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It's Harvest Festival time!

... but I’m not speaking of autumn, I’m speaking of harvesting rose petals. There’s a brief window of opportunity when roses bloom and are at their best, and it all begins in May.

Anyone who considers themselves a rose lover, and who doesn’t have “Go to the Bulgarian Rose Festival” on their bucket list, is not a true rose lover! I went with my sister and father in 2013, and it was definitely a memorable experience.

Bulgaria is the home of the Kazanlak rose, which is named after the valley where it grows prolifically. The soil, climate and altitude are simply just right for these roses, and they produce the most exquisite scent.

Along with red wine, Bulgaria’s main exports are rose products. As well as rose oil and rose water they produce rose honey, rose liqueur, rose-flavoured sweets and delicacies and, of course, all manner of rose skin care items.

It’s not easy to get hold of Kazanlak roses in the UK. I did manage to obtain some when I lived in France but, to be honest, I haven’t tried since returning to the UK as the climate has to be right for them to perform at their best. But it’s possible to make rose water and rose oil infusions out of any roses that have a beautiful, strong scent.

Rose water is, in correct terms, a “hydrolat” or “hydrosol”, meaning it is a water distillation of rose material. It is the “flower water” that remains after steam distillation of rose petals for the extraction of the essential oil. When petals are distilled, steam passes through them and carries with it their volatile aromatic compounds (including essential oil), as well as whatever water-soluble components are present. The steam is then cooled and, as it condenses, the liquid drops into a collecting container, creating two end products: the essential oil (which separates and floats) and the hydrolat – the rose water.

Rose petals contain very little essential oil, and in fact rose essential oil is, by weight, typically more expensive than gold. Pure rose essential oil is one of the most expensive essential oils due to the large quantity of rose petals needed to produce a small amount of oil. On average, you might find yourself paying around £40 for 5ml (a teaspoon) of rose essential oil. High-quality rose essential oil can average out at approximately £60 for 5ml. However, prices can go even higher for certified organic or sustainably sourced rose essential oils.

“Rose absolute” is cheaper, costing around £25 for 5ml / £40 for 10ml. Rose absolute is a concentrated essential oil derived by placing the petals in a solvent, such as hexane, to extract the aromatic compounds. The solvent absorbs the fragrance of the petals. This solvent is then evaporated, leaving behind a waxy substance known as "concrete" that contains the concentrated fragrance. This is then mixed with alcohol and chilled, causing waxes to solidify and separate. The remaining liquid is then vacuum distilled to remove the alcohol, leaving the pure rose absolute oil.

Steam distillation is more traditional, and a more commonly used method for extracting essential oils. It is generally considered more sustainable and environmentally friendly than solvent extraction methods.

When looking for rose oils, you may come across an oil called Rose Otto Damask. This is typically an oil combination of 5% solvent-extracted rose oil in 95% of a carrier oil such as jojoba or almond etc. This, whilst still smelling lovely, is significantly cheaper as the volume of pure oil is tiny. It is usually sold in a minimum volume of 10ml, and will cost as little as £5.

Rose water, by comparison, is far cheaper. So much of it is produced during the process of extracting the essential oil that it is usually sold in volumes of 100ml upwards. At the Rose Festival, during the carnival procession, the watching crowds are repeatedly sprayed with rose water from pumps as large as fire extinguishers!

I have a hobbyist’s still for making the rosewater for New Leaf products. If you love flower waters and want to spend the money these now come in at approximately £200 and are obtainable from home brew shops. Their intended use is for making beer and spirits, but they can be used for any flower water (chamomile, lavender etc.) and can be used to distil other parts of aromatic plants, not just the flowers. (Note to self: I must have a go at distilling rosemary.) But the results can sometimes be surprising. For instance, calendula water smells like cabbage water!

New Leaf products that contain rose extracts are:

The steam-distilling process can be quite time consuming. With the Air Still you can at least just plug it in, switch it on, and go away and do something else for the next hour or so.

But it’s possible to make rosewater without a still. You simply have to have a method of steaming the petals, catching the steam and condensing it into a container. The following method is a bit Heath Robinson-esque but it works. It uses a fair bit of ice, and, just as when using a still, it’s a slow process. The difference being that you must attend to it quite frequently.

So! To distil rose water at home you will need:

You will also need:

• A heat source

• Water

• Ice

• Rose petals

It’s a good idea to put all your petals on some kitchen paper and leave them for a short while to allow any bugs to leave. I often find earwigs and other stowaways, like this tiny caterpillar.


When it’s all melted, after a minute or two, use a sponge to suck up the water and squeeze it out. It will still be cool, so there is no risk of burning. Fill the lid with more ice and repeat the procedure.

What is happening is that as the water inside the pan heats, it produces steam that goes through the petals and rises to the upturned lid. The ice cools the steam which condenses it to water and it runs down the slope of the lid to the handle, and drops into your collection container.

It may not be easy to open the pan, you may need to insert a knife in order to raise it. Do this very carefully, with oven gloves on, as the pan will be full of steam. It is a good idea to check the inside at least once, to monitor progress, and also to see how much water is left in the large pan. You don’t want it boiling dry. Once you have distilled about 2/3 of the volume of water that you put in, that may be a good time to stop. But use your initiative!

Don’t be put off by the strange smell of your rosewater. Fresh rosewater emits certain chemical vapours for the first few days. Store it in a bottle with the lid off, but covered loosely with a piece of kitchen towel. This allows the chemicals to evaporate. Once it smells 95% good it is time to close the lid.

Your home-made rosewater will keep at room temperature but it will keep longer if stored in the fridge.

Let me know how you get on!

More blog posts from New Leaf Naturals:

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1 Comment

May 25

Very interesting 👌

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