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Distilling is basically the act of removing impurities from something or concentrating the essence of something in a liquid form. One of the most common liquids that people distill is water. Water can be distilled very simply with the right supplies, and the ability to create pure, drinkable water can save your life.
Another form of distilling that can come in very useful (although your life likely won’t depend on your ability to do it correctly) is distilling the essences of plants into a liquid. This liquid can be used for flavoring, adding scent, or treating various ailments.
Distilling Water In The Wild
If you are away from home in the wilderness and have an accident that prevents you from walking, you will most likely run out of the water you brought with you before someone finds you. In this instance, you will need a way to distill water that you can drink.
To distill the ground water from the earth, you will need something to dig with, a small container such as a cup, and a piece of flexible plastic.
Start by finding a nearby location with relatively soft earth, somewhere that the sun will shine at least part of the day. Dig a hole in the ground until you reach moist earth. Make sure that the sides of the hole are far enough away from the center that crumbling dirt on the walls of the hole will not fall into your container for holding water. Place your container in the center of the hole. Cover the hole with your piece of flexible plastic, and weight the edges with large rocks and dirt to hold it in place. Carefully place a weight in the center of the plastic, over the container, causing the plastic to make a funnel shape.
As the sun heats the earth, the moisture in the soil will evaporate. It will be unable to escape into the air and will instead condense on the underside of the plastic. The droplets of water will run down the funnel shape and fall into the container below.
The larger the size of your hole, the more moisture in the ground, and the longer the sun is shining on that particular area of the ground, the more water you will collect.
Distilling Fresh Water
If you live near a coastline, you may find yourself needing to distill salt water in order to create fresh water that you can drink. This can also be required when tidal surges or floods cause previously fresh water sources to become contaminated with salt. While they will eventually clear themselves out, in the meantime, you can still use them as a water supply by distilling the water.
To distill fresh water from salt water, you will need one large container and one small container that can withstand heat, a heat source such as a fire or stove, and a funnel-shaped piece of metal or plastic that is large enough to completely cover the large container.
Fill the large container with as much salt water as would fit in the smaller container, and place it above your heat source. Note that you should not use the second container to measure the salt water, as that will cause the second container to be contaminated with salt. Next, place the second container inside the larger container, making sure that the salt water does not reach past the lip of the second container. Cover both containers with the funnel-shaped piece of metal or plastic. If the metal or plastic is lightweight, you can weigh it down with rocks or other heavy objects.
As the salt water is boiled, the water will turn to steam, leaving the salt encrusting the larger container. The steam will condense upon the underside of the funnel and run down to collect in the smaller container. This is why the funnel needs to be weighted down—because otherwise the force of the boiling steam will lift it up and allow the steam to escape.
When the water is finished boiling, remove the container from the heat source. Allow it to cool, then take off the cover and remove the smaller container from inside the larger container. The smaller container will now be filled with fresh water.
Distilling Essential Oils
The main difference between distilling water and distilling an essential oil from a plant is that when distilling essential oils, the condensed liquid is a mix of oil and water that needs to be separated.
You can create your own distillation mechanism for distilling essential oils, or you can purchase one. For the occasional distiller, it is sufficient to cobble together a temporary still. If you intend to distill a large number of essential oils, you will want the reliability of a professionally constructed still, made out of glass or stainless steel.
The bottom portion of the still is filled with water. The plant material is placed on a mesh screen or other pierced surface that will suspend the plant material above the water and allow steam to pass through it, without dropping the plant material into the water. (Extremely delicate plant matter such as bark shavings or flower petals can float in the water). Above the plant material is a condenser, often angled or curved to prevent the condensed steam from dripping back down onto the plant material. Finally, the separated separates the water from the oil.
The plant material you use should be from whole, fresh plants rather than dried or powdered plants. Avoid plants that have been treated with pesticides or other contaminants, since those will get into the essential oil. Depending on the type of plant you are distilling, you may need the fruit, the flower, the leaves, the roots, or the entire plant. You may get better results from harvesting the plant material at different times of the plant’s life cycle, in different seasons, or at different times of the day. Be very careful as you handle your plants: most essential oils are held in the fine veins and hairs of leaves, which can be easily damaged by over-handling.
If you want to maximize your oil yield for the distillation process, dry your plant material in a shady spot so that you can fit more plant material into the distilling mechanism. (Although you should not dry delicate plant matter such as flower petals.) If you want to maximize the oil yield per plant, use fresh plants. Fewer plants will fit into the distilling mechanism, but each one will yield more oil.
Fill the bottom portion of the distillation mechanism with pure, distilled water for best results. The more particles in the water (the harder the water), the less effective the distillation will be.
When filling the still with plant material, you should try to keep the plant material from touching the walls of the still. You can make the layer of plant material as thick as you desire, so long as it does not touch the walls.
Seal the still, and apply heat to boil the water. Almost all essential essences are released at water’s boiling point, so you should keep the water boiling gently. If the water level gets low, but you are still getting oil out of the condenser, add more water a little at a time, so that it does not stop boiling.
Transfer the collected oil into a clean container made of dark glass or stainless steel, and seal it. The oil should last at least two years, although the potency will gradually fade over time.
If you are making multiple batches of the same essential oil, you can pour the used water back into the still for the next batch. Otherwise, you can either keep the used water (called a hydrosol) if it is useful on its own (such as violet water or rose water), or you can discard it.
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