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Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes

Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes

There are a number of plants, either native of Britain or able to be grown here, that can be used to provide an alternative form of lighting. Some of these plants yield a wax or an oil that can be formed directly into candles, some yield an oil that can be burnt, and others can be used as wicks. Below is a brief guide to these plants.

Wax-bearing plants:

These plants have a quantity of wax deposited upon their fruits, leaves and catkins. The wax is obtained by boiling the plant (usually only the fruit, which tends to have the greatest quantity of wax), allowing the liquid to cool and then removing the wax as it solidifies. The wax can then be re-heated and formed into candles. The remaining liquid can be used as a blue dye. All the plants listed are said to succeed in any soil, though they would probably be happier if it was a little bit acid, and for the best fruit production they should be in a fairly sunny position. The soil should be free-draining and they would appreciate watering during dry spells. The American species are quite often cultivated specifically for their wax, which burns well and is aromatic. The fruit is also edible, often being used as a flavouring in cooking.

Myrica californica - Californian Bayberry: A hardy, evergreen shrub, native of California and growing to about 14 feet. In a severe winter (like 1985-86) it may be cut down to the ground, but it should grow away again from the base.

Myrica cerifera - Wax Myrtle: A hardy, deciduous (occasionally evergreen) tree, native of eastern North America and growing to about 40 feet.

Myrica pennsylvanica: Very similar to M. cerifera but with a more northerly distribution which should make it more hardy. It is said to be naturalised in the New Forest.

Myrica gale - Sweet Gale: A hardy, deciduous shrub, native of Britain, growing to about four feet. It is found wild in bogs and marshes and is dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate plants). Unfortunately this species does not produce the same quantity of wax as its American relatives, and, with this species, it is often the leaves and catkins which are boiled to obtain the wax.

Plants yielding an oil that solidifies:

The oil, extracted from the fruits and seeds, assumes the consistency of tallow if allowed to stand, so can be formed into candles. All the following plants will succeed in an ordinary garden soil, even if it is on the poor side. Candles made with this oil are said to burn very brightly but with a pungent smoke. Perhaps best used outside.

Rhus glabra - Smooth Sumach: A hardy, deciduous shrub, native of North America, growing to about six feet. Dioecious, so both male and female plants must be grown (one male should fertilize about six females). The fruit is edible.

Rhus succedanea - Wax Tree: A deciduous tree, native of China and Japan, growing to about 30 feet. It is only hardy in the milder areas of Britain.

Rhus verniciflua - Lacquer Tree: A hardy, deciduous tree, native of China and Japan, growing to about 30 feet. Partly dioecious. This plant is very poisonous.

Oil-yielding plants:

Many plants produce seeds that are rich in oil, and this oil can be extracted under pressure. The following list, by no means exhaustive, indicates some of the plants that can be grown in Britain and yield an oil suitable for burning.

Brassica napus - Rape: Hardy annual, native of the Mediterranean, growing to about four feet. Widely cultivated in Britain for its seed (the all too familiar yellow fields of spring!). It succeeds in most soils. Seeds often used as the 'mustard' in mustard and cress.

Cannabis sativa - Hemp: Hardy annual, native of India and Iran, growing to about eight feet. It grows in any soil, but, because of some of its other properties, can only be grown under licence.

Carthamnus tinctoria - Safflower: Hardy annual, native of Egypt, growing to about three feet. Does very well in a poor, dry soil in a sunny position. Flower petals are a substitute for saffron.

Cornus sanguinea - Dogwood: Hardy deciduous shrub, native of Britain, growing to about 10 feet. Found wild in mixed woodland, scrub and hedgerows, preferring a calcareous soil. Can be grown as a hedge.

Fagus sylvatica - Beech: Hardy, deciduous tree, native of Britain, growing to about 100 feet. Prefers a chalky soil and dislikes heavy, wet soils. It makes a superb hedge but would not then produce any seed. The seeds and young leaves are edible.

Glaucium flavum - Horned Poppy: Hardy perennial, native of Britain, growing to about two feet. Found wild on shingle banks by the coast, it will succeed in any good garden soil. Said to burn very cleanly.

Guizottia abyssinica - Ramtil: Hardy annual, native of tropical Africa, growing to about six feet. It requires a rich soil and is occasionally found wild as a non-persisting casual in Britain.

Helianthus anuus - Sunflower: Hardy annual, native of western North America, growing to about 100 feet. It prefers a fairly rich soil and a sunny position. Seeds are edible (and very nutritious).

Lallemantia iberica: Hardy annual or biennial, native of Asia, growing to about one and a half feet.

Sinapis alba - White Mustard: Hardy annual, native of Britain, growing to about one foot. Found wild on sandy and calcareous soils, it is often cultivated. Seed sometimes used in mustard and cress.

The oil obtained from these plants can be burnt in an ordinary oil-burning lamp (I doubt if it would work in a pressure lamp such as the 'Tilley').


Wicks for candles and lamps can be made from the following plants, both natives of Britain:

Eriophorum angustifolium (Syn. E. polystachion) - Cotton Grass: A hardy perennial growing about two feet tall in peat bogs, acid meadows and marshes.

Verbascum thapsus - Aaron's Rod: A hardy biennial growing in sunny positions in cultivated fields and waste ground. It is also often grown in the flower garden.

An alternative to using lamps or candles would be to slightly adapt a method of using various species of rush to provide lighting. Any species of rush that has a continuous pith can be used, though the species most favoured in the past was Juncus effusus, the Soft Rush, a hardy perennial native of Britain, growing up to five feet tall in wet pastures, bogs, damp woods etc. A very good description of the process is given in Richard Mabey's book 'Plants with a Purpose'. The method, in brief, is as follows: Harvest the stems in autumn whilst still green. Trim off both ends and then remove the outer skin. This is said to be an acquired skill. Leave a strip of skin about a third of an inch wide to act as a spinal support, then soak the stem in warm oil or molten wax for about 30 seconds. Drain and then leave to cool and set. They can be used indoors or out, give a good light, and do not drip like candles.

Readers Comments

Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes Tim Thwaites Fri Dec 29 00:00:51 2000 I am interested in how the extraction process is with these plants. If you guys don't mind, please e-mail me. www.thwaites@liberty.com Thankyou Tim Thwaites Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes Stephen Parchment (Mandella00@hotmail.com <mailto:Mandella00@hotmail.com>) Thu Mar 1 19:18:14 2001 I am currently investigating the outcome of the extraction method known as Supercritical Fluid extraction. This technology as you must know is quite expensive. i am currently using a loboratory scale system which only holds samples of 10ml. I am concerned to furthur invest into a much larger scale machine do to economic feasibility. My main concern is how to determine what essential oil volume may be extracted from the plant substrait. If there is any botanical reference or method of dertemining the extract yield which could be obtainable from the plant matter, would you kindly point me in the right direction. Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes Wed Mar 14 20:47:32 2001 Thanks for helping me with my project on alternative lighting!!!! Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes The Rt. Honourable Gbemi Saraki-Fowora Tue Apr 30 01:33:12 2002 I stumbled on your web site and I am so glad that I did. So many times over the last three years, I have been searching for ways in which to help the poor people that I represent in Northern Nigeria. Now, I have been educated about alternative uses of plants as well as been educated on alternative sources of income for the people and ways to enrich their lives. People in the Western world take everything for granted: electricity is a luxury back home. Our lands are so fertile and we are being forced to go all mechanical that the people simply cannot afford. I hope that I can solicit your help in bringing all this to life in their lives. We have land for you to experiment on. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes Dr.Vidya Swamy (biofuels@mecheng.iisc.ernet.in <mailto:biofuels@mecheng.iisc.ernet.in>) Mon Jul 14 06:46:51 2003 SuTRA, Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has been working with a non-edible oil from the seeds of a tree called Honge (Pongamia pinnata) Karanj in Hindi. The experience has been that this oil is a good substitute for diesel. There are many such similar trees and shrubs available in India, whose seed-oils can become potential biofuels. Scientific screening of the various oils, in terms of performance as well as yield, has not been systematically documented and it is now essential to do so and produce a technically sound database. This is possible if the experiences of various people in this field are aggregated and documented in a scientific and systematic manner.Recently SuTRA, jointly with the Samagra Vikas Trust (SVT), a Bangalore - based NGO, organized a seminar for production of a policy document for biofuels, which is being readied for presentation to the Government in a about a months time. This seminar discussed some of the issues involved but from another point of view, specifically for evolving a national policy for biofuels.Objectives of this workshop will be  To identify scientific experts who are working in this field.  To call for scientific notes and observations, covering all aspects of production of seeds for biofuel, from such identified experts.  To review / screen and consolidate the papers into a technical document for wide circulation throughout the country.  To invite the experts who have contributed papers for a discussion meeting to revise the draft.  To officially release the document at a meeting at Bangalore during september 2003. intresetd people can contact us on boifuels@mecheng.iisc.ernet.in or visit http://agni.csa.iisc.ernet.in/sutra or http://mecheng.iisc.ernet.in/~sutra Alternative Lighting: Plant Oils and Waxes Dr.Vidya Swamy (biofules@mecheng.iisc.ernet.in,vidyaswamy@yahoo.com <mailto:biofules@mecheng.iisc.ernet.in,vidyaswamy@yahoo.com>) Mon Jul 14 08:11:32 2003 SuTRA, Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has been working with a non-edible oil from the seeds of a tree called Honge (Pongamia pinnata) Karanj in Hindi. The experience has been that this oil is a good substitute for diesel. There are many such similar trees and shrubs available in India, whose seed-oils can become potential biofuels we have been doing the extarction part with the help of self help groups where we use a rotory expeller coupled to a diesel engine( and this engine can be run on the same oil thats is being extracted). This wil also lead to employment generation to the rural people genral information on the site y_shood_i_tell_u????? (elrulz@hotmail.com <mailto:elrulz@hotmail.com>) Thu Aug 14 11:24:53 2003 all i no is plants are very use full and cum in different shapes and sizez dats y dis site doesnt give the rite information out i came here 2 find sum easy 2 read or light reading texts and wen i go 2 read theres a hole lot of garbage on the front of my screen!!! look all im asking is 4 u 2 put alll this information in a simple text or a kids area so children like me can understand the text thank you very very very much