Saturday, June 20, 2009

How steam distillers work

I've been doing some research on stills, since my spearmint is budding and I was thinking of extracting the essential oils. Mint is great in tea, I think. Generally the peak time for harvesting essential oils from herbs is right before they are in bloom. Also, for mint at least, it's best to pick it in the morning, before the sun comes up. Sunlight will destroy some of the oils.

Making a still (steam distiller) is pretty simple.

To extract the oils you just force steam through the plant material. This steam will pick up the oils from the plant. Then cool the steam off, and it will turn back into liquids. For example route tubing coils through ice water. This separates into essential oils and water.

The tubing system looks something like

[ boiling water ] --> steam --> [ plant material ] --> steam --> [ cold coils ] --> condensed liquid --> [ oil/hydrosol collector] --> open air

It's important that the steam is not lost (holes in tubing, loose connections) because that's what's carrying the oil.

The safest materials for food, might be three sealed (Pyrex) glass containers. One container for water, one for the plant material, and one for the collector. Cork might be the best material for joining the tubing to the containers. Although I'm not sure the best material for the tubing. A lot of the designs I've seen use copper. But also I've heard copper is not ideal, because it can interact chemically with some essential oils. From what I can tell, the best materials would be all glass tubing, and using a blowtorch for shaping.

I happened to run across a video of a couple of Appalachian moonshiners on You-Tube. It's a similar process of steam distillation, provided they don't blown themselves up. :) (alcohol evaporates at a lower temp than water)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sculpey monsters

I was wondering about making bonsai pots out of Sculpey modeling clay. I tried a couple things, and ended up with an attack of Sculpey monsters instead!

I suppose that is the danger of Sculpey going horribly awry. :)

For standard bonsai pots, it would probably be easiest to press them between two molds.

Turning Weeds into Bonsai -- Maple

This time I was looking around for more trees around the fence. I found this Maple growing under a shrub. It had been protected from the mower for a long while, and is probably several years old. I trimmed it back a bit, and it had a nice shape, like a matured little tree.

After digging it up. I can see why maples are a used a lot bonsai. They have a mesh of tiny roots:

And transplanting it to a container for recovery:

I gave it a little superthrive (plant hormones). After it bounces back, I will trim it back a little more and put it in a smaller pot. I'd like to try an off-centered style for the growth.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Turning weeds into Bonsai

I noticed a mulberry tree growing along the fence in the back yard. I like mulberry trees (especially the berries) but it was just a bad location for it. For a couple years I chopped it off, but it kept growing back. I couldn't help but respect it's tenacity. Also I admired how ugly it was looking... so thought it would make a perfect bonsai.

To dig it up, I used a small spade, and carefully dug all the dirt out around it. I got down to roots that were about 1/4 inch in diameter, and then pulled it the rest of the way out. I didn't think it would survive a major pruning, so I put it in a temporary pot, to recuperate. Whenever you repot a plant, it destroys the little hairlike root fibers that are responsible for taking up moisture and nutrients.

It's crucial to keep the plant well watered since it's going to have a hard time getting water (until the roots can heal). After a day or so, most all the leaves on the plant dried up and died. I figured it would pull through though, since I had been chopping the thing to the ground for years.

Within a week or so, new growth reappeared. I'll keep this in the normal pot for a few months, then do a major pruning on the roots and branches, to force it into a smaller bonsai container. It's already looking like a weathered and ancient tree. I was think of exposing more of the roots, and wrapping them around some rocks.