The name « lavender » itself dates back to the old Roman word “Lavare” (washing), which at the same time indicates its ancient roots, as well as its use as a natural disinfectant.
Photo: Highland lavender plantation in Drôme
True Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or vera, officinalis, or even vulgaris, which are all synonyms), occurs naturally in the South Eastern corner of France, at elevations above 600 meter altitude.
Map: Lavender growing areas in Provence
It is this plant which is also called “highland lavender”, and gave birth to an ancient industry which has now largely disappeared. It is a fairly short plant with grayish blue flowers, which does not match with the often presented picture of large fields of big purple
Picture: Wild highland lavender
Photo: highland lavender field in Benevise – Drôme
In the old days (end of 19th century up to the Second World War), the new working masses were looking for a perfume which was not too expensive. At the same time, the countryside was still very inhabited by pastoralists and peasants, who had time to collect wild lavender in the dry summer season. The flowering tops were harvested by sickle, and steam distilled in one of the many copper stills scattered throughout the Provence and Dauphine countryside.
Picture: Old portable copper still in Lèsches-en-Diois – Drôme
Another lavender type, spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) grows at lower altitude, near the Mediterranean Sea, has bigger leaves and shorter flower stalks, and quite a different, more camphoric smell Photo: Lavandula latifolia or Spike lavender
This spike lavender occurs at lower altitudes over a vast area ranging between Spain, ,Southern France, Southern Italy, Sicily, and the Balkans.
Already in the 1920’s and 1930’s, natural hybridization between true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and spike lavender (lavandula latifolia) occurred, and farmers started selecting these sterile hybrids and multiply these through cuttings. They witnessed that these hybrids, that are now called “lavandins” gave a much higher yield per hectare than true lavender.
After the Second World War, the industrial demand for “lavender like” perfume notes increased strongly because of demand from the fragrance industry for perfuming washing powders, soaps, detergents and the like. However, as these industries were not willing to pay too high a price for this “lavender note”, an important shift occurred from true lavender essential oil to different types of lavandins. The most important cultivars here are Lavandin grosso and Lavandin Abrialis, which both have yields exceeding 100 kgs of essential oil per hectare per year, whereas high altitude lavender hardly reaches 20 kgs of oil per hectare.
Photo: Lavandin grosso field in Die – Drôme
Photo: Lavandin abrialis field in Ponet – Drôme
Another lavandin hybrid variety, with a somewhat lower yield per hectare (60 – 70 kgs/hectare/year) variety is called Lavandin Super. The composition of its essential oil approaches that of true lavender oil, although with a somewhat higher eucalyptol and camphor content (both around 5%). Nowadays lavandins provide the bulk of the “lavender type” essential oils produced in France Photo: Lavandin Super field in Ponet – Drôme
Over the years also higher yielding clonal varieties of true lavender have been developed, such as materonne or lavande maillette. These can be grown at lower altitudes, provide higher yields per hectare than the highland lavender, have a slightly different chemical composition, but can still be called true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) as they were developed from true lavender plants and not through hybridization.
Photo mailette lavender harvest – courtesy Damien Berenger
Lavender distillation first started with simple field stills which could be transported by the collectors. The distillation unit was comprised of a copper vessel, and “goose neck” to transport the vapors to a cooling unit. In the most simple version, the lavender flowers were submerged in water inside the distillation vessel, and a fire was made underneath to boil the water into steam, thereby carrying the essential oil into the cooling unit, and from there onto a separation vessel (called Florentine vase) were the oil is siphoned off from the top.
Later on, these units became somewhat bigger and less mobile, but the principle remained the same. They were often found in the centre of the villages where lavender was grown, and even nowadays one can find such distilleries in some of our villages.
Photo: old distillery in the village of Marignac – Drôme
As the demand for lavender increased, and the lavandins arrived on the market, a new, more industrial type of distillation unit saw the light, called the “Eysseric” type, after its inventor.
Photo: “Esseyric” type distillery in Pont de Quart – Drôme
Such units have the advantage of having a economy of scale ( a pair of 6,000 liter vessels), equipped with a boiler that can run on distilled and dried lavender tops, and a simple but well thought charging and discharging system, so that the unit can run around the clock in the season.
The disadvantage of these is that, in order to distill quickly (thirty to forty minutes per distillation cycle), a high amount of pressure needs to be applied, and not all the aromatic molecules are transferred in the essential oil.
A further development came around the turn of the century, when a new technique was developed, which is similar than the one applied in the peppermint industry in the USA, whereby the flowering tops are machine harvested, cut fine and distilled on the spot in big rolling “cases” (“caissons in French), thereby greatly reducing the handling and manipulation costs. However, this technique of “green distilling” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality of the oil produced, and is only applied to low quality lavandins.
With the revival of the “aromatherapy” and the expanding knowledge of the therapeutic value of
high quality lavender oil, a new generation of distillation apparatus emerged, made of stainless steel, allowing a gently distillation at atmospheric pressure, thereby producing high quality oils.
High quality modern stainless steel distillation unit at Sainte Croix, Drôme
Needless to say that, in order to produce high quality lavender oil, one needs to select high quality plant material in the first place. As highland lavender grows at higher altitudes, it also produces a higher variety of beneficial components, which are found less or not at all in the lowland varieties or lavandins.
Secondly, it is required that enough care is taken to distill the lavender up to a therapeutic quality, i.e. slow and gentle distillation at low pressure, in an inert vessel (stainless steel), and taking enough time to distill all the beneficial aromatic components in the essential oil.
From a nature’s gift, lavender has developed into an industry which is closely intertwined with the history and folk traditions of Provence. Instead of a uniform product, there are many types and cross breeds, which keep on evolving. The same holds true for the methods of extracting the essential oil. For different purposes, many different types of lavender and lavandin exist: from therapeutic aromatherapy quality to basic toiletry qualities. It is important though to choose pure and natural products of certified organic origin, which are better for the customer as well as for preserving our natural environment.