All about the man who invented aromatherapy, where bees go on their summer holidays, lavender in cooking and in literature and the crisis facing farmers today in the first part of our Little Lavender Lexicon.
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Find out the difference between lavender and lavandin, what links lavender to loving, secrets of the quenouille and why this isn't just a perfume for little old ladies in part two of our Lavender Lexicon.
The remarkable healing properties of lavender were first discovered in South-East France. In fact, the very art and science of aromatherapy were invented there.
Born in Montchat near Lyon in 1881, René-Maurice Gattefossé, pictured, was a chemist who first became interested in essential plant oils while working for his family's cosmetics company.
But his real love affair with lavender began in 1907 with his first trip to Provence. Shocked by the harsh conditions suffered by small lavender farmers, Gattefossé campaigned vigorously to improve and modernise production, starting Europe's first perfumery magazine in 1908, La Parfumerie moderne, and helping create the first growers' co-operative in Sault in 1916.
In 1910, while working in his factory laboratories, Gattefossé burned both his hands badly during an experiment. He plunged the wounds into the nearest liquid, a vat of lavender essential oil.
They healed with astonishing speed and little scarring, and he devoted the rest of his life to studying the medicinal properties of plant oils.
During the First World War Gattefossé used lavender, thyme and other oils to treat soldiers' wounds and in 1937 wrote a seminal book, Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles - Hormones Végétales.
It has been translated into English under the title Aromatherapy (a term coined by Gattefossé), and is still in print. This multi-faceted man also published works on archeology and philosophy as well as several novels. Find Aromatherapy and other works by René-Maurice Gattefossé on Amazon.
In 1940 Gattefossé bought and moved to a eight-hectare (20-acre) farm in Saint Rémy de Provence and, after a lifetime of working with lavender, finally became a lavender grower himself.
B is for Bees (and for Brusc)
Not only sheep and cows go on a transhumance (the pilgrimage from winter to summer pastures, and back again). Provençal bees do it too.
They spend a comfortable winter on the coast, where relatively mild temperatures allow rosemary to continue to flower, then buzzing around the region throughout the year in pursuit of acacia, chestnut, white heather - and lavender.
Trucks carrying bruscs (the provençal word for hives, which were formerly made out of hollowed-out tree trunks) trundle discreetly through villages at night to carry bees to their next meal.
The plateau of Valensole is the centre of lavender apiculture, and Riez the "capital". There are an estimated 4,500 bee-keepers in Provence.
Click here to see an interactive map showing the bees' annual tour through Provence.
Although the bees are said to enhance lavender's flowering, there's also something of a conflict of interest between the bee-keepers and the farmers growing lavender for essential oils. The former want the fields to be left for as long as possible, while the latter are keen to harvest the flowers at their peak.
Such a pretty name for an insect that's threatening the very future of lavender in Provence. The cicadelle - leafhopper in English - is a distant cousin of the cicada, the noisy, emblematic insect of the region. It first put in an unwelcome appearance in 1994.
A fraction of the cicada's size, the cicadelle, pictured, is barely a millimetre long but it has a mighty and destructive appetite. It feasts on lavender stems, thereby infecting them with deadly microbacteria which dry up the plant (a variant cicadelle has also been threatening vines).
The slump hasn't been helped by other factors such as climate change, in particular an increase in summer drought, and cut-price competition from overseas rivals such as Bulgaria. And more recently the European Union's REACH programme could have, indeed, far-reaching and disastrous consequences for lavender producers.
The perfumiers, aromatherapists and soap-makers, such as the global cosmetics company L'Occitane, which depend on essential oil of lavender or the cheaper lavandin have reacted to some of these issues by funding a research institute.
Based in Manosque, the Crieppam (Centre interprofessionnel d'expérimentation en plantes à parfum) is attempting to develop more resistant varieties of lavender as well as to find ways of combatting the cicadelle.
Antibiotics are prohibited on these plants in France, but initial tests suggest that kaolinite could be one answer. Some olive growers in Provence who practise organic farming, such as Castelas near Les Baux de Provence, already use kaolinite with success to control threats to their own crops.
Considering its prevalence in the region, it's a little surprising that lavender has not been used much in traditional provençal cuisine.
It's sometimes added to the mix of herbs marketed as herbes de Provence - along with thyme, rosemary and other more conventional herbs - but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Read more about the history of herbes de Provence and the Ferme de Gerbaud wild herb farm near Lourmarin
Some cooks use a pinch of dried lavender flowers to give a kick to savoury stews, or to local goat's and sheep's cheeses.
The Auberge du Teillon near the Gorges du Verdon offers a full lavender-themed menu, though it cheats slightly by using lavender honey in the savoury courses. Lavender itself is most often found strictly on the dessert menu, where a chef might use it to flavour a sorbet or crème pâtissière.
D IS FOR DISTILLERY
The process of distilling oil of lavender in an alembic (still) is not unlike that used for, say, whisky. Many lavender farms in Provence offer tours of their distilleries: click here to read about a visit to the Arôma'Plantes distillery near Sault.
And numerous websites explain how to distill essential plant oils at home. Distilling your own alcohol is, of course, illegal in many countries!
In the Middle Ages, the glove-makers of Grasse used lavender oil to mask the smell of tanning the leather. Many of them escaped the Black Death and other waves of plagues and it's thought the lavender helped deter the fleas which were spreading the epidemics (grave-robbers bathed in a vinegar infused with lavender and herbs for the same reason). Pet-owners still recommend lavender as a flea repellent.
G is for Giono
"Lavender is the soul of Upper Provence," declared the writer Jean Giono (1895-1970), who was born and died in Manosque, in the heart of lavender country, and is hard to avoid if you're in Provence on the tourist trail.
Best known for his novel The Horseman on the Roof and the film based on it starring Juliette Binoche, Giono enthused, "Here lavender makes the earth and the sky balmy, reflecting sunlight and shadow."
H is for Honey
Two types of lavender honey (miel) are produced in Provence: miel de lavande and miel de lavandin (see Part Two of our Little Lexicon of Lavender for the difference between lavande and lavandin).
Miel de lavande is thick, highly aromatic and amber yellow in colour. Miel de lavandin is light, almost white when crystallised and has less flavour. The majority of Provence's honey - as much as 60 per cent - is sold directly by the bee-keepers.