The Provence Lavender Industry
Last week I visited Provence, where fields of stunning purple/blue lavender were in full bloom. Lavender plants grow wild in parts of southern France but the highest quality lavender has been farmed commercially mainly in Provence, for centuries. The word ‘lavender’ is thought to derive from the Latin ‘lavare’, meaning to wash or cleanse, since the plant’s antiseptic and healing properties were recognised by the Romans, although lavender and its properties were known to earlier civilisations, being used by druggists in ancient times and, for example, by the Egyptians, in the mummification process.
Many species of lavender are found in Provence, including superior or true lavender, which typically grows at altitudes of 800-1200m above sea level, and lavandin, found lower down at altitudes of around 200-800m above sea level. In medieval and Renaissance Europe both the flowers and the essential oils distilled from lavender were in high demand among the wealthy, to scent the home, perfume drawers, for bathing and for a variety of medicinal uses, including warding off disease and curing ailments ranging from insomnia and migraines to lymphatic disorders and jaundice.
Historically lavender was reaped by hand, using a scythe. Women and children carried out this back-breaking work on a seasonal basis, carrying the cut lavender in a large canvas sack called a trousse, as seen in this vintage photograph from the Lavender Museum at Coustellet, Provence. Wide hats were worn as protection from the searing summer heat on the arid slopes. During the 1950s harvesting by hand began to be replaced by mechanical scything, and this was considerably more profitable, although some independent growers may gather in the lavender sheafs by hand today.
Traditionally men operated the copper stills that were used in the distillation process: smaller stills were often mobile apparatus, transported by donkeys or oxen to the production site, while larger stills were fixed. For more information on the distillation process and to see original copper stills dating back to the 17th century, visit the Lavender Museum at Coustellet.
A large proportion of the essential oils obtained from lavender and lavandin were traditionally sold to the perfume industry centred in Grasse. A unique fragrance with many different constituents, lavender became the major ingredient in the manufacture of perfume, the essence being bottled in coloured glass phials to prevent evaporation.
Exported all over the world, Provence lavender was also used in soaps, powders, lotions, infusions and other fragrant products, as it is still today. There is also a flourishing market for lavender sachets, perfume burners and dried flowers, as well as delicious lavender honey – tempting items that help to keep alive the historic Provence lavender industry .
To learn more about the lavender of Provence, visit the wonderful Musee de la Lavande at Coustellet, Provence: http://www.thelavendermuseum.com/