There are places in the world that you immediately recognize and that feel comfortable to you. The Provence area in the South of France is one of those for me. The climate is Mediterranean, which refers to the deep blue sea that is such a part of the coastline there, but also to specific climatic characteristics. A Mediterranean climate is hot and dry in the summer, often receiving little to no rain for 4-6 months during the warm season, with mild to cool winters that are wet. In addition to coastal areas of the Mediterranean Basin, other areas with a similar climate include much of California, southwestern Oregon, parts of West and South Australia, parts of South Africa, sections of central Asia, and central Chile. These are generally coastal areas where the ocean is a moderating force in the winter. In these areas, mountains and highland areas provide for cooler temperatures during the summer but also in winter.
The characteristic shrubby vegetation may be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Maquis of the Mediterranean region, the Fynbos in Africa, Chaparral of North America and the Kwongan of Australia. These ecosystems are shaped by fire and many of the plants are fire-loving and will re-grow readily after fires, outcompeting those not adapted to a fire regime. Their tough leaves are well adapted to retaining water during times of drought and they are often aromatic. The aromatic plants rosemary, thyme, and lavender are native to this area as are evergreens, olives, figs, citruses, bay laurel, sages and various grassland species.
Does this explain why I love Provence? Perhaps a bit – the landscape is open and rugged, dramatic, often aromatic, and with a wonderful diversity of life. It just feels like home to me.
This is the home of lavender and, depending on what you read, there are between 30 and 40 species in the genus Lavandula that have originated in these areas. These also tend to be the areas where lavender is being grown commercially.
To go back in time a bit – lavender, a member of the mint family, has been an intimate part of our lives through medicine, horticulture, cooking, and perfumery. The name itself derives from the Latin verb lavare meaning ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe.’ In fact, it has been so much a part of everyday life throughout history that Culpeper wrote of it in 1652 that “This is so well known, being an Inhabitant in almost every Garden, that it needeth no Description.”
From its Mediterranean origins, lavender was likely brought to the British Isles well before the Romans arrived and where it became an important part of monastery life. Commercial growing began in the south-facing chalk downs surrounding London and continues in various parts of the country. Some refer to Lavandula angustifolia as English lavender, others as true or fine lavender. In addition to spending time in the South of France, I spent a lovely day on the isle of Jersey off the coast of England visiting a lavender farm where they grew fields of lavender among eucalyptus trees and rosemary bushes.
France, the historic home of lavender, is one of the main producers of lavender essential oil beginning with wild lavender that was gathered and distilled in the fields using portable stills. Around the 1920s commercial fields were planted and in the following decades breeding of L. angustifolia began and led to the development of L. X intermedia ‘Abriali’ also known as lavandin. It is a hybrid of fine or true lavender and spike lavender. Production of lavandin has superseded production of true lavender due to its hardy nature, higher productivity, and larger spikes that are easier to harvest mechanically. Climate change here has affected the quality and quantity of lavender grown due to declines in winter rainfall and more extreme temperatures.
Australia and New Zealand both have growing commercial lavender interests beginning in the 1800s and are situated with good climates for growing lavender.
In the United States, the Herb Society of America was formed in 1933 with the motto “Herbs—for use and delight” which was the beginning of collecting and identifying lavender for use in the states. It is now grown in a variety of states and there is an active Lavender Grower’s Association with members throughout the country. Many have lavender days and you can find information on their website at http://uslavender.org/
I have saved the story of lavender in Japan for last because of a wonderful anecdote from the book Lavender, The Grower’s Guide by Virginia McNaughton. In 1936 a Mr. Seiji Soda, founder of Soda Perfumery brought lavender seeds from France to grow the plant for his business. After a peak of lavender growing in 1970, business fell off due to synthetic fragrances and less expensive imports. One farmer named Tadao Tomito had fallen in love with lavender and began growing it in the late 1950s. As his business fell off, he reluctantly concluded that he must abandon his fields and plow them under. He is reported to have said ‘When I got on a tractor and started to crush them, I stopped immediately, hearing the scream of the lavender flowers, and I could not step on the accelerator further.’ Not long after, a photographer for Japan National Railways (JNR) came by and asked to take a photo of the fields. The photo appeared in one of the calendars advertising JNR and revived interest leading to visits from all over Japan.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to experience the depth and complexity of true lavender in all its variety, it is definitely a love story. Tell us your story of lavender!
Next up, I put my nose to work on a variety of lavenders! Stay tuned!
References: Lavender, The Grower’s Guid by Virginia McNaughton 2000. Published by Timber Press in Portland, Oregon. Note: The book has some history and discusses production worldwide, but the main discussion centers on over 200 species and cultivars of lavender.