Lavender Revisited

In my previous post The Sweet Smell Of Lavender I mentioned I was in the midst of writing an article about Provençal lavender for the British Columbia Association of Practicing Aromatherapists (BCAPA). The article will be published in the spring newsletter but as the latter isn’t available to the general public it’s been agreed that I publish it on my blog. Hope you enjoy it and if anyone has any comments, corrections or observations to add, it’d be great to hear from you.

Cycling the Fragrant Road: Perfumed Provence Under Threat

Lavender is the soul of Provence

So said Jean Giono (1895-1970), a beloved French author who lived and wrote in Provence and whose love of the natural world, reflected in his mini novel The Man Who Planted Trees, made him an early precursor to the modern ecological movement. René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950), the so-called father of Aromatherapy and the man who coined the term itself with his seminal work Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Végétales, held Provence and the lavender it produced close to his heart.

While undertaking a cycling tour of rural France in the summer of 2014, noting the haze of purply blue flowers that swept to the horizon, there was no doubt in my mind that the intertwined relationship of lavender and France was an indelible part of the cultural and economic landscape. But the bucolic scenes of lavender fields stretching into the distance under a blazing sun belies a furious battle on two fronts to preserve a way of life that has its roots in the Middle Ages.

rural France

Whilst aromatherapists here in Canada have felt the bite of Health regulations in recent years – with the implementation of Natural Health Product Regulations, natural product numbers and product licences – spare a thought for the embattled growers of herbs and distillers of essential oils in France for a moment. The focus of an intense regulatory spotlight is amply personified by the lavender growers of Provence as they seek to resist an attempt to have lavender oil (along with other essential oils) labelled as chemical toxins under the European Unions REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) program to be implemented by 2018. It is an unthinkable development given the long history of the herb as an alternative therapeutic addition to home and garden and a dollop of salt added to an open wound. Lavender and lavandin – the latter a massive provider of essence for the cosmetic and perfume industry – have been struggling against climate change over the last two decades. A blight has destroyed almost fifty percent of the lavender crop in recent years in the region. A mini cicada has thrived in unusually hot weather, transmitting the micro-bacteria stolbus phytoplasma, which drought-weakened plants have trouble resisting. The disease is contagious, and in the early stages the plants fail to show signs of infection. There is real concern that lavender could disappear from the landscape in twenty or thirty years time.

harvesting lavender

The regulatory struggle farmers face emerged later the same year that I had been travelling in France; news stories featured photos of signs posted in fields we either hadn’t spotted at the time, or went up after we’d left: ‘lavender is not a chemical.’* Concerns that such a designation would mislead the general public with its bold black and red ‘hazardous’ labelling are matched by the troubling fact that the cost of chemical analysis and classification would be a significant difficulty for smaller farmers and producers. Classifying a product that is dependent on the sun, soil, altitude and a myriad of other natural conditions would be challenging in itself. As such a real economic blow to the industry looms on the horizon. At present the blue-gold of Provence is worth over 100 euros a kilogram; according to the French association APAL (Association des Producteurs d’huile essentielle de Lavande AOC de Haute Provence) approximately 50,000 acres of land is cultivated for lavender, with 2000 producers and 120 distilleries. The lavender industry provides 25,000 related jobs that include a tourist industry comprising thousands of visitors to the south of France who come for the panoramic views of the lavender fields in bloom. Draconian regulations and a blight; the potential impact to the region could be incalculable.

lavender fields

Revered for its perfume and therapeutic qualities, lavender has a powerful place in history thanks to its healing and aromatic properties; it is a versatile oil that blends well with almost any other essence. Kurt Schnaubelt noted that the French lavenders are characterized by a high ester content (i), esteemed by perfumers worldwide. Therapeutically lavender has been found to have a marked sedative activity (ii), and the true or ‘fine’ lavender grown from seed, the Lavandula Angustifolia P. Miller that APAL protects so rigorously, is calming and balancing. Recommended for respiratory ailments, asthma, spasmodic cough, influenza, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia (iii), lavender is often used directly on the skin to treat anything from cuts and scrapes to insect bites and burns. This was famously demonstrated by Gattefossé after an explosion in his laboratory resulted in burns that became infected. Applying lavender oil to his burns Gattefossé was astounded at the antiseptic and healing properties of the essence.

In France the seriousness and scale of lavender essential oil production, and the use of oils in the therapeutic and perfume industries in general is tangible. In the last three years Bulgaria has overtaken France in its production of lavender oil and as the challenges besetting French lavender growers have intensified and production has exponentially decreased, Bulgaria has profited, although ultimately the EU regulations will affect Bulgaria as a member country in the same way. Yet even a Bulgarian producer acknowledges the superiority of true French lavender: ‘At the same time we can’t praise with better quality, though, as French lavender oil remains the standard.’ Only four areas of France produce the highly sought after AOC (now AOP) labelled lavender oils, the departments of Drôme, Vaucluse, Alpes de Haute Provence, and the Hautes Alpes. The AOC designation – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – can only be used for Lavandula Angustifolia and is the standard against which lavender oil is still assessed. The fine or true oil must come from plants grown at a minimum altitude of 800 meters.The product must pass a double series of tests both analytical and olfactory and the individual batches are sampled and examined under anonymity. The standard is high, the tests for quality rigorous.

For our cycling tour of the Vaucluse – the heart of Provence – we opted to stay in the charming town of Sault, situated like so many other villages in the area on a rocky promontory on the Albion plateau. It was an ideal spot for not only the cycle friendly accommodation and scenic roads but for access to the local lavender growers and businesses that make up a large part of the economy of the region. The Albion region is the top producer of lavender, yielding 40% of the country’s production, the majority of which is dedicated to creating perfumes, supplying therapists with high quality oil and manufactures of lavender products with raw materials. A local sign describes the region a little: ‘The landscape here is structured around a large north-south depression from Aurel to Monieux between Mont Ventoux and the plateau of Albion. Villages and towns are strategically built on rocky spurs, offering them good views as well as protection. The scent of lavender, golden fields of cereal crops and flocks of sheep have been part of the lives of Sault inhabitants for several centuries’. Cutters or ‘coupeurs’ of lavender supplied the flowers to the Apothecaries of Carpentras in the 19th century and distilleries were later installed to produce the essence of lavender. Lavandula Angustifolia began to be seriously cultivated at the beginning of the 20th century at the request of the perfumers of nearby Grasse – world capital of perfume production – and by the beginning of the 21st century was established as the centre of fine lavender cultivation. In 2008 lavender growers signed a joint charter with the national Minister of Agriculture dedicated to the sustainable development of lavender, countering the trend towards mass production with its potential side effects of reduced quality and increased pollution.

The scent of lavender even relatively early in the growing season is omnipresent in the area. The day we cycled into Sault was midway into the second week of June and midway through an unexpected heatwave. By early afternoon the temperature had climbed to nearly 40c with no sign of abatement and the feeling of being utterly parched had become the overwhelming sensation. On the climb up the last of what had been many hills that day into town we were happily distracted from our aching limbs and dry throats by the smell of lavender. It was barely in bloom, really only just in the first blush of flowering, but the aroma was tangible. We found this over the entire region; combined with the heat, the quantity of the crop let alone the local shops selling soaps, oils, bouquets and other related products, the fragrant air was imbued with lavender. In the town centre we found delicious lavender ice cream (made using the flowers) at a local crêperie that we fell on with the desperation that only the overheated can appreciate; the weekly market sold bulk lavender and we were presented with a bar of lavender soap by our hotel patrons on our departure.We reciprocated with a local lavender infused honey found at a farm stand by the side of the road the day we rode back from a monumental climb up nearby Mont Ventoux.

lavender ice cream

Leaning over one of the walls overlooking the valley below Sault, it becomes quickly apparent the entire area is filled with lavender fields, interspersed with pockets of spelt, photogenically arranged in opposing directions and angles. The more popular routes to Mont Ventoux and into the surrounding countryside were well marked with signs for following a lavender trail. We were lucky one day to choose a quieter road in the quest for a few hours of relaxed riding with a good meal at the midpoint. We circled around the valley and back up into the hills to a high point over the plateau to earn our delicious ‘cyclists lunch’ (meaning substantial and reasonable) at a local restaurant. A wonderfully scenic route past fields on tree shaded roads led us to stumble across a gem of a local lavender farm. In the village of Ferrassières in the adjoining Drôme department we met a farmer called Natalie who was putting together bunches of lavender flowers to sell at local markets. Sacks of lavender flowers were stacked against the walls of her shed, and from her shop I bought a bottle of oil that had been distilled from the previous years crop. Answering the question I’d posed in broken French, she nodded that ‘oui’ the oil was the fine lavender, or true lavender found at higher altitudes in Provence, the angustifolia family that is considered the ‘nobler’ plant. On arriving back in Canada I opened up the coveted bottle of lavender oil and it smelt wonderful; subtle and rich, not overpowering, fully meeting the high expectations I had for a true French lavender.

As our holiday in France was to end with a couple of days in Paris, it made sense to visit the Fragonard Museum – the Fragonard perfumery is one of the oldest perfumeries in Grasse – to sample some of the end results of the work in Provence, and to place in historical context the growers and producers of plants and their essences in the region. The museum is small, private and no cameras are allowed inside, but it gives a fascinating insight into the story of perfumery. Numbered vials of solid perfumes tempt you to test your smell perception to detect more unusual scents: strawberries, pineapple, sandalwood or perhaps sweet pea. Lavender, rose, jasmine, orange blossom and mimosa are just a few of the flowers supplied by Grasse and its surrounding areas for perfume making, the art of cultivation culminating in the exquisite art of perfumery.

Fragonard museum

There is perhaps some hope on the horizon for the lavender producers of Provence. A collaborative three-pronged effort is underway between the local growers cooperative France Lavande, a French fragrant plants research organization (CRIEPPAM) and Givaudan, a major company in the fragrance and flavour industry. Givaudan is financing the supply of healthy lavender plants from CRIEPPAM to the cooperative members in the hope that the decimation of lavender plants can be mitigated and production increased. At the time of writing there is no further news on the EU regulations, although there has been vigorous opposition to the proposed rulings and concerns aired in discussions with EU officials. An online petition challenging the regulations had at last count garnered 22,429 signatures. The hope remains that lavender can perhaps be designated as an agricultural product and thus bypass the complexities of chemical classification.

Exploring what remains at present, despite the struggles, a dynamic and thriving region on exquisite country roads made riding a delight and an ideal way to experience first hand the artisanal lavender farms and the scenic surrounds at a pace that allows full appreciation of the area. As it was France we of course felt obliged to indulge our gustratory senses (sublime cherry clafoutis anyone?!) whilst learning more about an exceptional plant and the commitment of the people who grow it to achieve the highest quality possible. There is great pride in lavender, the economic support it provides and the identity that comes with this beautiful blue flower. Hope that this way of life continues is tinged with disbelief at the thought that lavender might one day disappear from the horizon. Lavender is, after all, the soul of Provence.

* It should be noted that whilst the belief is essential oils should not be classified as ‘chemicals’ and are wonderful substances to have in your home, they are highly concentrated products and should be treated with respect. Keep out of the reach of children and pets, do not ingest, do not use undiluted and use as directed on the label or by a qualified practitioner.

Bibliography:

(i) Advanced Aromatherapy, Kurt Schnaubelt (1995)
(ii) Essential Oil Safety, A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Robert Tisserand, Tony Balacs (1995)
(iii) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Shirley Price, Len Price (second edition, 1999)

Sources:

APAL
France Lavande
Givaudan
CTV News, Canada
The Guardian, UK
BHP Radio Bulgaria
CRIEPPAM

© On A Small Blue Planet by Amanda 2016

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