Lovin’ the Lavender!
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
When we think of lavender, we immediately think of Provence – the undulating fields of color and fragrance that have come to define the region. A flowering plant related to mint, lavender is renowned for its lovely scent, beautiful color, and its prominent place in Provencale culture. But this wonderful herb has a storied past that spans the globe.
The Rich History of Lavender Lavender grows wild in Mediterranean countries from Spain to North Africa, and we know that its cultivation goes back at least 2,500 years. There are many legends surrounding its history, including one that it was brought out of the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve.
The ancient Egyptians used lavender oil for embalming and cosmetics. They probably knew of lavender's healing properties, and may have attributed spiritual power to it as well. When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, jars filled with ointments containing lavender were found. These ointments were used by royal families and high priests in massage oils and medicines. Wealthy men would put solid cones of it on their heads, and it would cover their bodies with perfume as they melted.
The Greeks learned from the Egyptians about the use of these aromatics. In contrast to the ancient Egyptians, the Greek philosopher Diogenes used it on his feet: “When you anoint your head with perfume, it flies away in the air and birds only get the benefit of it, whilst if I rub it on my lower limbs it envelopes my whole body and gratefully ascends to my nose.” The term "lavender" derives from the Latin word "lavere" meaning "to wash” – probably because the ancient Romans added lavender oil to the water in their public baths. They used it to scent their clothes and their hair, and Roman women hung lavender next to their beds to incite passion. In the home, lavender was used to sweeten the air, repel insects, fumigate sick rooms, and as incense in rituals. The Romans also discovered lavender’s healing and antiseptic qualities, and soldiers took it with them to treat war wounds.
For more about Romans in Provence, view our full article on the "6 Ancient Ruins of Aqueducts, Temples and Coliseums in Provence, France", CLICK HERE . Cleopatra is said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony with the alluring fragrance of lavender, and the famous asp that killed her might have been hiding in one of her lavender plants. Perhaps this explains the Roman superstition that the deadly asp nests in lavender bushes – which drove up the price of the intimidating plant. In Roman times, lavender flowers were sold for the equivalent of a laborer’s monthly salary, or fifty haircuts from a barber. In the Middle Ages, monasteries and convents preserved the knowledge of lavender as a prominent entry in their medicinal herbs lists, and cultivated it in their encyclopedic gardens. Beyond these communities, lavender was used as an aphrodisiac as well as the opposite: it was believed that a sprinkle of lavender water on one’s head would keep the wearer chaste. During the Great Plague, criminals who looted the belongings of the dead managed to avoid the disease. Supposedly, these criminals escaped legal punishment by sharing the secret of their good health – the practice of cleansing themselves and their loot with lavender-infused "Four Thieves Vinegar.” And in 16th century France lavender was also used as protection against infection. Glove makers who perfumed their products with lavender were known to avoid contracting cholera.
Throughout Great Britain and Europe, royalty embraced the use of lavender. When Henry VIII forbade monasteries, lavender moved to domestic gardens, and it was used extensively in the great manors of Tudor England much as the Romans had used it. Lavender was used to freshen the air and was mixed with beeswax to polish furniture. It was usually planted near the laundry room, and linens and clothing would be laid over the plants to dry while absorbing its fragrance.
Queen Elizabeth of England insisted on lavender jam at her table, drank lavender tea to treat her frequent migraines, and used it as perfume. Henrietta Marie, wife of King Charles I, used lavender in soaps, potpourris, and water for washing and bathing. King Charles VI of France had his seat cushions stuffed with lavender. Eventually, though, lavender became so synonymous with stuffy upper-class society like the buttoned-up Victorians that it lost its appeal within popular culture. But recently, lavender is again being embraced for its many superlative qualities. In fact, just last year the International Herb Organization in Virginia named it Herb of the Year. Luckily, it never quite fell out of favor in Provence, where it has flourished since it first arrived.
Lavender in Provence
The Romans first brought lavender to Provence, and by the 20th century shepherds were collecting it to sell to the perfumeries of Grasse. Just before World War I, the French government saw lavender production as a way to keep people from leaving the area, so they cleared acres of almonds orchards and planted lavender instead. Provence is now the world’s largest lavender producing region. Lavender starts to bloom in Provence in mid to late June, around the time of the summer solstice, and grows until harvest time around the end of summer. The season varies from year to year, depending on the weather. Although you can find lavender in mass-produced items, the best place to find high quality, unique lavender products is at smaller-scale operations. These small, often family-run businesses make many lavender-based products with great care. They are rightfully proud of the quality and integrity of their offerings, and many lavender growers, distillers, and artisans offer public tours of their facilities. For example, the Agnel family in Luberon has grown and distilled lavender since 1895. They produce a wide range of all-natural products from their own lavender, whose high quality they passionately cultivate and celebrate. Another family-run lavender farm and distillery, the charming Distillerie Vallon in the town of Sault, uses the same machinery they have used since they opened in 1947. Both families offer free tours.
True lavender die-hards can visit the Lavender Museum , open from February to December. It chronicles the story of lavender from the 1500s to the present, and in July and August they operate an old-fashioned open-flame still dating from the early 1900s. Many gardeners in the region bring lavender there for distillation. If you're planning your lavender-themed vacation, Click Here for some great vacation ideas!
Lavender’s Medicinal Uses When it comes to medicinal herbs, lavender often tops the list. Pliny the Elder, a Greek encyclopedist, wrote of its benefits for menstrual problems, upset stomachs, kidney disorders, jaundice, dropsy, and insect bites. Rene Gattefosse, one of the founders of modern aromatherapy, documented the healing and antiseptic qualities of lavender when he accidentally burned his hand while working in his lab. He used lavender oil to stop the pain and it quickly healed with no subsequent infection or scarring. Lavender oil was even used to dress war wounds during World War I, when antiseptics were in short supply.
Today it is used to induce sleep, ease stress and relieve depression. It is also used to make compresses for dressing wounds and to apply to the forehead to relieve sinus congestion, headaches, hangovers, motion sickness, tiredness, tension, and exhaustion. The oil is used as a disinfectant, an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory, and for aromatherapy. It is also used for internal conditions like indigestion and heartburn. An infusion of lavender soothes and heals sunburn and small cuts, burns, inflammatory conditions, and acne. There are therapeutic lavender salves for pain and tension relief and a hand sanitizer to kill germs.
Natural Personal Care with Lavender It’s an open secret that many of the world’s best beauty products derive from natural ingredients like lavender, sourced from the south of France. The famous French aromatherapy company Florame was one of the first companies to develop organic cosmetic lines. They offer a wide range of products made using all-natural processes and raw materials, and many feature lavender from Provence. Another all-natural beauty line, Mademoiselle Provence also uses authentic Provencale lavender in many of its products.
Bath-related items are some of the most popular lavender products. Many lavender soaps, lotions, creams and other products are handmade by artisans in Provence. You can find handmade lavender-scented bar soaps made from moisturizing goat’s milk or shea butter. Also on offer are lavender-based liquid soap, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner. And it doesn’t end there! Lavender massage oil, lotions, creams, and body butter will soothe your skin. Top it off with lavender powder, perfume, deodorant, or after-shave. Lavender in Cooking Today in Provence, the lambs graze on lavender to make their meat more tender and fragrant! It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until the 20th Century that lavender was adopted by traditional French cooks. Some people are still surprised when they hear about cooking with lavender. But it can add a unique flavor to a wide variety of dishes.
In addition to seasoning, lavender adds color to your dishes, and fresh lavender blossoms make a beautiful garnish. For most cooking, it is the dried flowers that are used, although the leaves may also be used. Lavender buds can enhance both sweet and savory flavors, and are sometimes paired with sheep's-milk and goat's-milk cheeses. They add a floral, slightly sweet and elegant element to salads, soups, meat and seafood dishes, desserts, cheeses, baked goods and candies. When cooking with lavender, use it sparingly as you would with any strongly-flavored dried herb. You can use lavender to give stews and reduced sauces aromatic flair. It can also be used in pastas, salads, and dressings. Whether you prefer meat seasoning that is spicy or sweet, in the form of a rub or a marinade, cooking with lavender adds a special flavor that is tasty and aromatic. If you are grilling your meat, try sprinkling some dried lavender on the hot coals for a unique and beautiful flavor and fragrance.
Adding lavender to drinks is another way to enjoy this astonishing herb. Lavender is available in many beverages such as tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Lavender lemonade and limeade are great refreshers in the summertime. Lavender can be used decoratively in spirits, or as a decorative aromatic in champagne or wine. Try dropping a few fresh lavender florets into your glass, or use a lavender stem with the flowers still attached as a swizzler. A favorite way to enjoy the flavor of lavender is in desserts, and it’s easy to make lavender sugar. Just mix a tablespoon of dried lavender with two cups of sugar and let it sit for a couple of weeks. Sift out the lavender and use the sugar as you normally would. It’s great in baked goods, and to scent flans, custards, and sorbets. If you don’t want to make your own desserts, you can find lavender-scented sweets such as chocolate, truffles or cookies on offer in the shops and markets of Provence. Favorites like chocolate chip, oatmeal, ginger, and almond lemon are often available. Many provencale jellies, jams, and marmalades use lavender, and you can also find condiments with lavender such as salsa, chutney, or even honey. For more ideas on Provencal cuisine and recipes, view our full article on the iconic foods of southern France HERE .
Lavender at Provence Paradise Here at Provence Paradise each of our townhouses has its own herb garden, of which lavender is a star. We grow the fabled Provence variety of lavender, which is well-suited for cooking. And since our gardens are strictly organic and pesticide-free, you can feel comfortable using the blossoms and leaves for personal consumption, whether you’re making your own toiletries or adding it to your dinner!
While you’re here, why not try some of these simple ways to enjoy the beauty of Provence’s most famous herb?
Cut some fresh lavender as a bouquet for your table.
Want a personal spa treatment? Try a long soaking bath with lavender tub tea.
Give your feet some relief with a lavender foot soak.
Take advantage of lavender’s calming effect by slipping a sprig or two into your pillowcase.
Steep some lavender in vinegar to brighten your salads. Lavender vinegar can also be used as a hair rinse or facial scrub.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can try making sachets and pot pourri to place in your closets or drawers. Fresh lavender can also be used to make wreaths or wands that will remain lovely and fragrant as they dry – a wonderful keepsake from your time in Provence.
Stay at Provence Paradise in St. Remy de Provence and conveniently explore the local sites and enjoy its culinary specialties.
Next time you visit Provence in Southern France, consider staying in an authentic townhouse rather than a hotel. For more ideas or for booking your own vacation rental, Click Here to find out more.