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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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