True or English lavender belongs to the species Lavandula angustifolia (previously/also known as L. officinalis). Lavandula comes from the Latin word ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’ and angustifolia refers to the narrow leaf. Officinalis is often used as the species name for medicinal plants. As a valuable horticultural and economic plant, this species of lavender has been the subject of selection and breeding to produce a variety of sizes, colors, and fragrance profiles. It is easy to grow if you are in the right zone, hardy and drought-tolerant, beautiful, and everyone loves a fragrant plant. Some examples of the variety of characteristics to be found:
- Size—dwarf or compact varieties in particular
- Hardiness—cold, soil, drought
- Leaf color—variegated or silver
- Flower color—shades of purple, pink, white, and even yellow or red
- Growth habits—fast or slow
- Fragrance—everything from sweet and floral to medicinal and camphoraceous
In addition to variety, oil production and quality can be affected by altitude, spring rains, and summer heat. Location and altitude of the distillation unit may also affect the quality of lavender. At higher altitudes water boils at a lower temperature, preserving the delicate esters in the plant.
As I often do, I developed a list of descriptors to think about before I begin my evaluations. And, in spite of having over 20 samples, I diluted them all to 10% for evaluation. Time and again this has proven its value because it allows me to discern some of the less obvious notes and pick up the complexity of the fragrance.
My list begins with the two obvious descriptors –floral and sharp. I call the sharp note camphor-like but both Arctander and Guildemeister (see references below) prefer to call it cineole-like. Further thinking brought up green, woody, and fresh as well.
One thing that I missed during my evaluations, calling it in my mind balsamic, was a coumarinic touch that especially shows up in the absolute (Thank you Steffen Arctander, yet again). Arctander describes the concrete as being herbaceous and with a coumarin or hay note. Both the absolute and concrete are said to resemble the lavender flowers and stalks very closely.
So, with 12 varieties of Lavandula angustifolia (officinalis) to sniff and describe perhaps the easiest is a table. (Note: there are 8 or so more reserved for part 3). The ‘green’ note manifested itself as a clean green, a rooty (pandanus perhaps?) green, or an herbal green. Sometimes the green was a bit muddy. Most had some balance of floral/sharp but some clearly fell on the floral or floral/woody side of the divide. Those that were just slightly sharp tended to come across as fresh and clean. I particularly enjoyed Buena Vista, which seems a popular variety and pretty typical lavender fragrance; Coconut Ice actually had just a hint of coconut that disappeared quickly; Mailette has a nice balance of floral/camphor/and wood; and finally Royal Purple very nicely balanced floral and woody in a true lavender way. The table below attempts to make some sense of the various descriptors.
|Lavender Varieties||Floral or Floral/Woody||Sharp/Camphoraceous or Camphoraceous/Floral|
|Green/Herbal/Rooty||Coconut IceJean DavisMailettePacific PinkViolet Intrigue||Melissa|
|Fresh/Clean||Buena VistaFolgateRoyal Purple||Hidcote Pink (also woody)Melissa LilacMiss Katherine|
Many thanks to long-time lavender grower and distiller Mesha Munyan for her assistance on this blog and for the beautiful samples. Mesha is passionate about lavender and grows many varieties on her farm in Washington State. She is also the organizer of a “Lavender Sommelier.” Learn more about Mesha, her lovely natural perfumes, and the “Lavender Sommelier” at her website www.meshaz.com. Read more about Mesha here as well: http://www.cafleurebon.com/cafleurebon-profiles-in-american-perfumery-mesha-munyan-of-meshaz-natural-perfumes-lavender-fields-forever-draw/.
An internet search on ‘lavender cultivars’ or ‘lavender varieties’ should bring up a lot of information appropriate to your location.
I would love to hear from readers about their interpretations of lavender varieties. I’m sure there are more terms than I came up with and certainly different ways to describe each one. Please leave a comment to receive a random set of 5 lavender essential oil samples. Comment by midnight EST on July 10 2015 to be entered in the draw.
Next up: other lavender species and the absolute and concrete.
Arctander, Steffen 1951. Perfume and Flavor Material of Natural Origin, Allured Publishing Corporation, Carol Stream, IL.
Gildemeister, Eduard and Friedrich Hoffman 1922. The Volatile Oils, Volume 3. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York.