Squeezing oil out of trees

  • Jan. 11, 2010 7:00 a.m.

By Alex Rawlings-Haida Gwaii’s first-ever conifer distillation trial run was successfully completed in early December, yielding oil samples that could lead to business opportunities for locals. “This (was) a Turning Point Initiative pilot project with Old Massett community, the Heiltsuk in Bella Bella, and the Haisla community in Kitimat,” said project participant Lana Wilhelm. “The purpose of the project was to gather and assess the chemical components and the yield of oils in conifer boughs… and to assess the viability of a conifer oil business within the three communities.” The project has been a while in the making. According to Ms Wilhelm, training on the custom-built distiller began in early 2009 with a master distiller from Damali Farms, a lavender farm, and another from Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. Samples were collected both in the spring and the fall to assess the difference in quality and and quantity of yield and to assess whether it was feasible to follow stand tending to collect the boughs. “We began collecting cedar boughs with a crew that Old Massett Village Council had out at Watt Lake. The crew was doing vexar removal (protective tubing that covers saplings) and juvenile tree spacing,” Ms Wilhelm explained. “It is our hope to be able to use the boughs that are spaced from young trees to create a viable non-timber forestry product that would be marketed to cosmetic and aromatherapy industries.” For each round of distillation five to ten pounds of foliage from trees 20 years or younger are needed. The foliage has to come from young trees because it is more vigorous, Ms Wilhelm said. After it is collected, the foliage is chipped and then fed into the distiller where it is then steamed, producing essential oils and another by-product, hydrosol. The project hasn’t been without challenges. Transportation of the equipment to the islands was slow and hampered by ferry delays. Because of the need for ventilation during distillation, volunteers found it chilly in the Quonset hut in Old Massett in the middle of December.Nonetheless, with a little help from Clearbrook Trucking, the Watt Lake crew, and Old Massett Village Council rep David Smith, yields were obtained from red cedar, sitka spruce, hemlock and pine with the best yields coming from red cedar. Future distillation projects will continue on the island in the coming months.