As you cycle through Provence at this time of year, you can’t help but be captivated by the beauty and splendor of the lavender fields in full bloom. The sweet smells of Provencal aromatics (Lavender, Thyme, Rosemary) add to the joys of riding in Provence from mi- June to August. The spectacle continues as the distinct bleu waves of lavender fields meet with the sunny yellow smiles of sunflower fields and wheat crops. Each turn on the road is a new spectacle of Provencal charms.
There are many lavender regions of Provence. The rows of bleu are part of landscapes around Sault in the shade of Mont Ventoux. Find more bleu around Apt. And one of the most popular lavender spots is nearby Gordes. The 12th century Cistercian Senanque Abbey is famous for its picturesque fields of lavender. It’s definitely a photo-stopper. Lavender grows well in well drained calcite soils and dry climates. For example around Nyons is the gateway to the wild lavender fields of the Baronies. Or even the coastal Cassis produces lavender.
So what exactly is lavender grown and used for?
Obviously Lavender is grown for its fragrance; it is used in perfumes and soaps. And can be found in household products like room fresheners. It is an insect repellent. But did you know that is has medical uses as well? It was used during the First World War as a disinfectant in hospital wards. Lavender is said to heal insect bites and burns. It can soothe headaches if you apply it to the temples and it helps you sleep if you have the flowers by your pillow. Lavender oil is also said to cure acne. Lavender has calming effects on the nervous system. Maybe that can help explain the laid back attitude of people in Provence !
Lavender has entered the world of cooking. Top chefs incorporate lavender aromas to their dishes. Mix dried lavender with the Provencal herbs for added savors. Or try a delicious lavender sorbet after a hot ride in the countryside. It’s very refreshing.
In Provence it’s possible to visit distilleries and share the skills and mastery of professionals. You can see traditional hot water vapor techniques that have been used since the turn of century in different lavender farms around Apt or Sault. Or go to Nyons where the distillery is experimenting with new technologies to distill aromatics at lower temperatures.
There are several museums in Provence that explain the history, the techniques, and the future of lavender. You can see distillery demonstrations dating to the turn of the century, or newer state of the art machines put into action.
Want to try growing it at home?
Lavender doesn’t have to stay in sunny southern France. If you live in a dry climate you can plant lavender directly in the soil. In California, its used to decorate city parking lots because it doesn’t like to be watered. If you live in a more humid climate like the Southern states, it’s better to stick to well drained pots or raised soil gardens for good drainage.
One thing is for sure, it’s therapeutic to stop and smell the lavender.