Lavender in Provence
In June some magic happens in the fields of northern Provence. Rows of spiky green start to turn purple and by the third week in June, the valleys have turned to mats of parallel rows of purple flush with ripening lavender.
Lavender Museum Provence,
Musee De La Lavande
These spiked mats of purple are an agricultural crop once as important to the Provence farmer as the olive or the grape, the cherry or the apricot: they are lavender, still a cash crop that eventually turns from its showy field display into a dozen products that we use every day.
Lavender today is not the big business it once was, however; synthetics have pushed it aside.
The trade continues regardless, partly out of tradition and a demand for excellence and authenticity, and partly because the synthetics just haven't totally measured up to the subtlety and efficacy of true lavender or Fine lavender as the medicinal plant is called.
A small building in the village of Coustellet on the road from Avignon to Apt, (D-901 to D-900)near Bonnieux and Gordes, tells the story; it's called the Musee De La Lavande: The Lincele' Family's Lavender Museum.
The displays might look like an homage to moonshine but the process of creating lavender products from the lavender flowers requires a distilling process to release and concentrate the oils. These oils will eventually become perfumes and medicines, cleaning agents and spices that we find on our market shelves.
The equipment evolved over the years, some becoming mobile and brought to th fields to follow the July harvest, some changing due to the cost and availability of energy sources.
The lavender plant itself did some evolving also. First found wild and harvested for medicinal and household purposes before Roman times, the self-seeding perennial grew wild in most of Provence at an altitude above 800 meters. (2600 feet) The Romans reportedly gave the plant the name lavender from their Latin word Lavare, the word for clean or wash.
Commercial production now takes place mostly in the higher elevations around the town of Sault and the foothills of Mount Ventoux. The plant now grown commercially is not quite the same as the original wild lavender harvested by the ancients.
An early model "Open Fire Still", the earliest dating to 1626, would have the lavender blossoms with water placed in the large copper kettle while a wood fire was stoked beneath the kettle. The water turned to steam which absorbed the oils in the flower and carried them up and out into a condenser, the circular tubing to the right. This condensing coil would have been immersed in cold water to reduce the steam temperature enough to condense the vapor back into liquid water which, with its accompanying lavender oils, would have flowed into a small container. The oils of the lavender would than have floated to the top for siphoning off.
Visitors will commonly see three plants in bloom before the end-of-July harvest:
- Fine Lavender, the original plant having one flower, this is the one important plant for medicinal lavender products. This plant grows at 2,600 feet elevation in the foothills of Mount Ventoux, The Vaucluse, the Alps of High Provence, and The Drome.
- Spike Lavender, a plant with several branches and not used commercially in Provence although it is grown in Spain and Portugal, according to the Museum literature.
- Lavandine, a hybrid of true or fine lavender and spike lavender, this sterile plant grown by cuttings at lower elevations has several flowers in round clumps and is used commercially in detergents and sachets. The plant produces much more essential oil per acre than Fine
Lavender but does not have the subtlety of fine lavender nor its medicinal value.
Lavender production changed over the years as stills grew larger and became mechanized. The introduction of the steam Gage in the 1920s allowed for faster processing at more controlled temperature. Coal and natural gas became fuel along with wood and the burning of the spent
lavender plants. Winches and cranes allowed for high production.
. Shop online well ahead of your trip for a rental car and choose diesel (more economical) or gas, luggage space,(important) standard or automatic,(important) two door, four door and other options. Reserve extras such as baby seats, strollers, telephones. see renting a vehicle in Provence
Speed limits will be clearly marked and the Rotary will be a welcome site with its directions to various towns. Gassing up is similar to US with credit card and automatic shut-off at modern pumps. Car rental are available in all large cities and at many TGV Train Stations.
Information for those renting a vehicle in Provence
The Lavender Museum of Provence, the Musee De La Lavande, is in the village of Coustellet on the road from Avignon to Apt, near Bonnieux and Gordes. The museum presents the details of lavender farming and production.
The Lavender Museum of Provence is called the Musee De La Lavande. Find it in the village of Coustellet on the road from Avignon to Apt, near Bonnieux and Gordes. The museum displays historical lavender equipment collected by the Lincele' Family', during five
generations of lavender production. (The bus from Avignon stops in Coustellet on its way to Apt)
The Lavender Museum of Provence presents the history of lavender production
Lavender was at first a self-seeding perennial that grew wild in northern Provence at an altitude above 800 meters. (2600 feet) The Romans used the plant as a cleaner and gave it the name lavender from their Latin word Lavare, the word for clean or wash.
Lavender fields below the village of Lacoste in Provence