Lavender in Provence Understanding the Essentials
The lavender industry in Provence is a significant economic driver impacting agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and retail. There are 2,000 producers and roughly 25,000 people employed in the industry. The main growing areas are the four (4) departments the Drôme, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Vaucluse, with some small production in the Auvergne, Quercy and the Ardèche (source: FranceAgriMer). Over 20,000 hectares are under cultivation. According to France 24, “The number of producers has grown from 1,000 to around 1,400 and France now also has 120 distilleries.”
Love at First Sight
The fragrance of blooming lavender fields is magical. Your eyes follow perfect rows of plants shaped like hedgehogs stretching to the Provencal horizon. This aromatic purple beauty attracts thousands of tourists and locals, hoping to time their visit for the peak of the flowering cycle. However, Mother Nature is in charge. The precise timing of flowering changes annually, depending on the weather. Typically, some fields are in full bloom by late June, and the harvest is mostly complete by mid-August.
Part of the mint family, there are 39 varieties of lavender. Although we typically associate lavender with purple flowers, the varietals include many colours, from deep blue to white. The plants love the dry, sandy, rocky soil that is typical of southern France. A relatively easy plant to grow. Lavender is well-suited to the Provencal climate with hot, dry summers, and cold winters the plants require minimal care.
Lavender is as old as the hills, referenced in the bible as a holy herb called nard. The Greeks and Romans long ago used lavender for personal hygiene and medicinal purposes. The Romans used lavender flowers to scent bath water and the name from the Latin verb lavare (to wash). The flowers and essential oils have been used throughout the ensuing centuries for everything from repelling insects to treating burns to sleep therapy. Whether you like the fragrance or not, it would be a challenge to visit Provence without seeing or smelling lavender.
Lavender vs Lavandin
Two main lavender varieties grow in Provence. The “real” lavender (Lavandula angustifolia Mill) or in French (lavande fine) is a small tufted plant with a single floral spike. Each plant is unique. The plants grow naturally at elevations between 600 and 1,400 meters, but cultivation is generally above 800m. Each plant is unique.
Lavandin is a hybrid the result of a cross between lavender and a wild varietal, lavender aspic. It’s a hardy plant, less susceptible to disease, and it grows at lower altitudes (200 – 1,000m above sea level) than fine lavender. Since lavandin is a clone, the plants have identical biological footprints, propagated by cuttings. A single lavandin stem has three blue-purple flower spikes.
Marked by heavenly aromas and bees sampling the flower nectar, it’s the height of the lavender season. It is also a time of traffic congestion, bus tours and cars clog typically quiet roads while passengers snap photos of each other in the fields. A segment of the summer travel industry specifically caters to organized tour groups hunting down the plants at their peak.
Everyone seems to agree that one of the best places for viewing is near Mt Ventoux and the lavender capital Sault. There are fields in the Luberon Valley near Bonnieux, Saignon, Apt and the photogenic Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey near Gordes. However, as previously mentioned it’s unlikely you will be alone unless you get up early.
Visit the Musée de la Lavande (Lavender Museum) at any time of the year for a tour and workshops. Location: 276 Route de Gordes, 84220 Cabrières-d’Avignon. Book in advance.
August 15th: The Fête de la Lavande (Lavender Festival) is held every year in Sault on the August 15th public holiday. It’s a day of festivities surrounding to celebrate the conclusion on the harvest season. It’s a family-friendly event.
Visit La Ferme aux Lavandes located just outside of Sault on the road leading to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Stop for a picnic, buy some plants, sample the local lavender honey and other gourmet products.
It is well worth visiting a distillery to understand the extraction process for essential oil. There are about 30 distilleries in the region open to the public.
Due to large scale production, the lavender harvest is no longer manual. A tractor passes through the field, cutting the lavender and leaving small bundles in its wake. The cuttings then dry in the sun for 2-3 days before being gathered into giant bundles similar to large hay bales. At the distillery, the bales drop into enormous cauldrons with water, where the steam passes over the flowers creating the essential oil and lavender water.
To produce one (1) litre of essential oil requires 200 kg (440 lbs) of lavender flowers. The other reason for lavandin’s popularity, is the plants produce higher volumes of essential oil at roughly six (6) the amount per hectare of plants. According to FranceAgriMer, the total annual production of essential oil in metric tons for lavender (40) and lavandin (1000).
Read Lavender off the Beaten Track to understand more about the distillation process.
Much of the lavender grown in Provence is distilled for essential oil and fragrant water. The plants are also dried for scented objects. Many stores in Provence carry all things lavender; soap, perfume, honey, tea, ice cream and scented packages. Many of the products sold in stores are mass-produced outside of France and hardly artisanal. However, there are a dedicated few focused on quality and maintaining the traditions. Several cultivators follow organic practices, despite the burdensome paperwork requirements imposed on “Bio” operations. One thing is for sure; buyer beware in the markets if you are buying lavender make sure it’s local.
Shaped like a baby’s rattle, some describe a fuseau as a wand or spindle. These beautifully scented objects are 100% natural, they include only the fresh plants. The purpose of the fuseau has always been to scent clothes or linens. Made by hand, bright coloured ribbons adorn the fuseaux. Buy fuseaux in a market, if you see someone making them. Alternatively, find them at Fuseaux de Lavande, La Maison FRANC in Lourmarin, and Le Savoir Faire des Alpilles in St Rémy de Provence.
Every year, the Remember Provence sells small burlap sachets (package of five) filled with lavender flowers from that season. These sachets are perfect for gifts, for your linen closet or just because. Order the Aix-en-Provence Lavender Box for a selection of themed products.
There are several manufacturers in the region producing a range of products from candles to cosmetics with lavender and lavandin essential oils. Look carefully at the labels to ensure the ingredients and production is, in fact, local.