Lavender's unique colour and smell

France produces over 50% of the world’s lavender - although production has nearly halved in the last 10 years

France produces over 50% of the world’s lavender - although production has nearly halved in the last 10 years due to climate change. Grahame Martin charts the industry

LAVENDER gives the Provençal countryside its special bloom in summer but beyond its aesthetic charm is a strong industry producing goods from soaps and perfumes to insect repellent, as well as the tourist trade that revolves around it.

It faces two key challenges; a disease striking one of its key flowers and a somewhat frumpy image.

Michel Krausz, director of CPPARM (the quasi-governmental group controlling aromatic plants and herbs) in Manosque said: “France produces more than 50% of the world’s lavender but production has almost halved in the past 10 years, due to the development of a plant disease that has hit badly.”

The disease has targetted lavandin, the most popular species of lavender in the area. “Scientists and botanists are working on a solution in cooperation with counterparts in China and it is thought they are close to succeeding,” he added.

While in nature, fields of lavender are a big tourist draw, some of its final products suffer an image problem.

“Lavender still has the arty, cottage art, or older person image,” said Mr Krausz.

“What is needed is an upgrade with perhaps a pop-star or personality chef, or even a sports person involved in advertising the many uses of lavender.” He would not be drawn on names.

“Modernising and better advertising would be extremely beneficial to all, as well as helping the research and development that we are involved with here.”

There are about 30 species of lavender (botanical name lavandula) with flowers from purple, through pink to white. The French lavender industry is built on four of them – three pure Lavandula and one hybrid – with the king being lavandula augustiflora, which grows between 500 and 1500 metres in the dry, limestone soils of Provence and the Midi.

It is not the most prolific but it is, however, the only one allowed in the appellation d'origine contrôlée lavender, following a governmental decree on December 14, 1981.

The majority variety is lavandin – which was discovered by chance after an accidental crossing of two lavenders with the herb aspic. It can be grown from 200 to 1000 metres altitude.

Alongside lavandin the two other varieties are lavandula latifolia, which is frost resistant and grown mainly in the Midi, and lavandula stoechas – which is only found in the wild in the Maures and Estérel areas and is not cultivated.

The plant is native to north and east Africa, southern Europe, the Mediterranean, Arabia and India and is one of the family of aromatic herbaceous plants.

It was called Nardus in Greece after the Syrian city of Naarda, but the Romans gave it the more romantic or certainly more domestic name of Lavandula. That came from the Latin verb lavare (to wash) as the Roman upper class had a fetish about having scented water to use for their ablutions.

They carried lavender during their conquest of northern Europe and later planted it as far north as Scotland to allow their noble citizens to continue the custom.

Only the noble citizens could afford it as the dried aromatic seeds cost as much as a farm worker’s monthly wage for 500g. Now it is commonplace and has become a major player in agro-tourism, although production has been affected by climate change which has allowed a disease to attack plants – particularly lavandin.

The total area cultivated for lavandin is around 16,000 hectares with “pure” lavender accounting for a further 4,000 hectares.

About 2,000 people are directly involved in the production of lavender in all its forms plus about the same number again in ancillary supporting trades – product marketing, advertising, selling etc.

Manual harvesting of lavender is almost totally a thing of the past; with small and large machines now taking care of the harvest, from one the size of a small sit-on grass cutter, to others resembling large combined hay cutters and bailers.

Recent interest and development of production of essential oils has helped to further lavender production.

Mr Krausz added: “The biggest growth for the industry is, and continues to be, in agro-tourism. Farm visiting and farm holidays in the lavender-producing areas of Provence and southern France are becoming very popular with tourists from all over the world.”

Elsewhere, it has an array of uses in medicine, agriculture, the kitchen and, of course, in perfume.

There are many accounts of the curative powers of lavender and during the Second World War it was widely used as a disinfectant in hospitals and field stations as well as for a number of bacterial diseases, a remedy for bites, and even to help with sleep disorders. Its main use in agriculture is as a deterrent to a number of airborne insects that can decimate a farmer’s crops.

Specialist bee-keepers produce honey from bees living in hives around the fringes of lavender fields. It has a deliciously different smell and taste to that produced from bees taking their pollen from other areas like heathers and flowers.

French chefs, especially those whose speciality is Provence-style dishes, use both flowers and seeds in many preparations – from salads, and main courses, in Herbs de Provence, in gateaux as an ingredient or for decoration, and even in ice cream. There is also lavender tea.

Possibly the oldest use, from the Roman conquest days, is as a scent or perfume.

Believed to be of Arabic origin, the aromatic flowers are distilled in an alembic still and sold as oils and water into the perfume industry. 90% of the oil comes from the lavandin.

If you want to find out more or to visit some production sites you can get the map Routes de Lavande and the brochure (in English) Spirit of Lavender from: Les Routes de Lavende, 2, avenue de Veneterol, BP 36, 26100 Nyons Cedex. Tel 04 75 26 65 91

Farms to visit

The best way to find out about lavender farming is to visit a lavender farm and shop and, as Mr Krausz put it “it has an infinitely better aroma than an animal farm, especially if there is a breeding billy goat about.”

Connexion visited two producers, one on the Plateau of Valensole (04), and a small Bio-Cert producer at La Faule (05). Both are family run and independent.

Famille Angelvin, Campagne Neuve, 04210 VALENSOLE
Telephone: 04 92 74 80 53
On the main road from Manosque to Valensole with lavender fields surrounding it, the lavender-coloured boutique is an absolute photo “must”. Mme Angelvin speaks French, English and Italian and offers a huge range of excellent products from their farm and, when working, a tour of the distillery. For groups there is also a film of the four seasons of lavender. The farm only sells “direct” to control quality on what they produce and market.

Famille Corréard, Les Pusteaux
Tel 04 92 58 14 19
This 25 hectares farm is off the Sisteron-Grenoble road, near La Faurie. It has six hectares of lavender in bio-certified fields on the hills adjacent to the Buech river. The distillery has two stills, one oil-fired and the other using dried lavender stalks. During harvesting, and by appointment, it is possible to help in the still room. A cellar opposite the farm is used for the boutique. Again, the products are made from their own base material.

Key dates

1st Century BC: Roman invasion and beginning of use of lavender in hygiene.

Middle Ages: Use of lavender by monasteries in medicine. Glove makers in Grasse also used lavender oil to ward off the Plague.

1939-1945: Lavender used in field hospitals in second world war as a cleansing agent and against insect and snake bites

1950s: Start of agro-tourism in lavender regions

1981: Lavender AOC for L. augustifolia

2000: Peak production, start of climate change problem, boom in agro-tourism.

2010: Tourist market grows, increase in development of specialist holidays