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Getting to the essence of local plant life

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At this point in time, many modern households in North America have jumped on board the essential oils train at least a little bit, whether for health and wellness reasons or just to make their home smell nice. But, how many people can say that their supply of essential oils are derived not only from plant material indigenous to Canada, but also sourced from an area a mere short drive away.
Here in the Swan Valley, Jena McKee has brought her newly formed business called Canadian Flora Essential Oils, where she sources local, wild-grown plant matter and distills its essence to create a line of oils and hydrosols.
“I started thinking about this business last fall, when my partner Kevin’s parents offered to sell us the acreage they had retired on in Bowsman,” said McKee. “I began researching different ways to make money off of small parcels of land, and around that same time, my very close friend introduced me to one of the big essential oil multi-level marketing companies.
“I got involved and was using their oils, and the more reading I did into the different oils that were available, the more I started recognizing some of the plants and trees as locally growing plants here in Canada. I had worked at a lavender farm in Prince Edward Country, Ont., when I was in college, so I was familiar with the necessary equipment and process, so after a long afternoon chat with my old boss and mentor, Derek, I decided I was going to go for it.
“I was going to distill locally-growing native plants of Canada and I am going to show the public that we don’t need to order from overseas to get the most supportive oils when we have everything we need growing right here,” McKee continued.
Prior to moving to Manitoba, both McKee and her partner worked in food manufacturing factories, where she found it difficult to work inside all day long, noticing that her colleagues were unhappy as well.
“I tried my best to balance out this lifestyle by going for hikes after work, doing yoga outside, going to the beach and anything I could do to get outside and recharge my batteries,” said McKee. “I began to realize how disconnected I had become from my natural surroundings, and I started developing a theory which I still believe to be true today. People being so disconnected from nature is a major contributor to the mental health issues and depression we are seeing on such a large scale today.
“By producing oils from locally grown plants, I hope more people will be able to make a stronger connection with our own natural surroundings, even without leaving their own homes. I hope that using our oils will help people bring the outdoors in, and maybe even help people reconnect to nature in a way that serves them in their daily tasks.”
McKee believes that we have everything we need growing right here for us on the land, which is why she focuses on the plants grown locally in Canada.
“I am passionate about conserving the various ecosystems in which my plants are harvested, so I also donate five percent of every single sale back to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to help them conserve significant land for endangered plants and animals.”
McKee’s business was established in her hometown of Belleville, Ont. in January, where she started producing Balsam Fir essential oil by partnering with a local Christmas tree farm in the area.
Since moving to Manitoba at the end of May, she was able to wild craft all of her material right from the local land, mostly from around the Birch River area.
“I work closely with the Forestry Department to make sure I am harvesting in approved areas and removing only the permitted volume of material from each harvest site,” said McKee. “So far, we have produced Black Spruce and Jack Pine essential oils, as well as a wild mint and a yarrow hydrosol with material harvested right here in the Valley.”
Canadian Flora Essential Oils products have been available during the summer at the Swan Valley Farmers’ Market on Thursday afternoons and the Minitonas Market on Saturday mornings, as well as at the new JLynnCo. retail space the corner of Fifth Avenue North and First Street North in Swan River.
McKee also invites everybody and anybody into her work space for an open house every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from now until Thanksgiving to allow people to watch the process of making essential oils and hydrosols. Details are available on the Canadian Flora Essential Oil Facebook page, or by contacting McKee at jena.c.mckee@gmail.com or at 204·731·1545.
More information is also available at canadianfloraessentialoils.com.
How it’s Made: Essential Oils
This is the process that McKee explained for how she extracts the essence of plants and makes her products:
• Material is harvested from the natural growing location. This is always done in a way that is not detrimental to the plant, we are simply trimming branches of trees or clipping the flowering tops from plants.
• Any tree material is chipped through a tree chipper prior to loading. The flowering plants are not chipped prior to loading.
• The material is loaded into the still for distillation. For the tree oils I usually load about 25 kg into the still, and that fills it completely to the top. For the flower products I run much smaller batches.
• The boiler sits on a propane burner, so the boiler is connected to the steam inlet of the biomass kettle, and then lit.
• The steam from the boiler passes up through the plant material in the biomass kettle. Any volatile compounds in the plant material will evaporate into the steam and continue to travel up into the condenser head.
• The condenser is jacketed with cooling water, which caused the steam to condense back into liquid form.
• This liquid is collected, and the oil will float to the top of the liquid. After the distillation you end up with a large amount of hydrosol (water with all of the water soluble components of the plant in it), and a very small amount of essential oil floating on top (any of the oil soluble components of the plan).
• This liquid is passed through a separator funnel, which allows the hydrosol to be drained off, leaving only the essential oil in the funnel. This oil is then collected for bottling and labeling. For the hydrosols this step is skipped, and the hydrosol is bottled with the oil still in the liquid. This just provides a higher quality hydrosol that includes 100 percent of the volatile components of the plant (water and oil soluble).

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Jeremy Bergen
REPORTER
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