If anything says ‘Provence’ it’s lavender. Snaking, parallel humped lines of glorious scented, purple lavender – the icon of Provence. And if you’ve been lucky enough to be in Provence when it’s in flower it’s a sight (and scent) you’ll never forget. Particularly at the end of the day when the warm evening air is heavily perfumed and vibrating with the hum of a thousand insects hovering over the purple flowers, gathering pollen before nightfall.
Lavender flowers from mid/end June to late-July or mid-August depending on the region. Generally speaking, the higher the lavender fields, the later the flowering and harvest. Harvest depends on the weather and the humidity of the air so it can vary. Lavender is grown principally in the Drôme-Diois valley, the Drôme provençale, in the regional national park of Les Baronnies, around the Mt Ventoux, the Luberon and the Lure mountains and in the Verdon region in the Alpes de Haute Provence.
Several different varieties of lavender grow in Provence but really only two varieties are cultivated; ‘la lavande fine’ and ‘le lavandin’. ‘La lavande fine’ (or ‘real’ lavender) grows naturally above 700-800 metres (approx. 2,600 ft). It’s very robust and able to cope with conditions in the dry Provençal hills and mountains. What we so often think is lavender is actually a hybrid called lavandin that grows up to 600-800 metres. It’s mostly cultivated on the plains or plateaus. Lavandin is much more productive than lavender, you only need about 40kg of lavandin flowers to distil a litre of essence, whilst you need 130kg of lavender flowers per litre. Lavender and lavandin have different scents and different uses.
Lavender has been used since Roman times for both its scent and for medicinal purposes. Still used extensively in the perfume industry, lavender essence is considered to be effective against lice and to help skin problems such as acne and eczema, as well as grazes and burns. Amongst other ailments, it’s also said to be effective against cramp, aches and pains, asthma, digestive problems, nausea and hypertension. It’s also reputed to have relaxing properties and to help encourage sleep. A useful addition to any first aid kit!
Lavandin has a stronger scent than lavender and is considered helpful in relieving migraines, muscle pain and insect bites, however the essence is mostly used to scent soap, cleaning products and detergents and its flowers are often used in sachets sold to perfume linen and clothes and to deter moths.
True lavender essence will be marked ‘lavande fine’ and will cost considerably more than lavandin essence. Many farms sell direct or to local shops in villages. (Check carefully if you are buying from a market stall or tourist shop, make sure the name of the producer is clearly marked.) Distilleries are fascinating to visit and many are open to the public (check with your local tourist office). The Lavender Museum at Coustellet (Vaucluse) has an interesting collection of stills. Local tourist offices are a good source of information to help you find the best lavender fields near to where you are.
The best way to take in the lavender of Provence is to book a week’s stay – check out our hand-picked Provence vacation rentals!