Sweet Lavender

 

Field of lavender

Field of lavender – David Hughes/PhotoXpress

Which part of France do we normally associate with lavender? Provence, naturally, where it plays a big part in the perfume and essential oils industry. But did you know that 10% of French lavender production at the start of the 20th century came from the Quercy region of southwest France? And it is still grown on a commercial scale in parts of the region.

History

Lavender belongs to the same family as mint. Some varieties are believed to have originated in Arabia. It’s also known that the Egyptians used it in the mummification process and the Romans used it widely. Greek traders brought it to southern France around 600 BC.

The origins of the word ‘lavender’ are debated. Some think it comes from the Latin lavere (to wash); while others think it comes from livendual (of bluish hue).

Quercy lavender

I had no idea that lavender was grown here until a friend mentioned it. But it appears that the climate and soil of the Quercy causses (arid plateaux) are ideally suited to growing lavender. However, like many such crops, production was curtailed by the introduction of synthetic lavender oils. Only in recent years has artisanal production started up again.

I already knew about the closest lavender farm to us, at Les Granges on the Servanac causse west of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, about 15 kilometers away. And then I saw an article in Le Figaro magazine about la Ferme de Lacontal near Lauzerte, on the other side of the département. At Lacontal, they have four hectares of lavender fields and distil 120 kilos of lavender oil every year (why is it expressed in kilos and not in litres? Answers below if you know, please).

At Servanac, they hold a fête every year, which was formerly known as la fête de la lavande. Last year’s celebrations included a short play tracing the history of lavender cultivation on the causse and describing how it was grown, harvested, distilled and used.

Cultivation

Lavender prefers full sun and well-drained soil. It loathes over-watering, which is probably why it does so well on the arid causses. Few pests attack it but, in recent years, lavender in France has come under threat from a bacterium called Stolbur’s phytoplasma. This causes the plants to weaken and die. It’s possible that climate change favours the insects that spread the disease. Research continues on ways of eradicating the disease and breeding resistant stock.

Some of our own lavender plants have died inexplicably. When we have dug them up, the root system is almost non-existent. That may be for other reasons but, nonetheless, this symbol of southern France is struggling.

Uses

Lavender traditionally has many uses:

  • Perfumes and soaps;
  • Aromatherapy as an anxiolytic;
  • Insect repellent;
  • Medicinal for insect bites, burns and headaches;
  • Culinary, to flavour desserts, cakes and ice cream (although rarely in French cuisine, interestingly).

You can read more about lavender’s health benefits here.

You might also like:

Saffron: the Red Gold of Quercy
Garlic and Garlic Recipes
Getting the Blues: the Pastel Trade in Southwest France

Copyright © 2014 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

 

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to Sweet Lavender

  1. pfornari says:

    Ah, another positive about France, the colour and scent of lavender! I bought two cross-stitch kits depicting lavender when we visited the south of France some years ago, and they were challenging, but oh so pretty!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I adore lavender and ours is coming out now. It lasts a surprisingly long time too. And has been generally pest-free – let’s hope the latest scourge doesn’t kill it off.

      Like

  2. Evelyn says:

    Another place to visit! I don’t think I’ll get to Provence to see the lavender, but could manage Lauzerte.

    Like

  3. lizgyooll says:

    Not quite in answer to your question, but you might like to know that olive oil here in Tuscany is sold in kilos as well. It must be the measure for oils. and why? … I have no idea as yet! I’ll ask the man with the olive mill as he seems to know about most things like this 🙂

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    • nessafrance says:

      Oh, that’s interesting. It seems counter-intuitive for liquids to be sold in kilos, but I would love to know if there’s a reason for this. Do, please, post up the olive man’s response.

      Like

  4. MELewis says:

    I always associated lavender with those famous fields in the south of France, but it’s actually very hardy and grows in people’s gardens all over the country. We had some before in our garden in the Lyon area that did quite well despite the cold winters. I just love it for the fragrance, the honey bees and the beautiful color.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Lavender is surprisingly resilient, although the current threat to it might imply otherwise. But, normally, it can withstand periods of extreme cold and drought. It is indeed a lovely shrub and I hope they can find ways of protecting it against the latest threat.

      Like

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