Distilling Essential Oils from Southwest Medicinal Plants

Final Report for FW12-039

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Tomas Enos
El Milagro Herbs, Inc.
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Project Information


The purpose of this project was to demonstrate and document the economical and technological feasibility of distilling three popular and abundant Southwest medicinal plants into marketable essential oils; pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) and desert sage (Artemisia tridentata).

The project was organized into three phases:

-Bulk plant collection, distillation and final product bottling;

-Essential oil production education and outreach;

-Marketing demonstration and development.

Raw plant material for distillation was harvested from two distinct sites; one north of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the other north of Silver City, New Mexico. All three plants are native species and abundant throughout New Mexico and the Southwest. The time period of the project from 2012 to 2013 proved to be challenging climatically, as severe drought was widespread in the project area, affecting the growth cycle of even native species and their available constituents. Fortunately, abundant rains in fall 2013 helped to invigorate the leaf structure of the targeted species, allowing for greater net distilled oils.

Records were kept for harvest sites and times to identify possible factors for maximizing distillation of oils and hydrosols. Each plant material was bulk collected, then clipped manually to cull out unwanted stalks and stems, then passed through a gasoline-powered chipper/shredder to break down the live material for steam distillation. All weights of processed material were documented before heating.

Of the three species processed, desert sage had the best results for net marketable products of essential oil (1.5%) from raw harvested material. Next in economic viability was pinyon pine (1.2%) and juniper was third (.95%).

Labor was the single greatest cost associated with the harvesting and processing of plant material for each species. Pinyon had the least cost input with juniper and desert sage having second and third.

Overall the project produced positive impacts as other agricultural producers expressed great interest in pursuing distillation for value-added income throughout New Mexico. Other possible agricultural crops, such as lavender (Lavandula sp.), were identified as ecologically-suited for distillation. Markets were identified for final essential oil distribution such as hotels, gift shops and spas, as well as direct marketing to consumers through farmers markets and farm-based retail stores.

Project Objectives:

1)      To Purchase Distillation Equipment

2)      To Attend Training for Distillation of Essential Oils

3)      To Harvest and Process Targeted Plant Materials from Sites

4)      To Conduct Test marketing of Finished Essential Oil Product

5)      To Design and Implement Documentation of Project

6)      To Conduct On-Site Outreach for Potential Producers

7)      To Publish Informational Materials


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Tomas Enos
  • Sara Noss
  • Robert Seidel
  • Patrick Torres


Materials and methods:

1)      To Purchase Distillation Equipment

A professional source for distillation equipment was identified as The Essential Oil Company in Portland, Oregon. Robert Seydel, owner and master distiller, supplies a wide variety of steam distillation equipment from three liter to over 200 gallons in size. For our project purposes, we purchased a 15-gallon copper still with propane burner to accommodate remote site processing and distilling. The still was delivered to our operation in Santa Fe, NM in September 2012.

2)      To Attend Training for Distillation of Essential Oils

Tomas Enos, Project Investigator, attended an introductory distillation class at the Essential Oil Company warehouse in October 2012, taught by Robert Seydel. The actual 15-gallon still that we purchased was used as a demonstration, providing Dr. Enos with valuable hands-on experience.

3)      To Harvest and Process Targeted Plant Materials from Sites

Harvesting of the three species was conducted over the grant period from two sites, one in northern New Mexico, the other in southern New Mexico, and in three distinct seasons (spring, summer, fall) for documentation of net essential oil produced depending on plant response to seasonal environmental conditions.

4)      To Conduct Test marketing of Finished Essential Oil Product

Once the processed product was produced in viable quantities, test marketing was conducted in northern and southern New Mexico from 2012-2013 at possible wholesale and retail outlets. Responses were documented and recorded for future contact with final finished products.

5)      To Design and Implement Documentation of Project

All distillations were operated outside in open air and within public view. Photos were regularly taken and verbal responses to our activities were recorded.

6)      To Conduct On-Site Outreach for Potential Producers

During distillation, outreach was conducted to contact other potential producers throughout 2012-2013.

7)      To Publish Informational Materials

Final information was published at the end of 2013, including a users’ how-to booklet for similar distillation projects.

Research results and discussion:

Purchase of Distillation Equipment

A review of the required distillation equipment was made according to recommendations of Robert Seydel, master distiller. The information was later included in an information users’ guide on how-to distill essential oils. The identified and purchased still was adequate for a small producer, and it was found to be of excellent quality. About a one hour set-up time was required before commencing distillation. The basic equipment included the steam pot, cooling tank, circulating pump for cooling, cooling tank reservoir, five-gallon propane tank, propane burner, essencier to separate oil and water at distillation, fire extinguisher, tubing and valves to regulate water flows for cooling.

Some modifications were made to the basic equipment set-up due to our particular circumstances. All of our distillations were done outdoors, requiring both metal and brick wind breaks for the propane source. Wind and cold can make heating outdoors difficult, depending on the season. We did not have the indoor space required for distilling due to out-gassing from propane fumes which would need a ventilation hood and fresh air intake. Efforts were made to minimize the outdoor cooling elements and maximize efficiency and safety. In some cases during cool weather the distillation time was increased up to 50% as the steam pot needed to reach boiling temperatures of 185 degrees F in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet elevation.

Training of Project Investigator at The Essential Oil Company

The necessary training on distillation equipment and safety was conducted in Portland, Oregon at the manufacturer’s warehouse. This was a critical time to ask questions about still operating procedures and expected results from distillation with our new equipment. The entire day was a hands-on class, which gave Dr. Enos an opportunity to see the entire distillation process from start to finish. Robert Seydel provided technical assistance after the workshop, as questions and concerns arose. This was a very productive and informative workshop for beginners.

Harvesting and Processing Methods

Over the two-year grant period, a tremendous amount was learned about processing the plant material. We harvested from several different sites to compare notes on material quality and essential oil content. The actual seasonal variation in harvests rendered important results and are outlined below. We handled the plant material more efficiently as time progressed and saw average production time drop accordingly. All field harvests were done by hand, then chipping and grinding were done on the distillation site with a yard chipper. We believe this to be the most efficient way to get the raw material ready for distilling.

Test Marketing

Test marketing was done in Santa Fe, NM during the grant period. Dr. Enos approached hotels, gift shops, spas and retail stores about the project’s goals and products. The sample products were demonstrated and questions were fielded about the positive attributes from this unique local oil. Requests were made for possible purchases at wholesale levels and documented for future reference. All stores expressed interest in local scents and local handmade products. The preferences for scents in popularity and marketability were pinyon first, then desert sage, and third was juniper. We are making plans to increase production to make small vials (.12 oz size) available for purchase.

A second test into the potential markets was conducted at the Milagro Herbs retail store in downtown Santa Fe. Sample bottles were offered in green glass .12 oz size with gold labels. The test ran from October to December 2013, and the response was very positive. Most customers bought the pinyon essential oil as a gift and for the signature scent of the mountains in New Mexico. Nineteen bottles were sold during the test period and requests were made for more as they become available. A list of interested customers is currently in our database.

Documentation of the Project

The majority of the project documentation was photographic, as that was the easiest to use on the Internet and in publications along with descriptions of the actual distillation process. We recorded the step-by-step material and labor inputs to rendering the essential oil and hydrosols and put them on a Facebook page, as well as in a printed document. Because so much of this project was hands-on work, we needed to demonstrate to other potential producers the multiple steps in photographs (see attached). The actual in-person demonstration always attracted interest from attendees. It isn’t often that a person is seen distilling something other than alcohol, and yet people are fascinated by the simple technology and the beauty of the distillation copper equipment. Because it is an ancient art, and in history was thought of involving alchemy, distillation has always captivated the imagination. Many of the attendees at events and casual onlookers stopped in their tracks when they saw the still dripping with aromatic oils; they typically stopped to ask multiple questions and watch the still for a minimum of five minutes. It takes the mystery out of a unfamiliar art and brings it home to people.

Outreach for Potential Producers

Our outreach program to interest potential producers in distilling essential oils included active, hands-on demonstrations at public events (a list is below) and distribution of our progress and information via published literature and website documentation. The greatest interest to date has been from the live demonstrations, perhaps due to the nature of farmers/producers to relate to “show me” type of information and learning. In addition, distillation is not a common activity and most people do not understand the details just by reading about them in books.

We hope to continue to expand our offerings of information in the future with field blogs and updates to our progress in fine tuning the distillation of our products.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Attached to this report is the booklet that we used to educate potential producers about the basics of distilling with our system.


Dates of Public Demonstrations - Distillation Process

October 24, 2012 – Pinyon Pine

October 29, 2012 – Juniper leaf

November 13, 2012 – Juniper leaf and berry

November 30, 2012 – Pinyon Pine

June 17, 2013 – Desert Sage

August 17, 2013 – Pinyon Pine

October 5, 2013 – Desert Sage

October 26, 2013 – Desert Sage

November 13, 2013 – Pinyon Pine

Outreach for Producer Participation

The following is a list of outreach and dissemination activities conducted during the project. All events organized and hosted by Tomas Enos.


October 24 - Milagro Herbs Retail Store, Santa Fe outdoor distillation demo and information dissemination to the public. Interactive collaboration with distiller from Second Bloom Farms. Approx. 45 people attended.

October 29 – Dragonfly Farms, Silver City, NM – outdoor distillation of desert sage. Approx. 15 people attended.

November 30 – Milagro Herbs Retail Store - outdoor distillation demo and discussion with public. Approx. 50 people attended.


April 13 – Santa Fe Farmers Market – Information dissemination at Saturday Market. Approx 350 attended.

July 17 – University of New Mexico, Traditional Medicine Summer Class, Albuquerque. Approx 400 people attended.

August 17 – Milagro School of Herbal Medicine, Santa Fe - Medicine Show all day event, sample distillation and public information dissemination. Approx. 150 attended.

October 5 - Dragonfly Farms, Silver city, NM – sample distillation event. Approx. 25 attended.

Santa Fe Farmers Market – ongoing information dissemination at Saturday Markets.

Silver City Farmers Market – Two contact events in 2013 in June and July, Saturday Market for survey of Producer interest.

October 26 - Milagro School of Herbal Medicine – demonstration of distillation for professional herb students. Approx. 20 attended.

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Future Recommendations

The following areas of investigation are recommended to establish Southwestern medicinal plants as viable economic products.

Within the processing component of plant preparation, further details are required to determine if material for distillation should be used fresh harvested or dried of water. There is conflicting research on this issue, and some of the information may lead to at least specifying partial drying of fresh material to “unload” water from plant tissue before distillation. Seasonal changes in water may also require less or more drying, as determined by testing of water content at the time of harvest.

In addition, exactly how much chopping or grinding is optimal for plant material prior to heating was identified as a crucial question from our work. One batch of pinyon needles was left whole for distillation, and it rendered greater essential oil in a shorter time. This question may be resolved through a combination of fresh grinding and drying for short time periods before distillation or perhaps mashing needles/leaves instead of grinding as a means to break cell walls for release of essential oils. This will be part of our ongoing research during distillation.

A more complete survey of micro-distillers of essential oils needs to be completed in our Western region to organize a professional association for disseminating ideas and products. Many small producers and distillers are known for small batch production and direct marketing, while others are currently distilling for larger companies and are not recognized. Milagro Herbs will continue to conduct outreach with specific targets for these small producers and attempt to develop a network for information sharing.

This project identified an even greater market and potential for hydrosols as a value-added product from distillation. As more than 98% of the net distilled product is hydrosol and the scenting is acceptable to many consumers, there is a need to research the fragile process of fixing and preserving the scent of hydrosol for long term storage and processing. Questions remain regarding the ability of hydrosols to withstand heating while being processed into lotions and creams. Further testing will be required to identify the bacterial load of finished hydrosols prior to bottling and marketing. What is the shelf life of these hydrosols and can they withstand oxidation during processing? Milagro Herbs intends to begin answering some of these questions in the coming year, as we currently manufacture skin care products where hydrosols may play role in niche marketing.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.