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CLARY SAGE (Salvia Sclarea)

sauge sclarée detailClary sage is a biennial or short lived perennial of the lamiaceae  family that occurs naturally on the northern shores of the Mediterranean sea. The plant has been used for a long time for its medicinal properties, and is now also used in aromatherapy. It is also known for its anti-oxidant properties thanks to the substance sclareol contained in it.

The plant is of the Sage (Salvia) genus, but is much taller, with bigger leaves and a high flower stalk.

Normally, Clary sage only flowers in its second year of growth. The flowers exhale a strong and balsamic perfume, which you either like or dislike. It is used in the perfume industry as an ingredient in male perfumes.

Clary sage essential oil has hormone-like properties and has a balancing effect on pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). It also appears to have lactogenic properties for breast feeding women. However, it needs to be taken with caution: best is to incorporate it at a ratio of 2-3% in a base oil like sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil or calendula oil, and use it as a massage oil.

In Provence, Clary sage is cultivated as an aromatic crop, which needs to be handled with care. sauge sclarée fieldThe essential oil content is quite low, and very volatile: one needs to harvest it on a hot sunny day in July, when the flowers are seeding. At that time however, one may quickly loose the essential oil if the plants are not handled carefully.

At La Comba Aromatica, we pride ourselves in bringing you high quality Clary Sage oil gently distilled from certified organic fields

The continuing story of French lavender

 

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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 map lavender

 

 

 

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

highland lavender_leschesPhoto: highland lavender field in Benevise – Drôme

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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.

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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

lavendula latifolia

 

 

 

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

lavandin grossoLavandin Abrialis

 

 

 

 

 

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 Lavandin Super - 2               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.

 

Distillation techniques

Photo mailette lavender harvest – courtesy Damien Berengermailette lavender

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.

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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

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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 distillation ste croix1high 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, Drômehigh quality distillation ste croix2

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.

 

CONCLUSION

fieldFrom 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.la comba products