Lavender is native to the Southern Alps, and different varieties grow wild throughout the Beyond region. In the 16th century, the Provençal peasants produced lavender oil to heal wounds and expel intestinal worms.
See also Lavender Fields of Provence.
The true lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) that thrives in the chalky soils and hot, dry climate of higher altitudes of the Provence was picked systematically at the end of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, fields of lavender were first planted, at altitudes above 700 m. Since the true lavender grows best at over 700 m, a hybrid, Lavandin, was developed for cultivation at lower altitudes.
True Lavender (Lavandua Angustifolia) has the most subtle essential oil and is highly sought after by perfume makers and laboratories.
Spike Lavender [Aspic] (Lavandula Latifolia) has wide leaves and long floral stems with several flower spikes.
Hybrid Lavender ["Lavandin"] is obtained from pollination of true lavender and spike lavender, making a hybrid that forms a highly-developed large round cluster.
French Lavender (Lavendual stoechas) is a wild lavender that grows throughout the region. I don't believe it's cultivated, but it is collected for the perfume industry.
The distillation is done in a steam alembic, with the dry lavender steamed in a double boiler. (Here's a photo of the lavender distillery at Barrème.) The essential oils are extracted from the lavender by the water vapor and are passed through the cooling coils of a retort. The condensation provides the final mixture of essence and water.
A ton of dry lavender passes through the alembic in about 30 minutes. Lavandin produces from 25-40 kg of essence, and true lavender produces from 5-10 kg, but of a better quality.
Some of the larger cultivated lavender fields are found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04), including on the slopes of the Lure mountains, near St. Etienne-les-Orgues (map p14), and on the Sault plateau in the eastern Vaucluse (84)(map p13). Some specific locations in the Beyond region are:
- Allemagne-en-Provence (04) [map q14]; road to Montagnac
- Céreste (04); road to Manosque
- Manosque (04) [map q13]; road to Céreste
- Musée de la Lavande (84); about 7km south of Gordes and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse [map p13].
- Between the eastern end of the Gorges de la Nesque and Sault there are many large fields
- Montagnac (04) [map q14]; south, near junction of D11 (big fields)
- Quinson (04) [map q14]
- St. Martin-de-Brôme (04) [map q14]
- St. Etienne-les-Orgues (04)
- Valensole (04) [map q14]
Lavender distilleries are also located in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04) and eastern Vaucluse (04). Some towns with distilleries are:
- Allemagne-en-Provence (04) [map q14]
- Banon (04) [map p13]
- Barreme (04) - an old distillery
- Ongles (04) [map p13: 5 km southwest of St Etienne-les-Orgues, 16 km north of Forcalquier]
- Quinson (04) [map p14]
- Riez (04)
- Sault (84)
- Valensole (04) [map q14]
Flower. Lavender fields begin blooming in June, depending on the area and the seasonal weather. Our photos of lavender fields have been taken from the first of July to mid October. The wild Lavender Stochas begins as early as mid March.
Lavender is harvested from July to September, when the hot summer sun brings the essence up into the flower. The harvesting is done with more and more automation, but the older fields with narrow rows are still picked by hand. The lavender is dried for 2 to 3 days before being transported to the distillery. Another method (from other sources) was to move a small still from field to field during harvesting, and process the lavender immediately upon picking. Whether immediate or with dried lavender, there were "mobile" stills, and later, small stills were built at many of the fields.
Practical. Flowers and leaf-stalks can be dried for perfuming bed-linen and to keep moths away from your clothes. Lavender essence is used commercially in the perfume, soap and pharmaceutical industries.
Dried lavender is packaged in small cloth sacks and sold worldwide. Dried lavender is also used for cooking and for herbal cures. There is a strong cottage industry in the Beyond region of lavender products.