In Cherry Valley, grower uses old-world technique to make essential oils from lilacs

Clockwise from top left: Charle-Pan Dawson cuts some lilacs at Cherry Valley Lilacs; Leon Gambetta lilacs; Dawson inside the Enfleurage Studio (seen at lower left) at Cherry Valley Lilacs. (Indiana Nash photos)
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Clockwise from top left: Charle-Pan Dawson cuts some lilacs at Cherry Valley Lilacs; Leon Gambetta lilacs; Dawson inside the Enfleurage Studio (seen at lower left) at Cherry Valley Lilacs. (Indiana Nash photos)

Walking through the gardens of Cherry Valley Lilacs, one can catch a whiff of some of the world’s rarest lilacs.

Some have a sweet yet sharp smell, while others have a more mellow scent.

Owner Charle-Pan Dawson hopes to propagate and preserve each of these fragrances and flowers on the farm, which stretches across six and a half acres.

“Part of our mission is to preserve rare varieties of lilacs and propagate them for future generations to enjoy,” Dawson said.

She inherited the lilacs when she and her husband moved into the historic home on the property in 2013. Dawson knew she wanted to continue to cultivate the lilacs that were there and sell them, but she had another idea for the expansive gardens too.

“I like lilacs but I wanted to do something else . . . My background is in chemistry so I figured out a way to make lilac essential oil, which has never been done before,” Dawson said.

In a studio next to what’s known as the exhibit garden, Dawson uses an old-world technique called enfleurage to create essential oils and pomades, or perfumed lotions/creams.

“I knew that all the essential oils with lilac were synthetic and fake or they’re a blend of natural oils that just smell like lilacs, but there’s no real lilac essential oil. The reason there is none is because it cannot be distilled like you do other oils like lavender or rose or lily,” Dawson said.

Those are typically distilled in an alcohol or water bath and then boiled.

“With lilac, if you do that you just get this stinky, slimy, green-smelling stuff and you can’t get the smell out because it’s not contained within the flesh of the plant. It’s a little factory in the lilac itself that generates the scent. So you have to keep it alive in order to get the scent out of it,” Dawson said.

Enfleurage keeps the lilac florets alive while extracting the scent. According to Dawson, the method dates back to the 1600s and was used to extract the scent of jasmine.

“You cover a plate of glass with a fat, and they used tallow in those days, then you’d put the flowers on the fat and then after 30 days of changing the flowers every day, that fat would smell really good and it would contain the essential oil,” Dawson said. “This method is hardly used anymore because it’s so time-consuming and labor-intensive but this fat will absorb the smell.”

Using stacks of square chassis made by her husband, Dawson spreads vegetable fat across a glass plate inside them and covers the surface with lilac florets. She switches out the florets each day for 30 days. After that, the fat has become a pomade, which Dawson sells online and in-person.

She also uses it to create the lilac essential oil, another time-consuming and laborious process.

“When you think about maple syrup, [the yield] it’s 60 to 1. Well, lilac essential oil is about 500 to 1. For one milliliter of lilac, I have to evaporate about a liter of maybe even more of the extract. It’s a very small yield, that’s why it’s so expensive,” Dawson said.

Each year she produces between 60 and 80 kilos of pomade, some of which are immediately sold and some that go into making essential oils and perfumes.

While creating the essential oil is a specialized process, Dawson said enfleurage can be done at home fairly easily and it’s a process she hopes becomes more commonplace.

“I want people to make their own creams and butters in enfleurage, I’d like to popularize the practice of enfleurage,” Dawson said.

She teaches classes, gives free tutorials and has written a book on it. During the pandemic, she’s sold kits instead of holding in-person classes and says she’s always willing to help anyone who needs technical assistance.

Creating the pomade and the essential oils requires a fair number of lilacs, which Dawson collects from her gardens each day around mid-morning, right after the morning dew has dried. Typically, for one batch of essential oil or pomade, she’ll use a blend of lilac varieties.

“All the different smells blend together and it gives you a really nice averaging effect of lilac smell. I don’t want it to smell too much like this one or too much like that one because then some people won’t recognize that it’s lilac, but when I mix them all together, the whites, the purples, the pinks, the blues, then I get a nice average lilac smell which is what I’m after,” Dawson said.

She also has to do plenty of pruning, which has to be done in the summer season, after the flowers have wilted and browned.

“It’s right about now when you’re supposed to go around and pick all the deadheads and take them down and start pruning. You don’t want to prune in the fall because then you cut off the blossoms for next year,” Dawson said.

Different varieties of lilacs, of which there are more than 50 on her property, bloom at different times of the season, typically spanning from Mother’s Day to July Fourth. It’s around this time that Dawson offers tours of the gardens, by appointment only.

“We’ve always offered tours of the perfumery, tours of the exhibit garden and folks can come and talk about lilacs. They can troubleshoot if they have problems with their lilacs,” Dawson said.

She’s had to learn quite a bit about these plants over the years and joined groups like the International Lilac Society, which have provided some insight into just how unique some of the varieties grown at Cherry Valley Lilacs are. Members from the society visited Cherry Valley Lilacs and identified two particularly rare varieties of lilac: Etoile de Mai, a magenta-colored lilac and Martine, a white lilac.

Since these varieties are so rare, Dawson propagates them, as well as many other varieties.

“I have a whole grove that I’m planting now with 20 or 30 new varieties I’m getting in. The way we get these new varieties is we just trade with other lilac growers. It just so happens some of the ones we have there’s no other copies. So I’m going to have to share and get more copies going because we don’t want them to die out,” Dawson said.

During the late spring and summer, people visit Cherry Valley Lilacs from all over the country.

Some visitors have flown into Albany from the Midwest, rented a car to drive to Cherry Valley, filled the car with lilacs and driven all the way home.

“They get a dozen or more lilacs packed into the car because they can’t get them anywhere else,” Dawson said. “They’re kind of fanatical. It was really fun to meet these crazy lilac people. I just love them but I’m not a fanatic. I like them because they’re beautiful, they smell good and I make perfume out of them and essential oil. But [there] are collectors who have to have the rarest and the most sought-after lilac. There’s over 2,000 varieties of lilacs. So you can have a big collection and still not have all of them.”

Advice for growing and caring for lilacs from Charle-Pan Dawson:

They require full sun for eight hours a day.
Lilacs need good drainage so that the roots aren’t wet.
They grow best in slightly alkaline soil. It’s not recommended to plant them next to pine trees or azaleas; anything that likes acidic soil.
Prune just below the dead flower. Don’t remove any part of the plant beyond the wilted or dead section.

If you go

Cherry Valley Lilacs is located at 54 Lancaster Street, Cherry Valley
Call 518-366-3400 for an appointment. Only one car or party is allowed at a time. For more information visit cherryvalleylilacs.com or cherryvalleyenfleurage.com.

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One Comment

I’d be interested to learn if the research team has a worldwide lilacs production team, one that operates on a worldwide scale. Interested in overcoming obstacles and willing to talk and exchange information on this topic.

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