The Purple Season

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July sees the start of the annual lavender harvest in Provence.

The French are important lavender producers with most of the crop being used for the cosmetics industry while boosting the tourism sector at the same time. Here is a piece I wrote for French News On Line.


The Grumpy Gardener – Purple Prose And The Glorious Lavender Fields Of Provence

The lavender harvest is getting under way in Provence, a reminder that France remains a big player in the lavender game producing more than 50% of the world’s total crop, and this even though Bulgaria now claims the world leadership cup in lavender oil output.
The glorious lavander fields of Provence in southern France (Credit Mike Alexander)

Despite a bacterial infection that has seen its harvests fall considerably over recent years France’s famous southerly tourist spot of Provence battles on,  impervious to the discouraging news in Le Figaro (see video below) that Bulgarian lavender oil producers now export around 70% of their production to France.

Indeed Figaro reported on July 17 that Bulgaria has overtaken France as the front runner in the lavender production stakes. “In 2011 in Bulgaria 60 tonnes of lavender oil were produced. This year, producers hope to distill 120 tonnes according to Nikolay Nenov, an expert at the Bulgarian National Association for Essential Oil, Perfumery and Cosmetics.

Most of the lavender harvested in Provence is distilled for its essential oils — an important ingredient in many perfumes. Once distilled, much of the end product makes its way down the road to the town of Grasse — the perfume capital of the world — where many of the best perfume makers, or noses in the business, come to hone their trade. Becoming a perfume nose is a process that takes as long nine years before perfection.

The cosmetic industry is definitely not the sole beneficiary of the Provencal lavender farming industry. The purpling of the fields is a world renowned phenomenon that each year draws tens of thousands of tourists flocking to see the brightly coloured fields in all their magnificent deep hued glory.

This side-plate to the bigger business is part of the agro-tourism industry, one of the fastest growing areas on France’s world leading tourism menu – the country ranks as the number one tourism destination globally. Certainly on a recent visit to take photos I found myself surrounded by an entourage of myriads of photographers, film makers and TV commercial producers all vying for that just perfect shot, the one that so typifies Provence. Our lives were complicated not just by the lighting and framing of visuals but also by the coach loads of visitors descending from air conditioned coaches and pouring out all over the fields with little regard for our technical and professional problems. In recent years the area has seen a huge expansion in the number of visitors from China which is an increasingly big player in world tourism and a market the French have plugged into very well.

This is certainly not the first era to profit from this beautiful plant, thought to have originated in north and east Africa. The Romans whose citizens had a fondness for bathing in lavender scented water were the first to carry it across Europe. The plant was also used as an antiseptic on wounds. At the time of the Great Plague it was thought that lavender worn around the wrists would keep the wearer safe from this deadly pestilence. It was later grown widely around the London area. With the expansion of the city and soaring land prices English lavender production may have ceased altogether were it not for World War I. With a shortage of disinfectants and virtually no antiseptics, lavender once again became the fall back plant for treating wounds and disinfecting hospital wards.

Apart from the tourist and perfume industries lavender today is in growing demand as a culinary herb apart from its use as an herbal medicine.

Most of France offers ideal growing conditions and it is an undemanding plant to have in the garden, offering attractive flowers, wonderful aroma and year-round foliage. Plants require full sun and good air circulation to thrive. They will not tolerate having wet feet but other than that this is virtually a hassle-free plant that really typifies this country. It may be attacked by rosemary beetle which is a pest thought to originate in Greece and has slowly made its way across Europe in recent years. The beetle though is easily dealt with by simply picking off by hand and crushing underfoot