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06/02/2018 - 09:37

Land of aromatic oils

In the hands of the workers ─ rustic farmers ─ wild plants growing in the vast sandy bushland in Phong Dien district are distilled into essential oils, making the practice a vocation for the people in Phong Chuong commune. The aromatic products are not only sold locally but also distributed to other regions in Vietnam.

Lemongrass and billygoat weed essential oils extracted in Nguyen Van Tan's mill (in Phong Chuong commune)

1. When speaking of the "land of aromatic oils", one would immediately think of Loc Thuy commune in Phu Loc district, well known for the production of tea tree and lemongrass essential oils. But few people know that on hundreds of hectares of sandy bushland in Phong Dien district grow not only tea trees but also other plants and weeds such as billygoat weed (Ageratum conyzoides  L.), lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum) and grapefruit, which are used by the local in the distillation of rare essential oils.

The practice of distilling essential oil appeared in Phong Chuong only five years ago, with 14 mills currently working day and night. However, only four households are skillful enough to extract essential oils from billygoat weeds and grapefruit peel. To meet the demands for input of these large-capacity essential oil mills, an “army” of laborers spend all day every day in the sandy bushland to collect billygoat weeds and tea tree leaves.

My conversation with a mill-owner, Mr. Nguyen Van Tan (based in Bau hamlet, Phong Chuong commune) is now and then interrupted by the deliveries of wood and fresh billygoat weeds. After throwing two sacks of billygoat weeds from her motorbike onto the ground, Ms. Nguyen Thi Leo, a weed cutter complains, "This is all that I have managed to collect this morning. Fresh billygoat weeds are very heavy, I will deliver more tomorrow if you need."  Her face then softens, and traces of tiredness seem to disappear when Mr. Tan pulls banknotes of 300 thousand VND value out of his wallet and hands them to her to pay for the result of her day of hard labor.

Fresh billygoat weeds being inserted into a distillery

According to Ms. Leo, billygoat weeds and tea trees used to grow in abundance in the vicinity of the sandy bushland. Since the resources become scarce in Phu Loc, people there come here to purchase them in large quantities; therefore, cutters like Ms. Leo have to travel further to collect the weed. Every day, working from dawn to dust, Ms. Leo can cut up about 200 kilograms of billygoat weeds, which are sold for about 150 thousand VND a kilogram. The average income of a household engaged in this labor is about several hundred thousand VND a day. Although this type of labor is not easier than farming, it provides a more stable income.

As the weeds are used to extract essential oil, weed cutters need to find fresh weeds growing on non-contaminated soil. "We exclude the weeds growing on soil which has been sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides, or where wastewater is dumped. Even if we intentionally include them, the mill owner would immediately find out due to the strange smell. You know, I believe honesty is the best policy in every profession, without exception," Leo confides.

The demand is not restricted to billygoat weed as mill owners in Phong Chuong also order other ingredients such as grapefruit peel and lesser galangal. Grapefruit peel is a relatively scarce resource and is normally ordered from the markets in the commune. Mill owners pay approximately 150 to 200 thousand VND for a 100-kilogram sack of dried grapefruit peel. The prevalence of orchards in Phong Dien district partly explains for the diversity of essential oils distilled here.  

Billygoat weed essential oil is beneficial for health

2. Every batch of essential oil coming out of the distillery is a result of an elaborate process of the workers, from the selection stage, cleaning the ingredients to adjusting the heat underneath the distillery. According to Mr. Nguyen Van Tan, a mill owner, extracting tea tree and lemongrass essential oils is easy because it has been a long-standing and common practice. Billygoat weed and grapefruit peel essential oils, on the other hand, are new. "I had to make a lot of effort in order to succeed in extracting essential oil from them," Mr. Tan reveals.

The idea of extracting essential oil from billygoat weed came to him incidentally. Once he was surfing the Internet, he came across an article about the method of extracting essential oil from medicinal herbs. On coming back home, billygoat weeds, with its reputation for curing sinusitis and parotitis crossed his mind. Furthermore, this weed happens to be in abundance in Phong Chuong. The next thing he did was to embark on experimenting on the distillation of it.

"Billygoat weed comes in two types, with white or purple flowers. I haven't found out the reason, but the distillation of weeds with white flowers results in a very runny liquid while the purple-flower ones produce fine essential oil. It cost me 1,5 million VND for the first experiment, paying for the ingredients and the fuel," Mr. Tan shares.

At present, Mr. Tan's distillery is lit twice a day. The distillation process starts with the fresh weeds being dusted off. Then they are cleaned and inserted into the distillery. The vapor is channeled into a condenser, then a bottle. Billygoat weed is a "tough" medicinal herb, in the sense that the act of extraction of essential oil from which is quite challenging. For each batch, Mr. Tan steams 500 kg fresh billygoat weeds with 150 liters of water over a fire for six hours to get 80 milliliters of essential oil. Although a liter of billygoat weed essential oil costs 20 million VND, Mr. Tan receives regular orders for it from customers in Ha Noi, Thai Nguyen, Quang Tri and Quang Binh provinces. Besides, he also bottles the essential oil to sell to local retailers at between 150 and 200 thousand VND for a bottle of ten milliliters.        

According to Mr. Le Viet Long, Chairman of the Farmers Association of Phong Chuong commune, so far the sales of new essential oils such as billygoat weed and grapefruit peel have totaled approximately 30 liters. Although the practice was introduced only several months ago, it has proved to yield enormous financial benefits. The customer base is made up mostly of people from the North with large orders, the rest are retailers in various districts of the province.

According to research in Traditional Chinese Medicine, billygoat weed is a herb with a cool property and a pungent taste. Billygoat weed is widely used in the treatment of sore throat, sinusitis, menorrhagia suffered by women after delivery, UTIs, etc. Billygoat weed essential oil has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and is a good cure for sinusitis.

Story and photos: Ha Nguyen

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