Olympia-based company distills the scents of the Northwest

Company toils and troubles over botanicals to brew natural products for sale at regional farmers markets and online

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comAugust 28, 2013 

When most people put on their deodorant in the morning, it smells like citrus. Or lavender, or Old Spice. But Eric Zvonchenko’s deodorant smells like a Northwest forest — piney Douglas fir, sweet western red cedar — because that’s exactly what it’s made from. Like a cross between a medieval alchemist and a Victorian apothecary, Olympia-based Zvonchenko, along with his wife, Jeanne, and business partner Sean Croke, harvests and distills native plants to turn into perfumes, salves, hydrosols, tinctures and deodorants to sell at local markets. Called Cascadia Botanical Apothecary, the products offer health benefits as well as deliciously woodsy scents.

“I’ve been interested in plants for a long time,” explains Zvonchenko of how he got into homemade botanical cosmetics. Over the years he’s moved from working as a whole-foods cook to permaculture to green construction, but as the market changed he decided to get back to the woods. Self-taught, he does all the harvesting, oil and herbal distillation, packaging and market vending; Jeanne does blending of scents for the perfumes, lotions and salves; Croke distills the alcohol-based tinctures for internal consumption.

The result is a unique business where Zvonchenko gets to do some of his favorite things — being in the woods, supporting local farmers, messing around with chemistry — as well as offering products whose every ingredient he knows, and whose health benefits he believes in.

“People can take these (products) on different levels,” Zvonchenko says. “You can just appreciate the scent, or you can get the physiological benefits like cleared sinuses or skin. Then there’s the psychological benefits, like reduced depression; and finally communal benefits, such as clearing energy with sagebrush.”

 

FIRE BURN AND CAULDRON BUBBLE

 

Cascadia’s market booth definitely offers a visual level as well. Bottles, tins and vials with earth-colored labels inhabit antique wooden apothecary boxes perched on purple velvet, while nearby a shiny, beaten-copper still lends a steampunk vibe. The whole thing feels like it could be a shop in J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley. Customers open tins, sniff curiously, start talking about how they have an acre full of red alders and does Zvonchenko want to take some?

It’s the kind of suggestion Zvonchenko loves, because Cascadia begins in the forest.

With a harvesting license for state lands, or by partnering with local farmers and neighbors who have an abundance of lavender, cedar or rose bushes, he spends a lot of time collecting leaf buds, blooms and bark.

Back in his garage, which with three stills and a host of glass bottles and retorts looks like an alchemist’s forest hut, he gets to work. A stainless steel pot still, the size of something you’d make beer in, is filled with large leaf buds, such as cedar or fir. Zvonchenko adds water to the bottom, lights a propane burner and waits for the steam to rise through the plants then condense down a pipe and funnel into a glass bowl, where he’ll draw off the essential oil with a pipette and end up with a herb-distilled water called a hydrosol.

A smaller glass still — the soxhlet, invented in 1879 — does essentially the same thing only with ether, as steam rises and falls through a small bundle of cottonwood buds wrapped in a coffee filter. A third still — the copper alembic, which some say has origins in ancient Egypt – handles small, delicate botanicals like rose petals.

“I liked science in school,” grins Zvonchenko shyly.

 

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

 

The resulting hydrosols (water-based), concretes (ether-based) and absolutes (oils) are then blended with beeswax, almond or jojoba oil and other natural ingredients to make solid perfumes, salves, lotions, lip balms and deodorants. Hydrosols also can be used on their own, as air fresheners or eau de toilette (a weak perfume). The tinctures that Croke makes can be drunk as medicinal teas or inhaled as vaporizers.

And that’s where the Northwest plants come into their own. It’s not often you can find a deodorant with the clean, river-ish smell of Douglas fir, or a perfume with the warm glow of western red cedar. Thujopsis — a conifer native to Japan and found here — gives a sweet, floral, woody scent, while cottonwood smells fresh, like spring.

Then there are the health benefits. According to books Zvonchenko has studied from, such as Michael Moore’s “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West,” these range from anti-inflammatory (cottonwood) to antibacterial (cottonwood, cedar, Douglas fir) to associations with energy and virility (cedar), and treatment for acne and dandruff (Lebanon cedar). The various blended salves (Fire, Earth, Air, Water) add other bought essential oils, such as patchouli and geranium, for different scents and benefits. Then there are the psychological effects: Douglas fir uplifting spirits, for instance.

“You can see that at Christmas time, that’s why we hang it around our house during the darkest time of the year,” says Zvonchenko. “Science is gradually catching up with the traditional use of herbs. Lavender is very well-studied now as an antidepressant.”

And if you’re worried about smelling like a woodpile, fear not.

“I use it all the time,” says Zvonchenko, whose living room also has a clean, foresty smell echoing the greenery outside the house. “There are a lot of different cedars. It smells very different to a wooden box.”

“It’s more floral,” adds Jeanne.

 

ONLINE WORLD IS THY FRIEND

 

Homemade cosmetics from scratch is “very labor intensive work,” admit both Zvonchenkos, and they have plans to expand to an online store where they can also sell apothecary items from other herbalists. Still, Cascadia is rewarding for them, both financially and ethically.

“I like that I can make a product and know exactly what’s in it,” says Jeanne. “A lot of main brands have something in them that I don’t want to put on my body. And it’s fun to offer something to people that’s useful, that will help them.”

It also gives back to the community, as Zvonchenko offers barter trade to folks who offer him access to their trees or shrubs, giving them part of the distilled product in return.

Besides, says Zvonchenko, it’s just plain fun to play garage alchemist: “We do a lot of things because we enjoy the process,” he says. Distilling the NW forest

Making scents: Like medieval apothecaries, the Olympia owners of Cascadia Botanical Apothecary turn Douglas fir, red cedar and more into fresh-scented perfumes and salves to sell at local markets.

THE Scents

Where to find Cascadia Botanical Apothecary:

Proctor Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, North 27th and Proctor Streets, Tacoma.

Olympia Farmers Market: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 700 Capitol Way N, Olympia.

You can find more information at cascadiabotanicalapothecary.com.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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