The Colour Purple - Analysing the future of lavender


France produces more than 30 per cent of the world's lavender; visitors flock to the south of the country each summer to see the lavender fields. However, the industry has been facing many challenges over the last ten years and there are growing fears about the plant's future – Drôme in particular has seen production reduced by 15 per cent, due to a number of environmental, health and climatic issues. Nevertheless, consumer demand for lavender is still high and the industry is making progress to ensure a consistent and reliable supply.

In the following article, Earthoil takes a closer look at lavender and the current challenges the plant and its growers are facing. Earthoil also examine how growers and manufacturers are looking to overcome such issues.

Steeped in history

Lavender is the common name for lavendula, a flowering plant consisting of 39 species. Originating in Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, South West Asia, South East Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa, as well as Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, the plant grows particularly well in hot climates. It is grown as both an ornamental plant and commercially, for the extraction of essential oil.

To produce lavender essential oil, the lavender plants are first placed in a distillation tank. As the tank is loaded, the steam travels through the plants and drains out the essential oils. The steam is then cooled in the condenser whereby the mix becomes a liquid. The mix of essential oil and water is separated in a Florentine vase; the oil floats to the surface and is collected.

Organic fine lavender is the highest quality lavender. It delivers flowery, fruity notes with aromatic tones. The chemical composition of organic fine lavender oil (Lavandula angustifolia M) is shown below:

**Chemical name** **Levels**
Linalyl Acetate 25 – 45%
Linalool 25 – 38%
Camphor 0 – 0.5%
Total Ocimene 5\.5 – 16%
Terpine-4-ol 0\.1 – 6%
Cineole 0 – 1%
Lavender oil is popular among consumers thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. The plant has been used for these medicinal purposes for over 2,500 years, with the Romans using the strong, sweet smelling herb for bathing, cooking and scenting the air. **Growing pains** Lavender, along with other fragrance, aromatic and medicinal plants, is well-adapted to the geographic and climatic conditions of the South of France, thanks to its Mediterranean setting. An important industry within the region, it is bringing both tourists and revenue to the area. In 2000, lavandin – a hybrid between fine lavender and spike lavender – made up 80 per cent of fragrance plants in the area, with lavender accounting for 20 per cent. While lavandin and lavender are part of the same species of plant, their differing chemical compositions mean that lavandin has a stronger, medicinal smell, which is less refined than lavender. In fact, many manufacturers prefer to use lavender in their products, thanks to its higher quality and more classic aroma. By 2009, however, lavandin made up nearly 90 per cent of fragrance plants, to the detriment of lavender. Lavandin Grosso (Lavandula x hybrid), the main variety of lavandin, represented 85 per cent of its growth. Lavandin Grosso is an extremely hardy variety. It provides camphored, aromatic notes with some flowery and amber notes. The industry has become extremely concerned as the lavender growing areas have reduced by a half since 2009. There is therefore limited availability of lavender, which has caused prices to increase significantly. The following table shows the chemical composition of lavandin grosso.
**Chemical name** **Levels**
Linalyl Acetate 25 – 38%
Linalool 24 – 37%
Camphor 6\.0 – 8.5%
Total Ocimene 0\.5 – 2.5%
Terpine-4-ol 0\.3 – 5.0%
Cineole 4 – 8%
France would be well placed to continue to provide a high quality lavender yield, thanks to its warm Mediterranean weather. The impact of climate change, however, has caused a decline in rainfall over winter, which has affected the quality of the lavender yield. Rain water is an important part of the irrigation process for fragrance plants and lavender, in particular. While fragrance plants can grow in hot conditions with little rainfall, a decreased level of irrigation can reduce overall yield. **Hotting up** A common misconception in the flavour and fragrance industry is that frost is the main cause of the decline in lavender production. In reality, it is the extremes in temperature that are the root of the most significant problems. From 2003-2008, for example, the region experienced its hottest and driest weather to date. If the climatic conditions are too hot, the plants cannot retain enough moisture to survive over winter. Lavender is particularly susceptible to changes in weather conditions, and this has led to a decline in vegetation. **Biting issue** Another reason for the decline in the number of lavender plants is the Stolbur tomato phytoplasma, which is transmitted by the the Hyalestes obsoletus insect, and has affected most of the lavender species. These insects are resistant to the recommended insecticides and stronger chemicals are not permitted for use against them. Lavender farmers are therefore faced with the challenge of keeping them at bay. The farming industry is attempting to control the situation using indirect methods. **Looking to the future** The damaging effects of the climate and pests have led to farmers having to uproot lavender plots across France in order to save the remainder of the crop. As a result, lavender plants are being replanted to offset the loss. However, efforts to replant the crop have not yet surpassed the rate of decline of the plants, which reached 15 per cent between 2000 and 2009 in the French region of Drôme. This is due to the high costs of replanting, and the resulting loss in profitability for farms. In spite of increasing prices in the lavender market, high consumer demand for lavender products and essential oil means that manufacturers must continue to buy the plant. Suppliers such as Earthoil can also guarantee a fair and ethical price for lavender production, giving the farmers more financial security. Although the French lavender industry is currently faced with several challenges, France does benefit from a strong supply chain, ensuring that farmers can guarantee supply to local customers. With good agricultural practices and the right environment for growth, it is clear why the country is the leading lavender and lavandin supplier. Lavender is a favourite essential oil amongst consumers and so, as long as fragrance suppliers continue to support production, the future of the plant is secured and end user demand will remain satisfied. Giles Bovill