillery shed ready for a day’s distilling.
Cut flower, turned and aerated, fills the distillery shed ready for a day’s distilling.
Packing the still so that the plant matter is evenly compacted in the distillation chamber is critically important.  The aim is to slow the trajectory of stream through the chamber so that it envelopes equally all the flower.  Compaction is achieved by stomping.
Packing the still so that the plant matter is evenly compacted in the distillation chamber is critically important. The aim is to slow the trajectory of stream through the chamber so that it envelopes equally all the flower. Compaction is achieved by stomping.
The final pack ensures the flower is packed evenly right to the edges all the way to the top of the chamber.  If the pack is not even the steam will naturally take the easiest way out neglecting the more compact areas.
The final pack ensures the flower is packed evenly right to the edges all the way to the top of the chamber. If the pack is not even the steam will naturally take the easiest way out neglecting the more compact areas.
The distillation chamber is manually swung onto the still base using a fulcrum.  This takes a lot of strength.   Once in position the lid with the condenser are clamped into place ready for distillation to begin.
The distillation chamber is manually swung onto the still base using a fulcrum. This takes a lot of strength. Once in position the lid with the condenser are clamped into place ready for distillation to begin.

Distilling

The still in operation – control of the still is manual and demands skill and vigilance.  It is necessary to distil in an open but protected shed.  The white cube is for tapping off the hydrosol.
The still in operation – control of the still is manual and demands skill and vigilance. It is necessary to distil in an open but protected shed. The white cube is for tapping off the hydrosol.
As distillate fills the separatory vessel, essential oil rises forming a golden band at the top. Hydrosol, at first a cloudy, soon clarifies and is tapped off many times before the oil is decanted into an amber glass bottle.
As distillate fills the separatory vessel, essential oil rises forming a golden band at the top. Hydrosol, at first a cloudy, soon clarifies and is tapped off many times before the oil is decanted into an amber glass bottle.
Distillate leaving the stills condenser - under normal circumstances this end is covered to protect the distillate as it enters the separatory vessel.
Distillate leaving the stills condenser - under normal circumstances this end is covered to protect the distillate as it enters the separatory vessel.
Alchemy, the band of gold is pure and precious lavender essential oil.  The flower in the background will soon also be this precious liquid.
Alchemy, the band of gold is pure and precious lavender essential oil. The flower in the background will soon also be this precious liquid.

Post Distillation

Record keeping is an important part of each distillation.  While we have always kept records, since our 2013 distilling season records have been systematised so that each distillation can be traced to an exact bottle in the cellar.  It is our aim to maintain the integrity of each distillation.
Record keeping is an important part of each distillation. While we have always kept records, since our 2013 distilling season records have been systematised so that each distillation can be traced to an exact bottle in the cellar. It is our aim to maintain the integrity of each distillation.
It is usual for some hydrosol to be residual in the essential oil after the tapping off process at the still.  After a couple of months settling time in the cellar, this hydrosol manifests as small bubbles at the bottom of the bottle.  This is common to all boutique distillations where each charge of the still is treated as a discrete process.  This differs to the more industrial method of a continuous distillation, where product from one distillation merges into the next with separation also a continuous process.
It is usual for some hydrosol to be residual in the essential oil after the tapping off process at the still. After a couple of months settling time in the cellar, this hydrosol manifests as small bubbles at the bottom of the bottle. This is common to all boutique distillations where each charge of the still is treated as a discrete process. This differs to the more industrial method of a continuous distillation, where product from one distillation merges into the next with separation also a continuous process.
Hydrosol bubbles are removed by decanting the essential oil back into a separatory vessel allowing the hydrosol to settle. This process is called ‘drying out’ and it takes vigilance and good reflexes.  All our essential oils go through this process before it is released for sale.
Hydrosol bubbles are removed by decanting the essential oil back into a separatory vessel allowing the hydrosol to settle. This process is called ‘drying out’ and it takes vigilance and good reflexes. All our essential oils go through this process before it is released for sale.
Essential oils and hydrosols are stored dark and cool in a dedicated cellar.  After the drying off process, the headspace in each bottle of essential oil is filled with nitrogen vapour.  Nitrogen facilitates the oxygen free environment in which the essential oil can rest until it is sold or used.
Essential oils and hydrosols are stored dark and cool in a dedicated cellar. After the drying off process, the headspace in each bottle of essential oil is filled with nitrogen vapour. Nitrogen facilitates the oxygen free environment in which the essential oil can rest until it is sold or used.
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Snowy River Lavender Hydrosols

No, the crystal droplets pendulous on these young lavandin spikes are not hydrosol. This is simply an evocative image presenting itself in our top paddock one misty morning early summer 2012
No, the crystal droplets pendulous on these young lavandin spikes are not hydrosol. This is simply an evocative image presenting itself in our top paddock one misty morning early summer 2012
No, the crystal droplets pendulous on these young lavandin spikes are not hydrosol. This is simply an evocative image presenting itself in our top paddock one misty morning early summer 2012

HYDROSOL – CRYSTAL CLEAR POWER

A bottle of lavender hydrosol has the appearance of crystal clear water and it is not until you smell the honey rich aroma that you are given a hint of the inherent potency contained within. Hydrosol is the pure co- product, with essential oil, of distillation processes. As distillate leaves the still’s condenser and settles in the collection vessel, the essential oil rises to the top, the hydrosol settles on the bottom, and the phyto- chemistry which was complete in the plant now becomes two separate products. Hydrosol has minuet residues of essential oil and of itself more of the soluble chemistry of the plant. It follows that hydrosol will have its own aroma and chemistry with its own unique value of use, therapeutically, cosmetically, and aesthetically.

ACIDITY: A KEY QUALITY INDICATOR OF HYDROSOL

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about hydrosol is the inherent acidity. Water with a neutral pH (7) enters the distillation chamber as steam and invariably the hydrosol, the aqueous component of distillate, emerges from the condenser acidic. While the specific pH of a hydrosol will vary according to the plant species distilled (2.5-6.5), some acidity relative to the native pH of the water source used for distillation is seen as a necessary and accessible index of quality.

 
Each hydrosol carries a specific chemistry akin, but not the same, to the essential oil with which it is co-distilled. Furthermore, as an aqueous solution the chemistry of a hydrosol is not concentrated, around 600 to 800 ppm, allowing it to be used undiluted. This subtle chemistry works with the inherent acidity making hydrosol a potent but safe substance to use with many, therapeutic and cosmetic benefits, among them anti-bacterial, pH balancing, astringent and antioxidant. Furthermore, as our skin’s acid mantle is important in the skins protection, hydrosol can play a part in maintaining this protection, both directly as a wash or mist and as a key ingredient in the formulation of aqueous skin and cleaning preparations.

 
The distillery at Snowy River Lavender produces lavender and lavandin hydrosol, consistently, with a pH between 3.1 and 4.5. Lavender hydrosol’s native acidity bestows it an effective self preserving system and when kept in cool and airtight conditions, should have a shelf life of well beyond two years. checking the hydrosols current pH against its pH at distillation is a good way of monitoring the quality and condition of a hydrosol. This is important also in maintaining the purity of the hydrosol as the most common form of adulterating hydrosol is to add water this reduces acidity and will also limit the life span of the hydrosol.

IMPORTANT PRODUCTION PROTOCOLS:

  1. Hydrosol is only collected while essential oil is still present in the distillate.
  2. Trajectory of hydrosol from the condenser to the storage cube is a fully enclosed process.
  3. pH is checked at regular intervals across the distillation as a means of maintaining maximum acidity. If a shift in the distillate water is detected, collection is ceased.
  4. pH is recorded at the end of each distillation. This pH reading is registered on the record sheet, the top of the storage cubes and also on the packaged hydrosol labels, along with the distillation vintage and best before date.
  5. All hydrosol is cellared (cool, dark and airtight) for 6 – 12 months to settle and integrate before being released for sale.
  6. All hydrosol sold as therapeutic/cosmetic products are released the year after distillation only. All older hydrosols are used for the manufacture of soaps and cleaning products.

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Sometimes, hydrosol (water solution) is called ‘hydrolat’ (milky water). This image shows this initial milky appearance, which results from the slightly warm distillate entering the flask as a temporary emulsion (combination of oil and water). As the distillate cools and the specific gravity of the oil and water take natural effect the hydrosol takes on its crystal clear character.
Sometimes, hydrosol (water solution) is called ‘hydrolat’ (milky water). This image shows this initial milky appearance, which results from the slightly warm distillate entering the flask as a temporary emulsion (combination of oil and water). As the distillate cools and the specific gravity of the oil and water take natural effect the hydrosol takes on its crystal clear character.
The acidic quality of hydrosol both indexes the quality of its production and its special usefulness as both a therapeutic, cosmetic and cleansing substance.
The acidic quality of hydrosol both indexes the quality of its production and its special usefulness as both a therapeutic, cosmetic and cleansing substance.
20 litre HDPE cubes are ideal storage containers for our bulk hydrosols. These are stacked along empty walls of our essential oil cellar.
20 litre HDPE cubes are ideal storage containers for our bulk hydrosols. These are stacked along empty walls of our essential oil cellar.
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Diversity: A Tale of two Lavenders

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The bountiful and beautiful lavender cultivar, Avice Hill, consistently produces an essential oil which balances toward the ester compounds with low linalool content.  Avice Hill, summer 2013, being harvested from Roo paddock
The bountiful and beautiful lavender cultivar, Avice Hill, consistently produces an essential oil which balances toward the ester compounds with low linalool content. Avice Hill, summer 2013, being harvested from Roo paddock

 

Deviations and chemotypes

The Standards present the biodiversity of lavender as part of a predefined chemical balance and range of compounds derived as a species norm.  Where this definition is inadequate to define the chemistry of a particular plant within the species, that plant is viewed as deviant. For lavender essential oil the balance of the two key compounds linalool and linalyl acetate can mean the difference between essential oil which is valued and one which cannot find a market. In the later case, mostly these plants are not used for commercial oil production, or if they are, they become part of a homogenized blending of many oils with an averaged chemistry overriding any distinctiveness.  At Snowy River Lavender the potential of species diversity, is central to our boutique focus of production and raises important questions:

  1. Does the deviant balances in an essential oil delimits its usefulness; Or, is it simply a matter of us understanding the differently balanced oil to determine its value both aromatically and therapeutically?
  2. Does an understanding of ‘chemotypes’ offer  a more subtle model of allowance for such biodiversity, such as it does in other essential oil plant species, such as a Rosemary and Thyme where exists the recognition that different chemotypes offer a depth of  aromatic and therapeutic potential?

Pacific Blue and Avice Hill: a tale of two lavenders

At Snowy River Lavender, most of our lavender cultivars fit easily into the range of compounds allowed in the Standards, however two of our cultivars, Pacific Blue and Avice Hill don’t. Given that all our cultivars are grown under similar conditions and are distilled at high altitude under the same distillation conditions, the fact we consistently get a different balance in the essential oil for these two cultivars shows it is an issue of plant diversity.

  1. Pacific Blue is a linalool chemotype, or if you think in functional groups, is a monoterpenol type with linalool around 38% and unusually supported by high levels of terpineol-4-ol at 10% (a key component of tea tree oil). Linalyl acetate is only about 22% just under the Standards minimum of 25%.
  2. On the other hand, Avice Hill is a linalyl acetate chemotype, averaging about 40% of this compound and further supported by the lower level esters to the tune of 5-7%. Against this linalool is very low on average about 15%.

Both these plants yield well and produce beautiful but distinctive oils.  The question is, do we appreciate these oils for their distinctiveness of chemotype or do we disregard them as essential oil producers and forgo this distinctive potential?  We love them, we hope you will too.

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Pacific Blue is a vivid display of purple abundance at harvest time.  This lavender cultivar produces an essential oil which is balanced toward the alcohol compound linalool and has unusually high levels of terpineol-4-ol giving this lavender essential oil a definite monoterpenol character.
Pacific Blue is a vivid display of purple abundance at harvest time. This lavender cultivar produces an essential oil which is balanced toward the alcohol compound linalool and has unusually high levels of terpineol-4-ol giving this lavender essential oil a definite monoterpenol character.
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Lavender Essential Oil Chemistry & Standards

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Gas Chromatography (GC) is a technical process for reading essential oil chemistry and presents each compound as peaks on a graph as they emerge across time. Each peak represents a phyto-chemical compound and mass spectrometry (MS) calculates the area under those peaks as an itemised and listed percentage of that compound in the overall composition of the essential oils chemistry.

Gas Chromatography and Industry Standards

Two key indices of essential oil quality are an intriguing aroma and a correct formulation of phyto-chemical components. Aroma is largely a subjective judgement of what people find ‘nice’ or interesting. However, while more educated ‘noses’ can pick up more complex nuances of each oil by way of smell, phyto-chemical norms, set out in commercial and therapeutic standard, have developed as an industry safeguard and a tool for consumers in understanding the essential oil being purchased. Both commercial and therapeutic standards are predicated on phyto-chemical information derived from gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS). These technical processes give a snapshot of an essential oil’s main chemistry and the Standards normalize these profiles as species specific balances where the presence of key compounds are notated within an acceptable maximum, minimum range. These chemical ranges and balances are generally perceived as universally accessible indexes of essential oil quality.

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Lavender Chemistry Standards

The main international Standard for Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is set out by the International Standards Organisation (ISO 3515:2002) and also the therapeutic Pharmacopeias of which there are European, American and British (EP, USP&BP) versions. Both Standards present lavender essential oil as dominated by a fairly balanced representation of two primary compounds, the alcohol linalool and the ester, linalyl acetate. There are also two minor level compounds lavandulol and lavandulyl acetate, which while present in quite small percentages are nevertheless important compounds which help to define lavender and are rarely present in any other essential oil. While these key lavender compounds vary within the permissible range, together these compounds are all desirable and should comprise between 60% and 80% of the total oil chemistry. Against these high level compounds also definitively important to lavender oil is low levels of camphor and 1.8-cineole, each, according to the ISO should be less than 1%. The pharmacopeias allow them to be slightly higher up to 1.2% for camphor, and 2.5% for cineole.

Lavender ISO & EP/BP Standards - Summary Key Compound Ranges

Compound ISO – France & Australia BP/EP
linalool 25-38 20-45
lavandulol >0.3 >0.1
linalyl acetate 25-45 25-46
lavandulyl acetate >1 >0.2
camphor <0.5 <1.2
1,8 cineole <1 <2.5

For complete Standard see ISO 3515:2002 www.saiglobal.com

The ISO Standards include in their data 13 significant compounds and the Pharmacopeias’ have 10. However, at a broad sweep, the general balance, of the key compounds, are the dominant indicators of commercial accountability with special emphasis on linalool and linalyl acetate. The numerous other compounds (i.e. cis & trans β –ocimene, β carypholene, 3 octanone etc.) making up between 20 – 40% of the oil, and there are many more compounds (some say over 300), which contribute diversity, character and depth to lavender essential oil, than are mentioned in the Standards. Indeed many of these compounds are only detectable with highly sensitive equipment, in specialised laboratories, not normally used for commercial GC readings and are not normally referenced at a commercial level.

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Lavandin Chemistry Standards

Lavandin is a hybridized plant initially derived by way of the natural cross pollination of plants from the L. angustifolia species and the L. latifolia species (Spike lavender) growing in the wilderness of Southern France.  Under cultivation it is reproduced via vegetative cuttings. There are ISO standards for the French Lavandin (L.x intermedia) cultivars Grosso, Abriallis, and Sumian (ISO 8902:2009 www.saiglobal.com) but no therapeutic standard.  In many ways the standards for lavandin are not dissimilar to those of lavender with the balance of the oil still dominated by linalool and linalyl acetate. The key difference to lavender is elevated levels of the camphor (6 -11%), 1, 8 cineole (4 -11%) and to a lesser extent borneol (1.5 – 3.5%) compounds These signature compounds for lavandin essential oil are the bestowed inheritance from their ‘other’ parent species  Lavandula latifolia spp.

Compound L. x Grosso L. x Abrialis
linalool 24-35 26-38
lavandulol 0.2-0.8 0.4-1.2
linalyl acetate 28-38 20-29
lavandulyl acetate 1.5-3 0.3-1
camphor 6-8 7-11
1,8 cineole 4-7 6-11

For complete Standard see ISO 8902:2009 www.saiglobal.com

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Lavender cultivar Avice Hill produces a beautiful essential oil which does not align with the Standards. Instead it speaks of the diversity and possibility that lies in nature.
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Commercial & Therapeutic Standards are comparative tools for analysing normative quality in essential oils.

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The Still – An Artisans Tool

Alchemy, the band of gold is pure and precious lavender essential oil.  The flower in the background will soon also be this precious liquid.
Managing the temperature of the still’s condenser, in a manual system of distillation, is a task which requires the distiller’s care and vigilance. The sparkle of distillate sputtering out the condenser pipes, indicates it is appropriately cool. If allowed to overheat the distillate will emerge as vapour and precious essential oil will be lost.
Managing the temperature of the still’s condenser, in a manual system of distillation, is a task which requires the distiller’s care and vigilance. The sparkle of distillate sputtering out the condenser pipes, indicates it is appropriately cool. If allowed to overheat the distillate will emerge as vapour and precious essential oil will be lost.

THE DISTILLERY AT SNOWY RIVER LAVENDER

In a boutique distillery, ‘the still’ is viewed as an artisan’s tool which is central and ultimately decisive in the character and quality of essential oils produced. Distillation is not a rigid process, instead, beyond the accommodation of basic principles, offers many choices from which to craft a protocol of production. The following are some of the choices we have made in setting the parameters and protocols which determine the character, quality and yield of lavender and lavandin essential oils produced by the distillery at Snowy River Lavender.

  1. Distilling is a manual process at every level
  2. Flower phase at harvest is predominantly 60% spent 40% fresh and budded (see timing harvest)
  3. Flower is primarily distilled as single cultivar charges. Occasionally we do distilled blends this is a fully recorded process registering both the cultivars included and their ratio in the still charge.
  4. Dedication to recognising and maintaining species diversity in the distillation process. This done by developing new cultivars and through our population lavender program.
  5. Flower is distilled whole and predominantly fresh (we sometimes also distil dry flower but prefer to work the harvest close to distillation). The condition of flower in every charge of the still is recorded, with the oil produced, traceable back to the cellar stock.
  6. The still is stainless steel with a 440 litre steam capacity /100 -125 charge capacity; and an offset steam source.
  7. Water source is roof harvested rain water, pH 7. In dry years the distillery sometimes necessarily operates with spring water pH 6 – 6.9. The pH of steam entering the still is the pH of the source water and is checked and recorded at regular intervals across the distilling season.
  8. The distillery’s location altitude is 1140 metres.
  9. The length of distillation for lavender flower is 2 hours, and for the higher yielding lavandin, the duration is 2 ½ hours. For hydrosol the end of the collection is determined by a shift in the pH away from the desired acidity. The shift in the pH is an indicator that the phyto-chemistry of the hydrosol is spent and it is returning to the base neutrality of water. We find that the hydrosol maintains its acidity for the full duration of our essential oil distillation. We rarely have to cut it short.
  10. Record keeping has allowed us to pursue our commitment to tracking the seasonal quality and character of our essential oils across time. Since distillation started at Snowy River Lavender in 2003, we have kept full record of every still charge, noting everything from date, cultivar or distilled blend, time started and finished, essential oil yield, farm location, harvest time, condition of flowers and seasonal aberrations. Through this data we have built a farm history to which constant reference is made. Hydrosols are also part of this record making, keeping notes on pH levels as well as those of yield and other information as per the essential oils. Since 2013 we have refined our recording system so that every still charge is fully traceable back to a bottle or cube in the cellar. In this way we maintain the integrity of what happens in the still and also the distinctiveness of the source plant and its specific conditions of existence.
  11. Essential oils and hydrosols need time beyond distillation for their true aromatic character and refinement to emerge. We give our hydrosols 6 - 12 months cellaring before being released for sale. Our essential oils are capped and cellared after distillation then allowed to settle for about 3 months before they go through what we term the drying out process, where minuet residues of hydrosol in the essential oil is removed. The dry essential oil is again bottled in a dark glass bottle under nitrogen vapour, and re-cellared to be released for sale after 12 months.

Note: We seek to full distil our oils and hydrosols. This is a decision not based on quantitative considerations but qualitative. It has been observed, both visually and aromatically, that the oil emerging at the beginning of the distillation is not the same as that emerging at the end. This would indicate a progression in the emergence of the plant chemistry across the duration of distillation based on the volatility of individual compounds. While most of the essential oil comes through in the first 45 minutes, or even faster in more industrialised systems, a longer distillation time allows the less volatile compounds to also be distilled and a more complete essential oil and hydrosol is produced. Distillation time is an active area of farm research which has developed anecdotally from observations and trialling over a number of years. We are in the process of formalising some experimental research which will explore more fully our observations.

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Different Cultures: Key features of boutique and industrial lavender distillation

To most, boutique distillation simply means small scale, an approximation of a standardised set of processes more technically resolved in larger scale industrialised distilleries. In actual fact these are two qualitatively different cultures of production developed out of very different impulses and understandings of essential oil quality and the plant world from which it is distilled.

Industrial distilling of lavender/lavandin oil

  1. Industrialised distilling of lavender is predicated on standardisation and commoditisation of essential oil. Commercial efficiencies guides production protocols
  2. It is a necessary response to an escalating worldwide demand for cheap and predictable lavender oil used in the mass manufacture of botanical, or aromatherapy, inspired cosmetic care products.
  3. This is the only form of production by which large quantities of lavender essential oil can be produced to meet this growing trend of demand.
  4. While there is some doubt as to veracity of much lavender oil sold into this market there is nevertheless a significant percentage of production of botanically derived lavender essential oil within this industrialised culture of production.
  5. A high linalool/linalyl acetate chemistry is mandatory as this delivers the most subjectively accessible lavender oil for the market.
  6. The lavandin cultivar Grosso, and the lavender cultivar Maillette, are currently key plants in this system.
Boutique distillation allows specific botanical characteristics of different varieties to be preserved.
Boutique distillation allows specific botanical characteristics of different varieties to be preserved.
Glistening repose, newly distilled essential oil waits  for decanting into an amber glass bottle for cellaring.
Glistening repose, newly distilled essential oil waits for decanting into an amber glass bottle for cellaring.

Boutique distilling of lavender/lavandin oil

  1. Boutique distilled lavender essential oil is idiosyncratic and appealing to those sensitive to the fact that botanical diversity is nature’s own way.
  2. Boutique distillation is not simply small scale there are actually individually significant producers of lavender oil distilling artisan oils. The key difference to an industrial culture of production, in this context, is that they are focused on producing a unique signature product not one standardised to the industrially produced type.
  3. Boutique distillation preserves the producer’s, or artisans, choices in the character of what is produced. Timing of distillation is key choice in this culture of production.
  4. Boutique production respects and preserves the botanical distinctiveness and integrity of the plant matter being distilled. In this way an artisan process enables the environmental complexity and genetic potential of the plant world for alternative chemistries, and expressions of beauty, to be reflected in the essential oil.
  5. A more complex chemistry is desirable and sort.
  6. A respect for botanical diversity enables less intensive and more ecologically sensitive forms of farming. Provenance is important.
  7. A boutique culture of production is not capable of producing lavender essential oil for the mass market but must find similarly boutique consumers. Boutique lavender essential oil has a market in natural perfumery, high end botanical cosmetic care products, in aromatherapy and other related remedial, wellness and therapeutic practices.

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All Snowy River Lavender essential oil will spend 12 months in the cellar before being released for sale. We always sell a year behind the current vintage.
All Snowy River Lavender essential oil will spend 12 months in the cellar before being released for sale. We always sell a year behind the current vintage.
Record keeping allows us to pursue our commitment to tracking the seasonal quality and character of our essential oils across time.
Record keeping allows us to pursue our commitment to tracking the seasonal quality and character of our essential oils across time.
Farm and distillery provenance, is an important feature of a boutique culture of essential oil production.
Farm and distillery provenance, is an important feature of a boutique culture of essential oil production.
 
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Climatic Effects on Lavender Harvest

Late frost is the biggest danger to our harvest. Frost burns the immature flower spikes and they wither and die. Frost burn can happen in varying degrees of severity. Usually damage is minimal and the bulk of our flower set is unaffected. However in October 2006 a severe frost (-10 ˚C) took our entire flower set. To date, summer 2006/2007 has been the only year we have had no harvest
Late frost is the biggest danger to our harvest. Frost burns the immature flower spikes and they wither and die. Frost burn can happen in varying degrees of severity. Usually damage is minimal and the bulk of our flower set is unaffected. However in October 2006 a severe frost (-10 ˚C) took our entire flower set. To date, summer 2006/2007 has been the only year we have had no harvest

The caprice of climate

Farming is not only about good times it is also about rolling with the punches and making the most of what ‘nature’ offers. The volatility of climate is a major determinant of every harvest. We rarely start or finish at the same time twice with a new set of climatic challenges to meet alongside the logistical challenges of our expanding farm enterprise. In fact, in the 13 years since we have had harvestable quantities of flower we have run the gamete of possible weather conditions including drought, frost, bushfires, heatwaves, winds and flooding rain, all of which have exerted their own effect on harvest. This said, there has been only one year, summer 2006/2007, where there was no harvest. A severe late frost burnt off the farm’s entire flower set. Other than that one year, our plants have always found a way through to bloom and usually profusely.

 

2009 was a year affected by drought conditions, Drought harvest means stems are shorter, flowers smaller.
2009 was a year affected by drought conditions, Drought harvest means stems are shorter, flowers smaller.
The same patch of Lavandin s shown above. This photo was taken at harvest 2008, a year of floral abundance.
The same patch of Lavandin s shown above. This photo was taken at harvest 2008, a year of floral abundance.

 

Lavender & Green or Lavender & Gold

Green summers are mild and the easiest. Gold years are challenging but produce intense oils. So long as purple is part of nature’s summer palette we are happy. Summer 2011 was green and purple while summer 2013 coloured gold and purple. As the photos of Majesse valley in these years show, this difference can be startling.

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Hand Harvesting Lavender

At 1 meter around, the lavandin cultivar Super in full flower is a daunting prospect to approach with sickle in hand. It takes 5 to 6 curves of the sickle to clear the flower from each bush.
At 1 meter around, the lavandin cultivar Super in full flower is a daunting prospect to approach with sickle in hand. It takes 5 to 6 curves of the sickle to clear the flower from each bush.
At 1 meter around, the lavandin cultivar Super in full flower is a daunting prospect to approach with sickle in hand. It takes 5 to 6 curves of the sickle to clear the flower from each bush.

Hand harvesting lavender

The traditional method of harvesting lavender flower is by sickle. Between 2003 and 2010 this was the primary method of harvesting at Snowy River Lavender. While it can be said that approaching a paddock of lavender in full flower, sickle in hand, is somewhat daunting, there is nevertheless a type of romance to it. There is the camaraderie, the sheer sensual pleasure of being up to ones arm pits in lavender flowers, the beauty of the insect world, the excitement of filling a truck with flower and riding high on the load to the distillery. This said, it is also hard work in the summer heat and it requires a lot of good will from family and friends because if there is one truism of harvest time, it is ‘many hands make light work’. As we pressed towards a commercial scale increasing our acreage under cultivation, the romance had to give way to the pragmatics of the higher levels of production. We still do some hand harvesting, but the bulk of flower is now gathered by the machine

Gathering drought effected lavender flower

Drought effected lavenders have short stems and are difficult to harvest efficiently with a sickle. The drought of 2009 saw us devise the hedge trimmer and sling method for hand gathering the flower. The plants shown in these photos are the same shown above being sickle harvested a year before. This highlights the distinct effect on the flower of a dry season, not surprisingly the essential oil of these dry years is intensely sweet and high in esters.

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Beneath the flower the lavandin bush is surprisingly small, about 1/3 of the bushes fully flowered form
A truck load of Lavandin flower ready for the distillery One truck load is usually enough for one charge of the still.
A truck load of Lavandin flower ready for the distillery One truck load is usually enough for one charge of the still.
A skilled hand harvester leaves the spherical geometry of the lavandin plants intact.
A skilled hand harvester leaves the spherical geometry of the lavandin plants intact.
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Machine Harvesting Process

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MACHINE HARVESTING LAVENDER

Since 2009 our primary means of harvesting is by way of a tractor mounted machine from Clier, a French agricultural engineering company located in the lavender growing region of Provence. Snowy River Lavender is definitely not a broad acre farm with many different sized plantings dotted opportunistically around our steep property. Thus in choosing a harvester the hilly terrain and the tightness of some small patches were important issues to us. We also wanted a harvester which showed respect to the plants and flowers being harvested, meaning we wanted a harvester which cut the flower whole without mulching, and had the sensitivity and scope of function to be able to harvest plants of varying size. In this respect Clier has produced a beautiful machine with enormous scope of operability and while it is not an easy machine to use in our conditions we have however people in our ranks with the necessary machinery skills to operate this harvester with efficiency in challenging situations.

The conveyor moves cut flower into the hopper
The conveyor moves cut flower into the hopper
The yellow arms of the cutting deck
The yellow arms of the cutting deck
Before and after the cut
Before and after the cut
Cut flower in the hopper
Cut flower in the hopper

THE MECHANICS OF GATHERING FLOWER

The harvester straddles one row of lavender cutting the row to its left as it slowly moves along. Long yellow arms to either side of the cutting deck lift slightly the splayed bushes so that the side flowers can be cut. Cut flower then moves up a specially designed conveyor into the hopper.

The floor of the hopper is a chain driven conveyor which moves the flower out.
The floor of the hopper is a chain driven conveyor which moves the flower out.
A tarp is placed under the hopper to catch flower spill before the Bobcat bucket is positioned under the conveyor to receive the flower
A tarp is placed under the hopper to catch flower spill before the Bobcat bucket is positioned under the conveyor to receive the flower
Conveyor controls are tractor mounted
Conveyor controls are tractor mounted

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TRANSFERRING FLOWER FROM THE HARVESTER

Cut flower is transferred to the distillery via truck. Until 2012 moving flower from the hopper into the truck was largely manual. Flower was conveyed out onto a tarp then swung into the truck. In 2012 the farms bobcat skid tractor found another use and is now used to perform the transfer making it physically easier for all involved.TRANSFERRING FLOWER FROM THE HARVESTER

Before 2012 flower was manually swung up on to truck
Before 2012 flower was manually swung up on to truck
Machinery make gathering flower a two person job
Machinery make gathering flower a two person job
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The Bobcat bucket full of flower ready for the truck.
Tipping the bucket into the truck
Tipping the bucket into the truck
Ben’s skill as a Bobcat operator is put to good use loading the truck with lavender.
Ben’s skill as a Bobcat operator is put to good use loading the truck with lavender.

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Timing Harvest for Essential Oil Production

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Timing harvest for essential oil production

Timing the harvest is a key determinant in achieving character, quality and yield in our essential oil production.  The stage of flowering is pivotal in this decision with nectar feeding insects such as honeybees central in how the timing of the flowering process plays out.  However, it must be said that picking the right time to harvest a cultivar in a farming situation is not only about there being an ‘ideal’ time to take a flower but also about logistical issues such as the length of time it takes to remove the flower from the field and when we can give that flower still time.  Farming is usually a compromise between these two levels of consideration and seeking to maximize both to produce oils and hydrosols of premium quality.

Stages of flowering and harvest

Lavender is a complex flowering form. The spike, often taken for the flower, is actually a collection of many calyxes each of which buds and flowers across the summer season.  When the flower opens it will be visited by a bee, or insect, which triggers a hormonal reaction, the onset of seed set and within a couple days the flower withers and dies (unvisited flowers will last 10 -12 days before it dies, Somerville 2000). This flowering of the lavender spike is not a unitary process where all calyxes flower at once, but one staged over a number of weeks and at any one time during this season all these stages of flowering can be found on the spikes. There are, however, points across the flowering season where different stages of flowering dominate the spike. The greatest depth of colour in the lavender field is when the flowering stage is dominant, with colour diminishing as the percentage of the spike favours spent flower.

A field of the lavandula angustifolia cultivar, Avice Hill, ready for harvest. The pink tints amongst the mauve are the spent flowers, key indicators for timing harvest.
A field of the lavandula angustifolia cultivar, Avice Hill, ready for harvest. The pink tints amongst the mauve are the spent flowers, key indicators for timing harvest.
This close up of the lavandula angustifolia cultivar Avice Hill shows the three stages of flowering: 1/ the pink spent flower; 2/the fresh flower showing also its orange pollen centre so desirable to the bees; and 3/ the budded calyx with just a hint of the flower yet to bloom.
This close up of the lavandula angustifolia cultivar Avice Hill shows the three stages of flowering: 1/ the pink spent flower; 2/the fresh flower showing also its orange pollen centre so desirable to the bees; and 3/ the budded calyx with just a hint of the flower yet to bloom.
Insects are abundant in the summer fields of lavender and play a crucial role in the timing of harvest
Insects are abundant in the summer fields of lavender and play a crucial role in the timing of harvest

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New Zealand scientist Noel Porter has done important research into the qualitative contribution of flower head maturity to the aroma and chemistry of the oil produced.  His findings are summarised below:

  1. Fresher more subjectively accessible fragrances come from early harvested flower (33% withered, 33% flower and 33% bud).
  2. More complex and deeper oils from the later harvested spikes (33% flower, 67% withered).
  3. Totally spent flowers produced subjectively less attractive oil.
  4. These subjective assessments were also backed up in the phyto-chemistry, with slightly higher levels of the fresher compounds such as the esters and 1-8 cineole in the earlier harvested flower.
  5. Porter, N. ‘The Influence of Flower Head Maturity on Oil Quality’ - Noel Porter & Associates, Christchurch, New Zealand: TALGA Conference Proceedings, Launceston Tasmania 2011

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Bees and lavender

Anyone visiting a lavender field in mid-summer can be in no doubt about the important relationship between lavender and bees. The field literally hums with a synergy of activity which benefits both these key participants. French researcher, Barbier, working in the late 1950 and early 1960’s, found a significant link between the hormonal reaction caused by bee activity and an increase in essential oil production in the lavender floret or calyx. Thus while the essential oil is not in the lavender flower but in minute sacs with the appearance of glistening hairs on the calyxes, the flower as the plant’s primary interface with nectar feeding insects triggers hormonal change with repercussions in the amount of essential oil the calyx produces.

Key points from Barbier’s (1950 – 1960) research into the effects of bee activity on the essential oil yield of lavenders and lavandins.

  1. There is a significant link between the hormonal reaction caused by bee activity and an increase in essential oil production in the lavender floret or calyx.
  2. For the sterile lavandin, the increase was a 16 – 20 % higher yield, attributed to the lavandin’s inability to produce seed and hormonal activity instigated by the bees fed directly into the formation of more oil.
  3. For the fertile lavender, there is an increase in yield but not as high as for the lavandins, however it was found that there was a 15 day window after the bee’s visit to the flower when the oil production peaked in the calyx after which the oil yield was diminished. It is assumed seed formation then took over as the primary function of the floret.
  4. (Barbier cited in Somerville 2000) Somerville, D.  ‘Bees and Lavender’. Lavender Australia Conference Proceedings, Wagga Wagga 2000. 

Timing the harvest at Snowy River Lavender

Barbier’s research argues that yield is maximised through bee activity however the fact is that the flowering of lavender is not synchronised but staged over a number of weeks before the spike finishes its capability of blooming.  This means there is no clear cut point at which you can say, ‘this is when all the flowers are out the bees have visited we will take them now’, we will have a great yield. This is where reading the stages of flowering as a qualitative indicator, such as discussed by Porter, becomes useful in how harvest is timed. The reality is that choosing when to harvest is a finely balanced decision which must be worked towards optimising both yield and quality.

At Snowy River Lavender we seek out the point where a particular field of lavender just passes the height of its colour.  In other words, we seek to harvest when the balance has just shifted towards spent flower, the point when more than half the flowers are newly spent, usually between 60 and 70%.  This means there is still some freshness (flowers and buds) to the harvested spike but bee activity has been significant.  The oils we produce do tend toward a bright but resonant complexity and we have adopted this as our signature essential oil character. Importantly this general rule means we leave the flower in the field for as long as is reasonable for the quality of oil desired because as beekeepers we like them to have a fair go as well.  Machine harvesting means once the harvest call is made, flower can be brought to the distillery rapidly and the desired character preserved as essential oil and hydrosol.

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