Western Juniper Oil Distillation and Marketing Project

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon
Business and Economic Development Branch

Project Manager and Final Report Writer
Joe Yesenofski, Management Consultant, Portland, OR.

Abstract Editor
Larry Swan, U.S. Forest Service





Project Purpose and Organization

The purpose of this project was to distill essential oils from western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) leaf, bole wood, and dried berries, and determine if viable business opportunities exist for western juniper distillation operations. (In the essential oil business, "leaf" refers to needles or foliage. "Bole wood", as used in this report, refers to the mixture of sapwood and heartwood which results when the whole log is chipped.)

The project was organized into four phases:

  • Collection, Distillation, and Essential Oil Analysis
  • Essential Oil Production Cost Analysis
  • Market Research
  • Business Opportunity Identification

A set of related, but separate, distillations were conducted in the fall of 1996 for a project which is still underway. The distillations were conducted with the same operator and equipment, but focused on obtaining leaf and heartwood oil for further market research (Swan personal communication). 

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Collection, Distillation, and Essential Oil Analysis

Collection - Leaf and bole wood samples were obtained from a low-density juniper woodland on a flat near the town of Warm Springs, OR. (average 10-20 trees/acre). Based on the characteristics recorded for the first six samples, age range was 65-160 years (average 110 years), height range was 25-40 feet (average 31 feet), and base diameter range was 20-30 inches (average 24 inches). The sample was purposefully biased towards trees with extensive crowns and darker green foliage. Trees were sampled with and without a green berry crop.

Trees utilized for bole wood were fallen and bucked into short lengths (approximately 15 in.) at the harvest site. Bucked log rounds were covered and stored for varying lengths of time before further processing. The rounds were split, chipped, placed in burlap bags, and covered and stored from one to four days before distillation.

Trees utilized for leaf samples were fallen, clipped, and the resulting material bagged at the harvest site. Juniper leaf samples were stored from one to five days before distillation.

Juniper berries were dropped from the sampling program due to predicted low recovery potential for green berries and lack of sufficient dried berries on the ground to sample.

Distillation - Raw material was steam-distilled at zero pressure in a 23 cu. ft., top-loading retort. A total of 13 batches were run through the system - nine were leaf and four were bole wood. Distillation residue was returned to the harvest site and scattered as mulch.

Leaf oil yield by weight averaged .206% for samples harvested and distilled in June, July, and August, and .405% for samples harvested and distilled in October and November (almost a 100% increase). Bole wood yield by weight for this project averaged .138% for the earlier period and .420% (one sample) for the later period (approximately 300% increase). Seasonal variation in oil content and improved processing techniques are two of a number of possible reasons for these differences.

Other key distillation phase observations include:

  • Tree laden with immature berries appeared to yield significantly less oil form leaf material than trees which had sparse berries.
  • A properly "tuned" steam/retort/condenser system should yield 80% oil recovery in three hours. Minimum oil yield from leaf material with such a system is expected to be 0.40%. A leaf oil yield of 0.50%-0.75% can be expected with more experience and properly prepared raw material. Oil yields of 1.0%-1.5% are projected in a 20-40 psi pressure system, based on previous work by Kurth and Ross (1954).
  • There are 300-350 gallons of run-off distillate waters for each gallon of oil produced.
  • Yield should increase if an efficient (minimal loss of oil) and cost-effective technique is found to dry material prior to distillation.

Essential Oils Analysis - Three samples of juniper leaf oil and one sample of leaf oil distillate water were analyzed using a gas chromatograph. (Interpretation of gas chromatograph readings have been questioned by Joe Karchesy, Oregon State University, based on previously published western juniper gas chromatograph results and his personal experience and research [Swan personal communication]). The crude leaf oil is colorless or pale greenish-yellowish with a characteristic basalmic odor. The leaf oil is somewhat unique in that its aroma is very similar to the aroma of the living tree. 

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Essential Oil Cost Production Analysis

Assumptions were made concerning raw material costs, equipment (zero-pressure system), yield, operation and maintenance costs, and capital investment. Estimated production cost of leaf oil is $360/gallon for a high-volume operation (one-ton retort capacity) and $925/gallon for a low-volume operation (250 lbs. retort capacity). The key determinant appears to be the relatively low yield estimate used (0.40%-0.45%) because of a zero-pressure system. The economic profile of bole wood was not projected due to low yields and the current market price of a competing product: Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) at $60/gallon. Production costs could change significantly if markets are found for the distillate waters. 

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Market Research

A list of applications were developed for juniper leaf oil based on distillation results and production cost analysis. Potential applications included aromatherapy, mood scents, room fresheners, scent masks, insect repellents, soaps and candles, cosmetics and fragrances, lotions and cremes, and naturopathic remedies (using the antibacterial properties of juniper for example). Small samples of juniper oil and, in some cases, distillate waters were sent to prospective buyers, along with gas chromatography results.

Prospective buyers were identified and contacted in the following markets segments:

  • Industrial - Companies which supply essential oils to product manufacturers in bulk form; typically 400 lb. (45-gallon) drums.
  • Large Commercial - Companies which principally broker and distribute oil in drum lots to oil blenders and large third-party manufacturers.
  • Specialty Commercial - Companies which distribute and often blend a wide variety of essential oils, often on a regional basis. They generally purchase relatively small lots of oil (one to five pounds) and produce specialty products for aromatherapy, naturopathic medicine, and scent products for niche markets.
  • Single Entrepreneur/Retail - This segment consists of local entrepreneurs who distill small quantities which they use to create retail products for local and regional distribution.

Manufacturers and distributors of competitive or similar oils were also contacted, such as western red cedar, eastern redcedar, western yellow cedar, cypress, and balsam fir.

Market research performed for this project indicates no potential for western juniper leaf or bole wood oil in the Industrial Sector. The bottomline is that the market price of eastern redcedar, with which juniper would have to compete, is $7.50/lb. at the industrial distribution level ($60/gallon). This market segment is simply not feasible to pursue at this point given what is known about juniper oil yield and production costs, .

Feedback from the Large Commercial sector was similar, although at least the potential price which might be obtained for leaf oil was higher ($25/lb.). Leaf oil yields would have to be in excess of 0.90% to be competitive in this market segement.

There appears to be good market potential in the Specialty Commercial segment. Feedback from potential customers indicate willingness to pay an estimated $60/lb. for juniper leaf oil in relatively small quantities (average one to five pounds). A business break-even point is predicted for this market at 0.5% yield; at 1.0% yield business viability is assured down to prices as low as $25/lb. Single entrepreneur or small businesses who produce specialty aroma therapy and scent products, principally for the local and regional market, would also be prospective customers. 

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Business Opportunity Identification

A profitable commercial business based on distillation and sale of juniper bole wood oil is highly unlikely. In contrast, the numbers for a business dedicated to distillation of juniper leaf oil look promising, particularly if yields can be increased from an estimated business break-even point of 0.5%. Calculations do not include potential revenue from distillate waters (if a market is created or found).

There also appears to be good potential for single entrepreneurs with a small distillation operation (250 lbs. capacity) to distill and sell specialty juniper retail products, especially if based on a large volume of small, pre-packaged products. A high degree of marketing and distribution expertise and knowledge would be necessary, as well as an adequate supply of working capital during business start-up. 

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Kurth, E.F. and J.D. Ross 1954. Volatile oil from western juniper. Report No. C-3, April, 1954. Oregon Forest Products Laboratory, Corvallis.

Swan, Larry 1997. Personal communication with coordinator for Western Juniper Alternative Fiber Markets Project, funded by the Oregon Multi-Regional Strategy Program. Mr. Swan states that a report should be available late 1998 or early 1999. 

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