Distilling the Southwest: An Interview with Clare Licher of PhiBee Aromatics

As interest in aromatherapy explodes, and huge corporations seek to dominate the field with cheap essential oils and hydrosols, I’m honored to present Clare Licher and her family-run business PhiBee Aromatics, which specializes in the distillation of plants of the Southwest. Situated in Sedona, Arizona, an epicenter of the alternative health, well-being, and spirituality movements, Clare and her family provide the world with beautifully crafted oils that encapsulate the wonder of the unique and special landscapes of the Southwest. I wrote about PhiBee’s delicious Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) hydrosol in a previous article, and I jumped at the chance to learn more about her work as a distiller and teacher.

Aromatica Poetica: Please tell us a little bit about PhiBee Aromatics: the people, the location, the distillery…

Clare licher wild crafting lavender.Clare Licher: PhiBee Aromatics is a family run operation (sometimes with three generations working together at once!) located in Sedona Arizona. The distillery is a renovated barn, which started out as my painting studio. Initially the distillation equipment only took up one small corner of the space. As our stock of oils, hydrosols, books, glassware and equipment expanded, it reached a tipping point where I could no longer call the space “the Studio”, and it became “the Distillery.”

AP: How did you and your husband become interested in distilling? Were you already involved in aromatherapy/essential oils before you started?

CL: I began studying Chinese and Western medicinal herbs in 1987. When I moved to Arizona in 1991, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the flora of this place, so I immediately enrolled in a native plant class. I took ethnobotanical books by Michael Moore on every field trip, so that as I learned to recognize the plants, I could also learn about their medicinal uses. I soon met other plant enthusiasts and took an edible plant class and went on many herb walks. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the plants by collecting, drying, tincturing, and making salves, lip balms etc.

In 1992 I met Max (my husband), who has a deep knowledge of the natural history of this place, and also shared my interest in plants. He introduced me to two inspiring herbalists: Phyllis Hogan, of Winter Sun Trading Co., a native plant herbalist with 40 years’ experience, who has also worked extensively with Hopi and Navajo people; and the late Dr. Silena Heron, of Heron Botanicals (who had a pharmacy of over 300 herbal extracts). We went on many herb walks with them, as students and friends.

We noticed that many of the plants that we were working with were very aromatic, but there were no essential oils of these plants available. We talked about this for many years before we took an essential oil workshop with Wisdom of the Earth, and finally bought our first still in 2005. We made a long list of every aromatic plant that we had worked with and wondered about, and got busy distilling! We continued to educate ourselves on aromatherapy by taking classes with Kurt Schnaubelt and Monika Haas of Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, and by taking several trips to Europe to learn from other distillers.

Max Licher peering into still basin of plant material.Since many of the plants we are working with are new to aromatherapy, we had their essential oils analyzed. We were curious about their constituents, and wanted to make sure that they were safe for use. I was intrigued by these analyses, and quickly realized that I needed more education to even begin to understand them! So in 2012 I took a 235-hour aromatherapy certification program that helped increase my understanding of essential oil chemistry.

AP: At Aromatica Poetica, we’re so intrigued by distillation! Please tell us a little about the process, and the challenges of sourcing sustainably.

CL: Every plant is different, and the biggest learning curve for us was figuring out the best way to work with each one. It sometimes took many experiments with the same plant before we learned the optimal timing for collecting (depending on the season, the development of the plant and weather conditions), whether a short drying time was beneficial or not, how warm or cool to run the condenser for each plant, and how long to run each distillation (this ranges from 3 to 24 hours).

We spend a lot of time processing the plants before they go into the still. This ensures that there are no unintended weeds, dried grasses or compromised plant material that goes in. This can take a lot of extra time, but the end result is worth it!

Finding a plant that we would like to distill can sometimes be a challenge. For example, it took us 8 years to find a population of Desert Lavender that was both large enough for us to collect from and not in a protected area. We have distilled over 100 species of plants, but we have some on our list that we are still searching for.

Desert plants can be both strong and sensitive. Using Desert Lavender as an example again, it survives in a very harsh climate that receives 10 inches or less of rain per year. This past winter it did not receive the precious drops of rain that it needs to produce a good spring bloom, and the plants were very stressed. Many people had been waiting for this oil, but we could not in good conscience collect from these plants. It is very important in wildcrafting to pay attention to the health of the plants, and to not always act upon our own desires. Most plants in Arizona are slow growing and even one season of over harvesting could have a devastating effect, especially as our climate grows more unpredictable.

We are still learning so much about the greater cycles and processes in nature. Many wildflowers and annuals will be in abundance one year and then barely seen again for decades. The first winter that I spent in Arizona was very wet and cold. The following spring bloom was exciting for many botanists because there were populations of plants that hadn’t been seen in 20+ years. This gives us an indication of how durable the seeds can be, and how long it can be before the conditions for germination are just right! I once had to wait 9 years to be able to work with Desert Verbena (of course it was completely worth the wait!). The next year there was no trace of the Desert Verbena, and in its exact places were magnificent blooms of Palmers Pentstemons. I am eagerly awaiting the next bloom of Desert Verbena, and am very curious to see if it will be followed by Pentstemons again.

AP: Tell us about your year: from meeting growers and wildcrafting to bottling, we’d love to know a little about the life of a small, independent distiller!

CL: We are just now starting to work with a grower of Spearmint, Lavender and Lavandin, but in the past, the handful of cultivated plants that we distill have come from local gardens, including our own. We now have an annual schedule for the plants that we wildcraft. We do a surprising amount of distilling in the winter, because that is the optimal time for conifers, concerning both aroma and yield. Their yield increases in mid-fall when the nighttime temperatures drop, and we distill them through mid-spring. Mid-spring is about the time that we start to work with the lower elevation herbaceous plants, until the cultivated plants start blooming in summer. Then there are another set of fall-blooming wild plants that we work with until it is time to start with the trees again. It has become such a rhythm that something feels wrong if we miss working with a particular plant during one of the seasons!

Concerning bottling, we generally keep all of the distillations separate, unless we are doing multiple distillations of the same plant, from the same place and time. There are always aromatic differences between distillations of the same species from different regions. We enjoy keeping track of these, and appreciate the subtleties. We don’t pour them into small bottles until an order has been placed, unless we are vending at a conference or an event.

AP: PhiBee Aromatics specializes in distilling plants of the southwest. Tell us about those plants and maybe one or two specific plants that seem quintessentially southwestern.

CL: It is hard to know where to begin! The combination of all of these plants (and of course, the landscape) gives us such a strong sense of place in the Southwest. For example, we have seven native species of Juniper in Arizona, many of which at first glance look somewhat similar. With a closer look at their morphologies, aromas, and where they occur, they are all quite different and greatly contribute to the character of their regions.

The conifers in the Southwest are fabulous! Many of them are at the southern edge of their ranges, and therefore experience more drought and temperature stress. This accounts for their complex aromas and beautiful fruity top notes, which are a result of the high amount of esters that the trees create as a stress response.

One plant that I would like to specifically mention is Heterotheca subaxillaris. It’s common names are Mexican Arnica (which I normally use), Telegraph Plant, and Camphorweed, which I never use because it contains no camphor! This plant opened my eyes to deeper workings of the ecosystem that I had not seen before. It is a native plant that is used to treat trauma, bruising, swelling and to break up the buildup of fluids that result in hardening. In nature, it is found in disturbed soils, on roadsides and on the edges of fields. Initially I thought that this was because of excess water that frequently occurs in these places. We often see non-native plants thriving in these areas, because they cannot survive without this extra water. After some time I realized that I was not seeing Heterotheca growing in natural places where there is excess water, such as on the edges of ponds or streams. Being a native plant, if all it needed was extra water we would surely see it in riparian areas. It is showing up where the natural flow of water has been obstructed. These areas are basically where there have been injuries to the earth, where there are hardenings (a road for example) and water is pooling (or swelling). I have seen large specimens growing out of cracks in the highways, and between black top and concrete curbs, as if to break up these obstructions. I believe that this plant is functioning to help heal trauma to the ecosystem, and restore the natural flow of water. Once I saw this, a whole new world was revealed! There is nothing in our own biological processes that is not in some way reflected in the environment, and vice versa. In terms of its essential oil, it has a wonderful aroma. It is not a sweet perfume, but it contains the ambiance of standing in a field, full of the sounds of birds and lacewings, on a warm clear day in late summer. It has a very low yield of essential oil, so it often takes weeks of distillation to make even a small volume, but its medicine is very powerful and a little goes a long way.

Processing lemongrass in Haiti.

AP: I’ve read that you’ve travelled around the world to teach the art of distilling local plants. Please tell us about that as well as some of the other workshops you offer.

CL: In the summer of 2015 we travelled to Iceland to help our friend, Hraundis Gudmundsdottir, set up a distillery (possibly the first such in Iceland). She spent one and a half weeks with us earlier in the year, on a grant from the Icelandic government, to learn about essential oil distillation. She works for the Icelandic Forest Service and she herself has planted over 100,000 trees! She is quite passionate about distilling these trees and other native plants, so when she returned to Iceland, she commissioned her nephew to build a still.

Hraundis needed some help getting set up and we had a wonderful time helping her. On that trip we had the opportunity to distill Norway spruce, Lodgepole Pine, and Yarrow. Since then, she has distilled many species of conifers and herbaceous plants, and now sells her beautiful Icelandic oils online in shops (including at PhiBee!), and at various conferences and shows.

In the spring of 2016 I was contacted by Partners of the Americas, Farmer-2-Farmer project to see if I would be interested in teaching a series of essential oil distillation workshops at Yerba Buena Farm in Jamaica. I had to go! Yerba Buena Farm had a small distillation system that needed a little bit of work, and we got it up and running in time to train 120 people. It was a wonderful experience and I loved being with the Jamaican people!

I returned in 2017 to help increase the efficiency of the condenser so that they could run longer distillations, and to experiment with distilling more native plants. We didn’t do any public workshops on this second trip, but we distilled something different almost every day (sometimes twice a day!). We worked with Jamaican Cedarwood (Cedrella odorata), Cinnamon leaf (cinnamomum comiphora), Sweet Orange peel (Citrus sinensis), Mary Goules (Wedelia trilobata), Red Sage (Lantana camara), Wicker aerial roots (Philodendron lucera), Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides), and Pimento leaf (Pimenta dioica). I hope to go again soon and be of service in whatever way I can!

Spring of 2018 took me to Haiti, where Partners of the Americas, Farmer-2-Farmer project sponsored me to do a series of EO distillation trainings for Prosperity Catalyst. Prosperity Catalyst is an NGO that has programs in Haiti and Iraq that support women in creating small businesses. This time I took a 10 gallon portable distillation system by Alchemia Solutions, and it turned out to be a perfect system for training purposes. We took it out into the country and trained over 130 people, who were representatives from 30 different organizations with a total membership of around 1,300 small farms (most of which are also bee keepers). I took loads of aromatic plant seeds, so that people can plant these in addition to their food crops. The next steps will be to build or purchase a larger distillation system, and implement a collective growing and distillation process, which will first serve the needs of the community, with a possibility for exporting EO’s in the future. While I was there we distilled Lemongrass, Basil, French Thyme (a totally different species than Thymus vulgaris) and Bitter Orange Peel. All of these oils were beautiful, and I left the still there so I am looking forward to whatever else they can produce!

New York Institute of Aromatic Stidies workshop in the Arizona desert.Back in the US, for the last three years we have done 5 day distillation retreats with the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies. During this time we do several wildcrafting expeditions and distillations, and we delve into the therapeutic uses of over 40 essential oils from the Southwest. This next retreat will be May 19-24, 2019, and the participants will stay at El Portal, a beautiful, award winning inn in Sedona. It is in walking distance of our distillery, Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village (great shopping!), and many restaurants.

AP: What’s the future for PhiBee Aromatics? What do we have to look forward to smelling in the coming years?!

CL: There are a couple of other potential projects in the Caribbean, but for now I am hoping to soon be able to promote the beautiful oils from both Jamaica and Haiti. Of course we are also always on the lookout for new and interesting plants to distill in the Southwest. Arizona has over 4,300 species of plants and we know there are still some more aromatic species to find and work with.

We hope to build a new distillery in the not too distant future, which is designed specifically for working with the plants and doing workshops and presentations. We will always remain a small company however. Several years ago we had to make the decision of whether to expand or not, and we chose not to. Our joy is always in working closely with the plants, and we wish to keep it that way!

*We urge you to check out the beautiful essential oils and hydrosols of the Southwest that Clare and her family offer at PhiBee Aromatics!*

Clare with Daughter Arabella standing with Phibee Aromatics bottles.