The first time I saw lavender growing commercially I was on my way to be married in France. Jean-Alfred and I had flown into Paris and then drove south to his home in the Vaucluse for our wedding. Midway through the Rhône valley, south of Lyon, we began to see fields of lavender. Wave after wave of purplish-blue stretched to the foothills of the Alps rising on the eastern horizon.
Lavender brings to mind England, an English plant, an English scent, genteel and decorous, “Lavender and Old Lace”. My grandmother wore lavender, both the color and the scent. Yet it is here in the hot, raucous South of France with its rambunctious joie de vivre, its vibrant colors, strident cicadas, and overbearing Mistral, that lavender found its home.
It has been a long time since I first saw lavender growing. Today those rich valley lands are used for other crops. Lavender and its hybrid offshoot, lavandin, are now grown as cash crops almost exclusively above 600 meters, in the higher elevations of Vaucluse and Drôme and on the mountain plateaus of Hautes-Alpes and Alpes de Haute-Provence, the four départements which make up much of the area known as Provence.
Lavender is a member of the mint family. There are some 20 varieties of lavender but only three are grown commercially in Provence. Two of them, native to Persia and the Canary Islands, are thought to have been brought to the European mainland by the Phoenicians, the first inhabitants of what is now Marseille.
The first, True Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia), is also called fine, or female lavender. It grows between altitudes of 800 to 1300 meters and is the only one whose oil is used for medicinal purposes.
The second, Aspic (L. latifolia), is also known as spike, or male lavender. It grows at altitudes of 600 to 800 meters, has multiple flowers per plant, with a very strong camphor-like odor.
Lavandin (L. hybida) is a hybrid of the other two. Sterile, it is propagated from cuttings. It can be grown at a much lower altitude than lavender. Growers in Provence started cloning this in the 1920's and today it accounts for 80% of the plantings. Its yield is normally four or five times that of True Lavender. According to the crop, the yield of essential oils can be ten times greater.
Although I didn't know it at the time, the endless fields I saw on my introduction to France were actually lavandin and not lavender. Since that time land on the high plateaus formerly considered worthless has been cleared and much of the current production is to be found there. Lavender prefers acid, rocky, sandy soil. It will grow happily along roadsides, in gravelly parking lots, or other seemingly waste areas.
Provence is also blessed with a wild lavender, French lavender (L. stoechas), which grows on the mountain plateaus above 800 meters. Never cultivated, it is always harvested by hand. Its essential oil commands premium prices from perfume manufacturers.
Provençal culture, its legends, its folklore, is interwoven with the history of lavender. The tournesol, immortalized by Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, is seen everywhere. The sunflower is a cash crop, providing a cheaper-than-olive-oil kitchen staple. But it is lavender, a fuzzy gray-green shrubby plant, 30 to 40 centimeters high, with individually insignificant pale purple flowers, that the Provençals claim as uniquely their own.
The Romans, settling in Provence after the Phoenicians, used lavender to perfume their baths and clothing. Since then the use of lavender has multiplied to cover the spectrum of household remedies. It is considered a tonic, a sedative, an antiseptic, a digestive, an antispasmodic, and a diuretic. It is thought to be useful for eczema, insomnia, asthma and colds. It is said to repel moles, heal wounds, and purge intestinal parasites.
When I first arrived in Provence I was surprised to find no window screens in homes. I asked about this once and had a neighbor reply,
Pour quoi? Il y a les mouches, bien sur, mais les moustiques? Jamais !
(Why? There are flies, of course, but mosquitoes? Never!)
She was right - Provence is so arid in the summer there are rarely mosquitoes. Nevertheless, Marie-Rose still hung a clump of lavender in front of her open bedroom window at night. If there are no mosquitoes, there are sure to be "bad spirits" in the night air. Lavender will guard against both.
Lavender is the guardian against many things. In the Dark Ages it was used to protect against the Plague, being burned in houses that were infested. As far back as the 1st century B.C. it was used in thériaque, an antidote against poisonous insect and animal bites. It is said to have qualities which repel fleas and other vermin. Members of the Royal Court in the 17th century used an ointment of lavender oil and bitter almond on their persons for this reason.
Madame de Sévigné, visiting Avignon at this time, became enamored of lavender. She wrote to her daughter:
Elle est divine, je m'en enivre tous les jours, j'en ai dans ma poche. C'est une folie comme le tabac : quand on y est accoutumé, on ne peut plus s'en passer.
(It is divine, I can get drunk on it every day. I keep it in my pocket, it's like tobacco : when you are used to it you can't do without it.)
Long a friend of the common man, lavender became immensely popular with the titled rich when it was realized that the scent of lavender would also mask a multitude of unpleasant odors as well as keep lice out of their wigs. In addition to her pocket stash and the lavender/bitter almond ointment, Madame de Sévigné liked a toilet water used by "the dear Queen of Hungary" which blended the essences of lavender, rosemary and marjoram.
Near the end of the 19th century all social classes began to use perfume, consumption of lavender oil outstripped production, and prices skyrocketed. It was not until the 1920's, however, that the large lavender "plantations" appeared in Provence and mechanical cultivation began. Today, except for the harvesting of wild lavender, very little harvesting, distillation, or manufacture of lavender products is done by hand.
Harvesting was formerly a job for women. The knife used, with a heavy, moon-shaped blade, was produced with a short handle as long as the width of woman’s palm. The cutter grasped the lavender stem in one hand and cut it with the knife held in the other hand. She then moved on to the next stem, and the next, until she had a bundle in one hand. This was tied off with a stem. The bundles were left to dry in the field for several days before being subject to distillation or use in the dried form. Today most of this work is done mechanically.
All lavender, grown from seed or from cuttings, starts in a nursery. Plantings are made in the fields in the autumn, or in the early spring. Harvesting begans when the plants are two years old with maximum yield between the fourth and the sixth year. Average life is ten years, but if the plants are not trimmed every year they will die. When grown commercially, the lavender fields must be rotated after every planting to revive the soil. Harvesting takes place between mid-July and late August, depending on the type of lavender, the altitude, and the weather.
Dried lavender is laid in bed linens when they are stored to protect them from moths, and hundreds of thousands of little cloth bags of it are sold for this purpose. But it is the oil and the essence for which the plant is most valued. Distillation is the process used to extract the essence. Arabs perfected this technique in the 6th century A.D. and, while modern-day lavender distilleries are very high-tech, some small producers still use an old-fashioned copper distiller.
Well after World War II, many villages in Provence had a communal portable lavender distiller which made the rounds of the various fields at harvest time, much in the manner of a threshing machine in the American Midwest. The principle is very simple: dried lavender is put on a grill on the distiller. Steam passes through this and extracts the lavender essence, then passes through a cooling coil. Lavender essence, being lighter than the resulting water, rises to the surface and can be separated.
In 1981 the lavender industry established an A.O.C., Appelation d'origine contrôlée (meaning "with a guarantee of origin"), for lavender such as is used in the wine industry. This “controlled origin label” is for “essential oils of lavender from Haute-Provence” and is only for essential oil of fine lavender (L. augustifolia). The fields must be located within a specific territory in the four lavender-producing départments mentioned earlier, at a minimum altitude of 800 meters. The oil must undergo both laboratory analyses and an olfactory test to qualify.
Today lavender essential oil is used in toiletries, cosmetics, perfume products and hand soap. The harsher essential oil from lavandin is used in cleaning products and certain varnishes and porcelain paint. Lavender honey is produced in the hills of Provence; most of it is sold to the tourist trade or is exported. There is also an industry making sachets and other lavender-based souvenirs, again mainly for tourists and exportation.
While many people use dried lavender in cooking, this idea is completely foreign to the French residents of Provence. When the International Herb Association named lavender “Herb of the Year” in 1999, I tried a recipe for pumpkin soup flavored with lavender.
Marie-Rose told me, albeit kindly, that “perhaps you do not realize this vegetable (pumpkin) is cattle fodder” and that lavender in food is “a habit with the English, I suppose”.
A few years ago I went to a Lavender Festival in a small village, Dieulefit (meaning “God made it”), in the Drôme. Colored lights were strung among the branches of the plane trees surrounding the town square. There was music, a few carnival games for the children, street merchants sold lavender products for the adults. We ate brochette (mixed grill kebabs) at a sidewalk table of one of the bistros in the square. A typical Provençal summer festival except for one thing. At intervals throughout the evening the village distiller, a clanking copper monster of a machine on huge wagon wheels, was pulled through the streets by teenage boys. It had been rigged so that as it passed through the crowds it sprayed us with lavender-scented water.
Working holiday in Provence in the lavender fields