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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lilac Love and Lily Liability

Lily of the Valley - photo Charna Ethier

It's spring in New England!  The winter from hell is finally over and it's time to rejoice with sunshine and flowers.  To be fair, it's rained for days and the local weatherman is predicting thunderstorms and rain for the next week.  Despite this dismal forecast I'm upbeat.  Clusters of lilacs brush softly against the window screen.  The smell is heavenly.  I hear bees buzzing and birds chirping.  The seeds I planted with the children are beginning to sprout.  It's spring!

I've decided to try and tincture lily of the valley and lilacs this year.  I attempted to do this last year and didn't manage to have the time or enough flowers to complete the process.  This year I'm dedicated, I'm driven, I'm  . . . too late for the lilacs?  The trees are beginning to go by, the tips of the lilac bunches beginning to brown.  On the other hand, the lily of the valley is just beginning to bloom.  I have lots of lily.  Everywhere. It's taking over my small flower beds.  The strawberries and lily of the valley are fighting to see who will win the small side garden plot.

Every other day I take a basket outside and pick flowers.  I carry them inside and strip the blossoms from the stems taking care to remove any leaves or debris.  The blossoms go into mason jars and are filled with 190 proof alcohol.  The flowers quickly loose their color and become somewhat transparent within 24 hours.  I then filter the flowers out, pressing them to remove the alcohol and begin the process again.  Below are photos from the first round of tinctures.

First, pick the flowers
Lily of the Valley in basket - photo by Charna Ethier

Then strip the flowers from the stems and leaves and place in clean dry canning jar

Then add alcohol.  Done!  Remove flowers and add fresh blossoms.  Repeat.

I'm now on round number four.  The alcohol is no longer clear.  The lily tincture is a light green color.  The lilac tincture is slightly brown.  I have high hopes for these floral tinctures, but yet again I'm running out of time.  The lilacs in my yard are beginning to die.  The lilacs in my neighbors yard are withered and gone by.  The season is almost over and my tincture isn't as strong as I would like.  When I smell the liquid in the mason jar it has a distinct vegetal scent.  Bummer.  I was hoping for the prevalent aroma of lilacs and instead I smell wet grass.  As I filter out the last of the lilac blossoms, I splash the liquid on the counter and accidentally place my hand in it.  I second later I smell LILAC!  Hopefully, I sniff my lilac tincture again.  No lilac aroma.  Confused, it takes me a second to realize it's my hand that smells of lilacs.  The tincture when applied to the skin evaporates leaving the lingering aroma of lilacs.  I'm thrilled.  Not exactly what I was hoping for, but not the dud I had resigned myself to having created.  I hope I can continue my tincture again next year when lilac season comes around, making it stronger.  I plan on storing my lilac tincture in the refrigerator until next spring.

The lily of the valley tincture is more successful.  It's quite strong.  It smells exactly like the flowers and I am pleased.  I would not use the tincture in a commercial perfume as I've heard nasty rumblings of danger involved with lily of the valley.  As in POISONOUS.  I know the leaves can be poisonous if ingested in large quantities.  I find vastly disparate accounts on the dangers of the lily while surfing the web.  One site notes that, "The poisonous chemicals in the plant are generally located in the roots. leaves, stem and seeds" whereas other sites warn of imminent death upon picking.  My first thought is: Didn't the royal princess carry a bunch of lily of the valley in her bridal bouquet?  Quickly followed by: I picked handfuls of the flower as a child.  I wove crowns of lily of the valley and even remember an old picture of my brother and I lying in a field of the flowers as small children.  I certainly don't mean to sound nonchalant, but I'm here to tell you I've spent hours stripping lily flowers from stems and leaves by hand and I've lived to tell.  I've also spilled a good deal of the tincture on my hand (clumsy!) and didn't experience any hallucinations, dizziness, diarrhea or death, all of which are listed as possible side effects.  I find many accounts of people posting their pet became ill or died after ingesting lily of the valley.  I note many of these are goats and horses.  Heartbreaking.   My own dogs and cats seem to avoid the plant.  Doing a little research on the Internet I find that lily of the valley was used in the 1800's to treat heart conditions, but now has been replaced with stronger laboratory created drugs. Hmm.  I can practically hear my liability insurance quadrupling in price.

Lilacs growing in my tiny back yard -photo Charna Ethier

I have heard of a few natural perfumers who readily use lily of the valley tinctures in their perfumes, and perhaps I should speak to them.  I'd love to hear that my lily tincture is safe to use as it's beautifully fragranced.  However, sometimes these things are best left alone.  A sort of "don't ask, don't tell " type of unspoken agreement.  I would never "out" a perfumer who has been successfully using lily of the valley in his or her perfume creations without issue.  Jokes people, jokes.  Besides, what would I say, "Hey there, I remember you saying you used lily of the valley tincture in your perfumes.  I read it's poisonous.  Umm, how is that working out for you?"  Have no fear, I shall experiment on myself solely with the lily tincture.  Hopefully I won't be turned into some sort of monster ala Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  I can almost hear the tagline in my head: She was normal once, but after using herself as a test subject for dastardly experiments with deadly Lily of the Valley she's morphed into a MONSTER (insert evil villain laugh.)

All in all, I consider the spring flower tinctures a success.  Each time I tincture a particular botanical I learn something new, such as the best ratio of flowers to alcohol or that the darker purple lilacs result in a prettier purple tincture whereas the lighter pink-purple lilacs smell beautiful but turn the tincture an unattractive brown color.

One of my favorite things about using homemade tinctures in my perfumes is the personal stamp I am placing on my fragrance.  I'm assured that I have a highly original creation with my own blended concoctions.  No other perfumer may have a perfume created from New England grown lilacs and heirloom variety carrot seeds.  Just me, and it reflects my personal style and regional influence.  Additionally, I find using tinctures (particularly as the base for a perfume) allows the aroma to carry throughout the blend.  For example, by using a coriander tincture I am able to pull the gorgeous lemony spicy scent of coriander through the top, middle and base notes of the perfume whereas if I had simply used coriander essential oil, it would present as a top note and fade quickly.  I find this remarkable and incredibly exciting.

Sometimes I discover a tincture is a lot of work for little result.  I have countless duds to my credit.  Tinctures that took months of hard work with nothing to show.  I had great success tincturing freeze dried mango, only to find my second batch had very little aroma.  To be fair, I noticed the mango seemed almost scentless and lighter in color when I placed it in alcohol despite it being the same brand I had used previously.  Which leads me to a obvious point.  If a botanical doesn't smell before you tincture it, it most likely won't smell after you tincture it.  Look for the strongest smelling fruits, spices, flowers and herbs you can.  There are times  I would have been better off using the essential oil or absolute.  Tinctures are great extenders for rare and costly absolutes, not so great when they are deadly.


Donna Maria @ Indie Business said...

Charna! I love this post. Thank you for sharing the fragrant bounty of your back yard. I am excited to see you experimenting to create these tinctures and I look forward to seeing what you make with them. Thank you so much for sharing!

Charna said...

Thanks for reading Donna Maria!