Known as “blue gold” in French, this little plant charms you with its bewitching fragrance, known since antiquity for its medicinal properties. To see the large expanses of lavender so characteristic of Provence, take the road to Nice from Digne-les-Bains to the Valensole plateau passing through little villages, such as Mézel, Estoublon and Bras d’Asse. You will find it difficult to resist the urge to photograph the swathes of purple and gold extending far into the mountainous backdrop.
A little history
The true history of lavender begins at the beginning of the 19th century, when it only existed in the wild and was harvested by shepherds and peasants. Today, it is the cultivation of lavandin – a cross between Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia (or spiked lavender) – that is prevalent. The hybridisation made it possible to develop the cultivation of this “blue sprig” or “brin bleu”, as it is commonly called in French. The cultivation of lavandin grew around the middle of the 20th century to meet the growing demand from perfumers in Grasse.
Hear the story of lavender cultivation told through a museography of light and sound at the Lavender Museum in Digne-les-Bains.
Lavender or lavandin?
There are two species cultivated in Provence: lavender and lavandin. True or fine lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the noblest of lavenders and its essential oil has benefited, since 1981, from the French AOC (“controlled designation of origin”) label: Haute-Provence Lavender Essential Oil. It is characterised by a long branch with a single flower spike and grows in shrubs. It is found between 500 and 1500 metres in altitude on the sunny slopes of our mountains. Lavandin is a hybrid of true lavender and spike lavender (lavandula spica). It grows easily in the natural environment but is mainly found in cultivation. It has three flower spikes, which makes it larger than fine lavender renders its yield much higher than that of true lavender. Lavandin does not reproduce and its scent is lighter than that of lavender.
Don’t miss the flowering period and lavender festivities! To see the fields in bloom, plan a trip between June 15 and the end of July. Flowering lasts until the end of August, but harvest begins from mid-July.
The “Lavender Month”
The Lavender Corso takes place during the first weekend of August, a tradition that began in 1939. During the Corso, the city and streets light up with a parade of colourful floats accompanied by musical groups and troupes of majorettes and dancers.
As for the Lavender Fair, it occupies the main square of Digne-les-Bains at the end of August. All sorts of products from the cultivation of lavender can be found there: lavender essence, soaps, honey… This fair has been organised since the 1920s and used to signify the end of the harvest. It started out as a fair to promote various lavender samples to the biggest names among perfumers. Over the years, the Lavender Fair has become an occasion where perfumers and individuals alike meet to buy other local and regional products such as honey, syrups, soaps, cakes and so on.
During these festivities, local producers come and demonstrate the distillation process. It is an excellent opportunity to meet the locals and to share in the Provençal “art de vivre”!