It was my first distillation for months, and the most welcome return to heart. The day started early with our journey to Phytology, a magical nature reserve in the heart of urban London. After a reluctant start, as if I were waking up my herbalist bones after a long sleep, I tingled with excitement as I carried my smallest alembic across central London on a clear, cold spring morning.
Entering the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve was itself a transformative experience. A Phytology team member gave us a gentle tour, and we met with lemon balm in the medicinal garden, setting our hearts upon her for the mini-distillation. I recalled the work of a herbalist friend with lemon balm as a nervine for depression, and following a difficult few months in my nervous system, I intuited that this was the plant meeting I truly needed (and probably, everyone else needed to).
I marvelled at the abundance of the reserve, which had a gentle but encompassing presence in its unique urban setting. Each corner was abundant and green, and a delight to sit in and walk through. As people gathered, we ebbed and flowed through its pathways until eventually we found a natural pause in a circular clearing, in front of the alembic.
Distillation always begins for me with a meeting with the alembic. I navigate through its different parts with the participants, many of whom will be new to the process. Together we explored its soft-hammered edges, and I told stories of Hamid the coppersmith who makes them, as well as of Khalissa who taught me the craft. Naming them always helps me to bring them into presence, and allows a certain amount of respect to flow towards them, as they are held throughout the process. I always remember them in the prayers I make over the distillate.
We begin by heating up the Alembic over the stove, and I paint the joins with flour paste which hardens as the copper warms. The paste feels elastic in my hands, and I enjoy the childlike sensation of mess on my fingers – noticing as well its similarity to bread dough, the sustenance of life. I always introduce the art of distillation to new folks, although it often feels unnecessary as the lessons are always learnt once the pot begins to boil. This time, I was labouring through the words knowing that in fact, the alembic would do the talking – I struggled to tap into the spiritual lessons that I usually highlight, but was relieved that they all started to emerge with the beginning of the distillation and its initial Bismillah – بسم الله
The prayers we read over the distillation are not set in stone, but focus on protection. I have been encouraged by my Master to read verses of protection over the distillate to protect it from any kind of corruption, but I also consider this a kind of personal spiritual purification during the process, so that I don’t inflict harm on the process but also so that the process does its work to heal me as maker/consumer of the distillate. The protection is then offered horizontally, to the plant, its environment, the producer, the consumer, healer and patient. Often this consists of ayat al-kursi, the mu’awidatain (the last three surahs of the Quran), salawaat on the Prophet (S) and a few others from the Sufi tradition.
Our meeting with Lemon balm was a profound one. My instinct was confirmed, as our group marvelled at the emotional openings it encouraged, making some of us feel tearful, tender but also held and embraced. It felt immensely healing to be in its presence. One of the topics of conversation that emerged gently over the course of the distillation was of ancestral trauma. This was incredibly moving for me and some others, and it was only later that I referred back to the plant profile of lemon balm to see that trauma healing is one of its specific indications. As this is part of my path at the moment, I was incredibly moved at the wisdom of the plant to carry us through that process so gently. Conversation around the distillate is always meant to be sweet and gentle, and our group intuitively held onto this, as well as the distillate working its magic to soften us all in the process.
The scent of the plant traversed a wide scope of aromas throughout the course of the distillation, starting with a fragrant citrus, moving to a more mellow green smell and ending with a grounded, earthen scent. Each one felt distinct, and we felt pleased that the final distillate we collected encompassed all three, as if each one was an important phase for that plant. That resonated with the concept of distillation being an extraction of the soul of the plant, as if each of the scents represented distinct aspects of its nature, and therefore its healing properties.
The distillation was grounding, calming and the sedative effect of the plant was noted in the way it slowed us all down and brought us into presence together. In a sense, it was one of the most ideal ways to meet these friends for the first time face to face, and we were all appreciative of Lemon Balm for showing us the way.
You can find a translation I rendered of an entry on Lemon Balm from The Garden of Blossoms here.
Lemon Balm Plant Profile – Melissa Officinalis – باذر نجويه
Parts Distilled: Leaves and Stems (Steam Distillation)
Constituents: Nerol, Geraniol, Citronellol
Indications: Sedative, Nervousness, Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks
Cardiovascular: Lowers high blood pressure, calms breathing + heartbeat, a heart tonic
Digestive: Regulatory, relieves cramps, stimulates gallbladder + liver, relieves digestive issues related to nervousness
Immune System: Antiviral
Nervous System: Relieves overstimulation, stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, sedative. Good for trauma and anger. Calms over-active children (spray in water)
Reproductive: gently re-establishes cycles, cools hot flushes + menopause symptoms, thermoregulating, calms morning sickness
Skin: anti-inflammatory, cradle cap, nappy rash
Culinary: Syrups + desserts
Personality: Promotes sensitivity and intuition, inner contentment, wisdom of the heart, bereavement, dispels fear and regret and promotes acceptance and understanding
Heart Chakra, expands love
(Plant Profile Source: Cathy Skipper)