Hear how aromatherapist Maggie Dellemann-Zadina, sustainably harvests wild Sitka spruce to craft healing essential oils. Interview and Photos by Gretchen Powers.
Maggie Dellemann-Zadina’s distillery smells like you’ve stumbled into a wild Christmas tree forest. Inside, she brews wild-harvested Sitka spruce branches into small batches of essential oils and botanical waters that ooze a comforting woodsy aroma of holiday wreaths and trees.
“Bees find their way into my shop during distillations and I always take that as a good sign. They want to be close to that energetic plant goodness as much as I do,” she smiles.
Maggie’s brand Emerald Isle Essentials is currently the only distiller of Sitka spruce (a sibling of fir and pine trees) in Alaska, where it grows plentifully along foggy coastlines. From clipping native branches to collecting flowing mountain spring water through the seasons; she’s constantly attuned to the nuances of her wilderness surroundings on the remote island of Kodiak, Alaska.
Photographer Gretchen Powers caught up with Maggie during a Fall harvest to hear more about the unique healing properties of Sitka spruce botanical waters, the magic of alchemizing nature into medicine, and why she takes care to sustainably source all her ingredients.
How did you find yourself on Kodiak and what made you stay?
MAGGIE DELLEMANN-ZADINA: I moved to Kodiak in 2007 after graduating college in Wisconsin. I came up here with a friend who was pursuing commercial fishing. I was pursuing new adventures. I never expected to stay. However, Kodiak has that magic about her! I stayed because Kodiak has offered me a kind of growth I didn’t know existed until I got here, and a lifestyle that makes my heart happy and feels true. This island and the amazing Kodiak community is what made me stay. The people, the energy, the majestic flora and fauna, the wilderness—all of it.
Maggie wears the Ellery Ankle Waterproof Boots in Pecan for harvesting wild Sitka spruce.
Most of your products are derived from Sitka spruce in Alaska. Why is it such a special tree?
MAGGIE: Sitka spruce is Kodiak Island’s most common tree and has a long history as a native tree of Alaska. The Native people of our area and other parts of the state have utilized this tree—everything from the sap, inner bark, needles and tips—for a variety of healing and medicinal purposes.
These trees were our neighbors in every sense during the time my husband and I lived out in a remote neighborhood on Kodiak Island. They offered us protection from the wind and weather, logs that washed up on the beach became our warmth, and the needles gifted us with edible Spruce tips in the spring. During the last year that we lived out in Chiniak, the area suffered from a large and scary forest fire. It was quite emotional, driving through that area and seeing all those majestic trees gone and devastation in their place.
Even through all that, and with time, seedlings started to pop up everywhere. The energy and resilience of the Sitka spruce tree drew me towards it.
The rugged coastline of Kodiak Island in Alaska.
Tell us about how you discovered distilling. How did it spark a local business for you?
MAGGIE: I participated in harvesting and distillations during an Aromatherapy Certification Program in Sedona, AZ. My instructors spoke about rare essential oils of the world and their first example was the Sitka spruce!
I remember the feeling I had when they said that—kind of like butterflies, but they were flying around my whole body, not just my stomach. I raised my hand and shared that I lived in Kodiak, an island covered in beautiful Sitka spruce trees. They said, “If you ever decide to start distilling in Kodiak, we will buy every drop you make!”
Within a year, I had my very own massive copper still [an apparatus used for distilling] purchased from Iberian Coppers in Portugal. My instructors still support me to this day. Currently, I am the only distiller of Sitka spruce in Alaska, and one of two distillers worldwide distilling the lovely Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).
“The Ellery Ankle boot’s leather makes for such a comfortable fit and waterproof is a must for living on a rainy isle. I can wear them to go harvest or with cute jeans and a nice shirt. They are my go-to daily footwear.”
There’s a range of products that are derived from the Sitka spruce. What’s the difference between them and how do you gain their benefits?
MAGGIE: There are two products derived as a result of the distillation process: essential oil and hydrosol. Hydrosol is a term meaning floral or botanical water. It’s a specific [water to plant material ratio] to collect the perfect hydrosol that’s not too strong or too weak. As the Sitka spruce heats up in the still with water, it starts to emit vapors and steam.
These vapors and steam travel up through the still’s gooseneck pipe, then flow down through the pipes into the condenser (cooling) tank. As the vapors cool, they are converted into essential oil, and as the steam cools, it is converted into the hydrosol. It is so rewarding to hear the first drips of output, not to mention the aroma is other-worldly!
Sitka spruce hydrosol is wonderful for supporting the immune and respiratory systems. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic and offers cold and flu relief—especially for those with sensitive skin, children and pets when essential oils may be too strong. It can be applied as a facial toner or to specific areas for relief of skin irritations (eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne). Put it in a diffuser or as a steam for respiratory and immune support. It can be diluted in water or hot tea to gain its immense benefits internally. I’ve even whipped it into lotions and creams for topical use.
Maggie fills the still with wild-harvested Sitka spruce and mountain spring water. Pictured: Ember Moc in Helix Green.
“The Ember Mocs have shown me goodness in every step. During distillations, I’m constantly running from my shop to my office and these Mocs have been perfect. I consider them the ideal ‘house shoe.’ They are cozy, comfortable and supportive, which is sincerely important to me when I’m on my feet all day.”
Tell us more about the process of harvesting Sitka spruce. How do you harvest and source sustainably?
MAGGIE: I harvest Sitka spruce in the wild and am very committed to sustainable harvesting, which is taking only 1-3 branches from each tree. I always acknowledge what the trees are offering by taking a moment to say ‘thank you.’
I harvest water from a mineral spring runoff in Kodiak then filter it before use. A distillation requires 30-35 gallons of water, depending on the amount of spruce added. I try and be as mindful as possible and if Kodiak is going through a dry spell or the spring water output is less, I will seek out other sustainable water sources during those times.
During my Aromatherapy Certification Program, we discussed at length the over-harvesting to obtain certain essential oils and the devastation it causes far beyond the loss of the botanical itself. I firmly believe that the energy I put out there during my harvesting and product preparations is transferred into the final product. That is so important to me and is the basis of Emerald Isle Essentials: handcrafted with conscious intention from the goodness of the earth, for the goodness of your body.
Maggie wears the Ellery Ankle Waterproof Boots in Pecan.
Fresh peppermint from her garden is clipped to be distilled into a hydrosol.
As a local business, you participate in many community markets—especially during the holidays. Why is this important and fulfilling to you?
Being such a small community, on a remote island in Alaska, we depend on one another in the most beautiful ways. These experiences have offered insight, inspiration and creativity through being able to talk and listen to my customers. They share their own experiences utilizing local Alaskan botanicals and believing in the healing powers of Mother Earth. The emotional high that I walk away with after a big holiday show is incomparable to anything else I’ve known. I am given the chance to personally present my hard work to supporters who sincerely value its creation. The energy of the holiday season—the music, camaraderie, the magic that is Kodiak —is when everyone comes together.
Maggie adds Sitka spruce hydrosol in her tea.
You’re surrounded by Christmas trees year-round! What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?
We usually have a Friendsgiving-style celebration over the December holiday. My husband and I have gotten into the tradition to reserve some time for just us. It usually involves an adventure—surfing, camping or otherwise—and this year we’re hoping to take a floatplane to remote parts of Kodiak for some holiday camping adventures, warm drinks, hot fires, steamy banyas, and full hearts. Living so far away from our families (Wisconsin and Kansas) has encouraged us to establish our own traditions. I must say, I sure am in love with this life Kodiak offers us.
Pictured: Ember Moc in Helix Green.
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