One of my favorite trips in the south of France is going to see the lavender fields in bloom. It’s just heavenly. The landscape turns purple and the air is sweet.
The Lavender Fields of Provence
Rows of fragrant lavender plants stretching toward the horizon are an unforgettable sight. In fact, for many people, this is the first image that comes to mind when they think of Provence. You might imagine that the landscape has always been swathed in lines of lavender, but you would be wrong. Growing the purple plant in this fashion only began in the twentieth century.
Since time immemorial, wild lavender, called lavande, has dotted Provence’s rocky hilltops where shepherds and local peasants gathered it for their personal use. But when the University of Montpellier began to research lavender’s medicinal uses in the eighteenth century, demand for the aromatic herb rose. Crews of women and children, armed with cloth bags, departed daily to wander around the mountaintops gathering flowers from wild lavender plants. It was a time-consuming and inefficient method of harvesting.
When the perfumeries of Grasse expanded at the end of the nineteenth century, the demand increased even more, and lavender began to be treated as a crop. A hybrid, called lavandin, was developed which could be cultivated at a lower altitude. But there were no long purple rows in sight, as lavandin was planted in squares with space around each plant to make room for the harvesters. It still had to be harvested by hand, but at least the women and children no longer had to hike up the mountains to find it.
In 1950 the harvesting machine was invented, and this changed everything. The landscape was transformed into the now-familiar lines of lavender with space between each row for the mechanical picker.
Well, that’s the traditional version of why we see long rows of purple lavender in Provence today. But, of course, there is a legend…
How Lavender Came to be Cultivated in Provence: A Legend
Once there was a small, blue-eyed fairy called Lavendula. She was born high on a mountain in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence where the wild lavender grew, and she had lived there her whole life.
One day, Lavendula decided she wanted to see more of the world, so she came down from her high perch to visit the plains of Provence. When she saw the dry barren fields burned by the unrelenting sun, her heart was so sad that she began to cry.
As the tears from her blue eyes rolled down her cheeks and landed on the soil, they made puddles of violet-blue colored water. The sadness of this empty land made her cry so much that she ended up standing in a small pond.
When she finally pulled herself together and saw what she had done, she tried to wipe up the blue water, but the more she wiped, the more the color spread. Soon the entire land was a blue-violet color, and out of this grew the lavender that has become one of the best known symbols of Provence.
*There are several versions of this tale and the above is mine.
When to see lavender
Lavender can bloom from June to August, depending on the weather conditions. So it’s advisable to call the local tourist office for an estimate of the best time and location to see the blooms.
You can create your own lavender route on this site.
There are several driving (or biking) routes that will lead you through the lavender fields. You’ll find museums along the way where you can learn all about growing and distilling lavender. And, of course, you will pass a multitude of shops where you can buy any number of products made with lavender: honey, perfume, soaps… This site has a variety of lavender route maps.
The Corso de la Lavande in Digne-les-Bains is the best-known lavender festival, featuring a parade with lavender floats during the first weekend in August.
You can read even more about lavender in my book, Curious Histories of Provence.
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