Tuesday, 24 February 2015

History of Lavender

History of Lavender

There are 4 Lavenders native to our region. Lavandula stoechas which grows on acid soil nearer to the coast, flowers in spring;

Lavandula angustifolia (angustifolia meaning narrow leaves), flowers from end of June to end of August depending on altitude and climate between 500/600m to 1400 m;

Lavandula latifolia (latifolia meaning broad leaved) flowers in August at altitudes between 200-600m above sea level. The zone where the last two Lavenders meet is around 500m above sea level. 

At this altitude they cross-pollinate and a new hybrid is born, Lavandula x intermedia, or more commonly known as 'Lavandin'.

On the left 'Lavandin', has inherited the lateral branching from Lavandula latifolia. Lavandula angustifolia in unbranched, just a straight flower stalk.

The Latin name for lavender is Lavandula,  derived from the Latin word ‘lavare’ meaning washing. The Romans used Lavandula stoechas and Lavandula latifolia to perfume their baths and clothes. These were the Lavenders, that were more easily available, growing near the coast and a bit inland.

Both Pline the elder (scientist, naturalist and philosopher, personal friend of Emperor Vespasian, 1st century AD). Dioscorides (a Greek, but worked as a physician in the Roman armies 1st century AD, author of the book Materia Medica, a herbal used up to the 15th century) mentioned lavender in their writings.

From the 1st century onwards Lavender pops up regularly in medical text. Lavender was one of the herbs that was grown in the monastery gardens in the 14th century. 

In the 16th century, records show that Lavender was being distilled to obtain essential oil. They used it to treat sores and against vermin.

The medical centres in Montpellier founded in the 13th century and Marseille founded in the 15th century encouraged the cultivation of aromatic herbs. Plants were the principal cure for ailments until the discovery of chemical synthesis in 19th century.

Faculty of Medicine - Montpellier

It was thought that bad odours resulted in illness and pleasant smells promoted healing and prevent illness. During the last plague epidemic in the 18th century, the archives mention enormous quantities of aromatic plants being used in medicine, burnt inside the houses and on the roads to fight against the plague.

Plague doctor's mask and garments

It was in the second half of the 19th century when the ‘wild pick of lavender’ developed in Provence. In the same period there was a large exodus of people leaving the countryside, from Mt. Ventoux to the valleys of the Verdon, the limits being the mountains of the Vercors and pre-Alps. These people were very poor, the land was unproductive and as there were more and more new industries being created in the cities, they abandoned the land, left it as was, erosion took place exposing the rocks underneath, only the strongest plants could survive. Lavender quickly covered the abandoned hills.

During the harvest, the pickers noticed that some of the Lavenders were larger than the others.  They just called them “grosse lavande”. These plants were a cross between Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia. This is brought about by insects, in particular bees, who transport the pollen from one flower to the next.  Only in 1927 was this fact confirmed in a laboratory in Grasse when they artificially pollinated Lavandula angustifolia with Lavandula latifolia. The name given to this newly discovered Lavender was ‘Lavandin’, its Latin name being Lavandula x intermedia.

Map of Lavender areas

Lavandin being a hybrid is in principal sterile.  It cannot produce plants from seeds or grains, only from cuttings, that also explains the sameness when you look at a field of Lavandin.

As the demand for perfume and cosmetics grew. Partially because it was fashionable at the time, but also because the population in the cities grew. In particular Grasse, its prosperity based on 3 industries, olive oil, leather and the perfumery industry. The countryside around Grasse produced olives and hides from the sheep. For the manufacturing of soap and cosmetics you need oil, in this case olive oil. To give the products a pleasant smell they used the essential oil of plants that either grew naturally or were being cultivated in the area (jasmine, rosa centifolia, violet, mimosa and of course lavender).  From the 19th century onwards Grasse was knows as the capital of perfume.

Fragrance producers

  • Expressions Parfumées  - Grasse - Producer of 100% natural fragrances certified Ecocert. A supplier to the big perfume houses and other parts of the cosmetics and beauty industry.
  • Parfumeries Fragonard  Independent perfume house in Grasse - with perfume museum.
  • Galimard - Producing fragrances and perfumes in Grasse since 1747
  • Jean Niel - Grasse - Family run company producing fragrances since 1779.
  • Molinard  Another family perfume company, based in Grasse
  • MPE (Matières Premières Essentielles) - Grasse based producer of essential oils

The perfume houses installed distilleries in the countryside close to where the Lavender was being picked. Local families and families as far a field as Italy would descend into the hills in July. This harvest continued to grow till it reached its peak in 1920’s-1930’s. It was only between 1925-1930 that the cultivation of Lavender in fields, as we know it today, started.

For example in 1923, 100 tons of Lavender was being picked – 90% from wild pick.  From the 1950’s the ‘wild pick’ hardly existed.  In 1956 the lavender production was 80 tons only 10% from ‘wild pick’. In the 1980’s the production was 50-80 tons and no more ‘wild pick’.

Lavander is normally sown.  There is a cloned variety called  Lavandula angustifolia ‘Maillette’, named after M. Maillette, who selected the plant. Nowadays, 40-50 % of all Lavender is planted with this variety.  It is of a slightly lesser quality than the sown Lavender, but because of its selection, it has a larger flower head, which results in more essential oil.

The cultivation of Lavandin started of slowly from 0 in 1925 to 1000 tons in 1980.

The first selection of Lavandin was called Abrialis in the 1930’s, developed by Père Abrial.  2/3 of all the Lavandin fields were planted with Abrialis,

till it got a sickness and was then replaced by another cultivar called ‘Super’.

Nowadays only 10-15% of the fields are planted with ‘Abrialis’ and less than 10% with ‘Super’. Most of it is planted with Lavandin ‘Grosso’ selected by M. Grosso from Goult in the Vaucluse.

The production of Lavandin has increased whilst the production of Lavender has decreased. There are several reasons for this, the yield of Lavandin essential oil is greater than that of Lavender plus Lavandin grows at lower altitudes, the land is flatter, it is easier to create the fields and at the same time easier to harvest with machinery. The large industries that use Lavender in their products are not interested in quality more in quantity. Today the production of Lavender has gone down to about 30 tons.

What is the essential oil of Lavender used for:

Essential oil of Lavandula angustifolia is one of the few essential oils that can be used pure onto the skin, particularly for insect bites or small burns. 

It is a tonic for the nervous system; it calms, emotionally it harmonises; it relieves fear, tension and negative thoughts, helps with palpitation and is a muscle relaxant.

The different Lavandins have similar properties, just not as effective.

Lavandula stoechas has antiseptic, anti-spasmodic properties.  It has to be diluted before use to treat chronic sinusitis, bronchitis and upper respiratory infection.  Not to be used pure or on babies, children and pregnant women.

How to use lavender essential oil:

·      Simplest way is to put a few drops on a hanky and inhale.

·      Bath: add 7 drops of essential oil to the bath water.

·      In an aromatic burner, first add water to container, put 6 drops of essential oil onto the water, light the tea light.

·      In a base cream: 12-65 years add 20 drops to 50 gr of cream; 65+ add 10 drops per 50 gr of cream.

·      In a massage: 12-65 years add 10 drops per 20 ml of carrier oil, almond oil is good for the skin and not too expensive; 65+ add 5 drops per 20 ml of carrier oil, almond oil is good for the skin.

Bibliography:  Lavandes & Lavandins - Christiane Meunier; web for photos

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