BoreA Canada is a company based in Chapais, in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay region, whose business plan is based on a model of industrial symbiosis and circular economy. It has developed a niche market by producing high quality organic boreal essential oils which are sold all over the world. Its oils are distilled through the recovery of steam from the Chapais cogeneration plant, Nexolia. This plant produces electricity and steam by burning biomass from logging residues, as well as those resulting from the BoreA distillation process. The residual ash from Nexolia can also be used as an amendment for the cultivation of plants intended for the production of essential oils. This represents an interesting contribution of organic matter to the very poor sandy soils of Chapais, in addition to recovering this residual material. In the aim of diversifying its offer, BoreA would like to produce sweet fern essential oils (Comptonia peregrina), a boreal product with high commercial value. At this time, supply remains a challenge since the plant degrades rapidly after harvest, which affects its aromatic qualities; hence the need to develop a cultivation model near BoreA’s premises that would allow rapid distillation after harvest.
The goal of the project was therefore to develop the best practices that would maximize yields and the quality of the resulting essential oil. Greenhouse propagation tests have shown that sweet fern can be propagated using rhizome sections. The cultivation substrate composed of peat and ash from Nexolia appears to be the most advantageous from the cultural, ecological and economic points of view. Direct rhizome planting in the field showed that soil texture is a primary factor. Sandy and coarse soil texture is ideal for sweet fern cultivation from rhizomes. Field cultivation of greenhouse plants with well-developed root systems and foliage yielded better results than direct plantation of rhizome sections. Even if the use of greenhouse-produced seedlings requires a larger financial input, it improves the establishment success.
The distillation of sweet fern essential oil was tested using three natural populations collected on three different dates. The results demonstrate a wide variation in total essential oil yields and aromatic molecule content depending on harvest date and site. According to our test results, by combining the yields of essential oils and the content of certain aromatic molecules of interest, it would be advantageous to harvest sweet fern in mid-July. Further testing remains to be done to determine whether the results would be similar during another season, and whether the yield difference is due to the site or population genetics.
All of this work has led to the acquisition of very valuable knowledge on the cultivation, harvest and production of sweet fern essential oils. The coarse sands of Chapais have great potential for the development of this culture and establishment appears possible on a large scale. Encouraged by these findings, BoreA continues its research on the subject with RDA 2 funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Many points remain to be clarified to optimize production and yields, but BoreA’s objective remains to grow sweet fern crops in order to offer its essential oil to its customers.