Lavender - provence walking holiday
When one thinks of Provence in southern France, we instantly imagine fields of violet lavender underneath colbalt blue skies. Our guided walking holiday and independent walking holidays in the secret corner of French Provence known as the Baronnies will pass through lavender fields that cover limestone slopes in a tapestry of vibrant colours. This page provides you with some background information on the lavender plant.
Lavender is one of 39 flowering plants that form a part of the mint family. Its flowers are very scented and are a range of mauve and violet colours. It grows natively in the mediterranean regions such as Provence in France, the tropics of Africa and south east India. Its cultivation both on a large scale and as a garden plant has meant that different varieties and locations are now widespread. It now grows in places as far spread as Russia, Canada and Tasmania. For the most part it grows well in dry, sunny and limestone soils such as those found in the Baronnies.
Its use for medicinal and herbal purposes dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. The Romans used it in their baths to scent the water. In Provence, Lavender has been used since the middle ages to make perfumes and medicines, but it was not until the 19th century that the plant was cultivated on a large scale creating the fields that we now see walking through Provence. The French production reached its height in the mid 20th century with the installation of perfume manufacturers in southern Provence.
There are four main types of Lavender all of which can be seen in Provence, France on our guided walking tours to a greater or lesser extent.
Lavandula angustifolia or sometimes called true lavender is the best for making essential oils. This variety in its wild state grows particularly well in Provence on sunny mountain slopes at between 500m and 1700m in altitude and naturally flowers early (April - May). The plant is large and can grow as tall as 1m. Only oils from this variety of lavender benefit from a label or AOC and can be called essential oils from Lavender of Haute Provence. Over a total of 4 French departments there are 4000 hectares cultivated with this variety.
The Lavandula latifolia or lavender aspic, flowers much later and is far less perfumed. This naturally grows in the southern Provence on lower altitudes. It can be differentiated from the true lavender as the flowers grow on the end of long stems.
Lavandula intermedia is a hybrid and is the most commonly grown lavender in French Provence with about 17,000 hectares. It is less perfumed but has a higher production of oils than the true lavender.
Lavandula stoechas is the most common in terms of its geographic coverage as it is found almost everywhere. One of the main reasons is that it will also grow on schist based soils such as flints.
Harvesting of the flowers takes place during the flowering from the end of June to August. Cutting is done by machines with the exception of flowers used for ornamental purposes which are cut by hand. Our French guided walks in mid to late June should see the lavender plants coming into flower.
Uses of Lavender from Provence include essential oils, medicines, perfume and cooking. Essential oils: After the the lavender has been dried for a day or two, the lavender used for essential oils is distilled with water vapour for a short time of only 45 minutes. Oils produced from mountain zones are of better quality but the yields are much lower. These essential oils are said to have certain beneficial qualities including as an antiseptic, disinfectant, anti-bacterial and calming agent.
Even if we haven't been to Provence or France, most of us have some dried lavender somewhere in our house to perfume rooms or cupboards. Dried lavender is very resistant and may have been used in sachets to perfume clothes from as far back as the the middle ages. Small scale family run distilleries of lavender have gradually disappeared during the 20th century. The largest consumer of lavender these days is the perfume industry in soaps, detergents and wipes. In perfumes it is more commonly used in men's aftershave.
Lavender flowers from Provence also yield abundant nectar from which bees make a high-quality honey. Lavender flavours baked goods and desserts (it pairs especially well with chocolate), as well as being used to make "lavender sugar". Lavender flowers are occasionally blended with black, green, or herbal tea, adding a fresh, relaxing scent and flavour.
Take a look at our guided walking holiday in Baronnies, south France