Rediscovering Lavender in the Fields of Provence
Lavender: from the Latin lavare ‘to wash’
This year, I followed a dream: to visit the lavender fields of Provence. As an aromatherapist, I spend much of my time with concentrated plant extracts. I love to understand the origin of these little bottles of magic, by seeking out aromatic herbs, flowers, trees, grasses & so on, in their natural environment. Not only does it help me to appreciate the process that goes into producing essential oils, it puts me in touch with the origins.
One of the most frequently asked questions before my travels was: “Do they make oil from French lavender?” Although I use Lavender essential oil virtually every day, I had never really thought about the terms “English”, “French” & “Spanish” lavender. In brief, this is what I discovered:
• There are around 50 varieties of Lavender plant with colours ranging from grey, silver or green leaves and purple, mauve, violet or blue flowers.
• “Lavandula Stoechas” (the tufty one with “rabbit ears” which we generally think of as French), is also called French Lavender, Spanish Lavender, Stoke Lavender & Butterfly Lavender. It does yield essential oil, although I didn’t come across this in Provence.
• “Lavandula dentata” is also known as French Lavender, Toothed Lavender or Fringed Lavender & originated in Spain. Often grown in pots, it has serrated grey-green aromatic leaves & mauve flowers.
• The lavender I came across in France was mostly the “Officinalis” variety, known as English Lavender.
• Provence is known as the capital of Lavender. However it is also grown elsewhere, for example, in the UK, Jersey, Portugal, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA & South America.
• High Altitude Lavender (also known as High Elevation, Highland or Lavender Fine Population) is grown at high altitude. When grown at over 1400 metres, it produces more esters, giving it extra-relaxing properties & a sometimes a brighter, more fruity aroma. The highest I reached in my travels was to Sault at 760m.
• Apart from those mentioned in this article, there are many more varieties of botanical extract including a Lavender Absolute, a Honey Lavender Absolute, a CO2 extract & a Concrete. Lavender essential oils include a sub-species of Stoechas called Lavandula Luisieri, a hybrid Lavender “Sweetie Dalmatian”, a Bulgarian & an Italian variety of Lavandula Angustifolia & Lavender Mailette.
Lavender is grown in France around the Luberon, Vercors, Baronnies & Verdon regions. As I was only there for a few days, I visited fields around the towns of Roussillon & up towards Sault. The Provence lavender fields are harvested during July, so visiting at the end of June meant that there were no crowds of tourists. I loved seeing fields that were planted with young lavender yet to flower, along with purple fields spreading out into the horizon. Even over a few days, some of the fields seemed to burst into colour.
The swathes of flowers with their silvery foliage in the fields were accompanied by an unmistakable sweet, aromatic fragrance which filled the dusty air. It was a hot spell & the aroma was intoxicating.
So, how is the essential oil of Lavender made? There are various methods of extraction, the most common being steam distillation. Put simply, steam is used to extract the essential oil from the flower heads (sommités fleuries), stalks & leaves, before condensation and collection. As well as producing essential oil, the “flower water” (also known as floral water, hydrolat or hydrosol) is syphoned off to use as a botanical product in its own right. Flower waters contain the water-soluble constituents of the plant, plus a tiny amount of essential oil.
I have been lucky enough to have hands-on experience of lavender distillation during an Advanced Aromatherapy course in France, with Kolinka Zinovieff & Star Khechara, some years ago. We picked a small amount of fresh lavender from the garden to distil. My enduring memory is an aroma akin to cooked cabbage!
So, back to Provence. During my short trip, I visited a distillery along the Route de Buoux, South of Apt, in business since 1895. There was a little display of distillation on a table in the showroom, so you could see exactly how the process worked with the oil & water separating at the end. Among information boards & equipment there was also, of course, a large shop area where you could buy the final product. I chose the Lavandula Angustifolia & the Lavandin Grosso.
Driving around the villages, fields of lavender scattered the area, so there was much stopping & wandering around these fields, as long as the heat would allow. I loved seeing the variations of purple, the lines of lavender stretching outwards, the odd field that had been left to grow randomly, dotted with weeds.
There were views from above stretching out across the land with mountains behind, patches of purple among the green. Above an abbey near Gordes, nearing sunset, the lavender was hard to make out, but up close, it was beautiful & abundant.
A beautiful little boutique in Sault helped me to discover more about the different types of lavender. Just handling & smelling the essential oils, it was apparent how high the quality was here. Just exquisite! Talking to the very knowledgeable women in the shop, I was advised to use the Lavender Officinale & the Aspic variety for therapeutic aromatherapy & to use Lavandin for the home, to freshen laundry, or to make into a room spray. They also kindly checked to ensure that I had smelled the Lavender flower water I was about to buy, produced during the distillation of the Lavender Officinale. It smells different from the plant, or the essential oil. Just because something is extracted from a beautiful plant, doesn’t mean it is going to replicate the original aroma. Lavender water is an acquired taste. I bought it, as it was the nicest one I’ve come across.
One of my favourite observations of the trip in beautiful Roussillon. The heat was draining, so drinking plenty of water & resting in the shade were a must. As I sat on a bench, taking time to look around, I noticed the Pharmacie de Rousillon had a plaque outside:
How different the French attitude is to aromatherapy. Can you imagine, in England, a pharmacy with “aromatherapy” at the top of its list of offerings & “drugs” at the bottom?!
Different types of Lavande Provençale
Lavandula Angustifolia also known as Lavender Officinale, Fine Lavender, True Lavender, English Lavender, Lavender Vera
These are all names for the type of lavender essential oil which is indispensable in aromatherapy for treatment of all sorts of conditions including stress, anxiety, insomnia, skincare & muscular aches & pains. The essential oil has many properties including anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, cicatrisant, antidepressive, antibacterial, disinfectant, antiseptic, insecticide & more. Lavandula angustifolia grows between 600 & 1,400 metres & exudes a subtle, warm herbaceous fragrance. The stalk is short & the leaf narrow.
I came across Lavandula Angustifolia essential oil in both Apt & Sault. As with wine, different batches of essential oils vary, depending on growing conditions, geographical area, harvesting methods and so on. My impression of the Apt version was gentle, floral & sparkly. The one from Sault was rich, mellow & sweet. I’ll be using both of these beautiful oils in aromatherapy treatments.
Lavandula Angustifolia Fine Sauvage, also known as Wild Fine Lavender
Considered the finest lavender of all, this wild version of Lavender Angustifolia is my absolute favourite. It is quite rare & hence the most expensive Lavender essential oil. In Sault, the “Sauvage” is warm, sweet with a floral-herbaceous aroma. I’ll be using this (sparingly!) in my aromatherapy treatments.
Lavandula Spica/Latifolia also known as Spike Lavender, Lavender Aspic
This grows from 0-800 metres. Its shape is distinctive, with a long main stalk dividing into three branches & the leaf becoming wider at the end. It has a highly camphoraceous aroma making it very refreshing. I came across a beautiful Aspic in Sault, which has antibacterial, antiviral, immune-stimulant, fungicidal, anticatarrhal, analgesic properties. I’ll be using this in my aromatherapy treatments.
Lavandula x Intermedia also known as Lavandin, Lavandula Hybrid
This is a natural hybrid of Spike Lavender & Lavender Officinale, which grow alongside each other at 600-800 metres. Cross-pollination occurs naturally & the result is Lavandin. This rounded plant is reproduced by cuttings, is a little harsher than other lavender, with a high camphor content. As a higher yield oil, it is less expensive. Generally Lavandin would not be chosen for aromatherapy, but is perfect for use around the home.
I bought the Lavandin Grosso in Sault, perfect for sanitising & refreshing the home, as it has bactericidal qualities. I’ll be diffusing mine.
What are your favourite lavender oils? I hope this account inspires you to seek out something new, or to revisit lavender essential oil, in all its amazing glory.
Disclaimer: All opinions are my own. To the best of my knowledge the facts in this article are correct at the time of going to press. The lack of my knowledge of the French language may have meant that certain details were lost in translation. The content of this article is informational use only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read. Lucy Stevens does not give medical advice or engage in the practice of medicine. Neither Lucy Stevens nor her representatives will be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the application of information in this article or from any other source.
Copyright Lucy Stevens June 2019