20 April 2009

Is that Lavender or Lavender?

One of my favourite scents is lavender. I grow it in my garden and we have it in many different products here at Rocky Mountain Soap. It is one of the few essential oils that can be applied directly onto the skin. It has been called "blue gold", has sedative properties and is very relaxing. It is anti-microbial, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It is of course used in cosmetics, bath and body products and as a delightful fragrance in French cooking and chocolate. The nectar from the flowers also produces a deliciously scented honey. So, with this in mind, I thought I knew everything that I needed to know: all lavender is produced in France, it is easy to grow and all lavender is the same.

I was wrong on two of the three counts. Lavender is not exclusive to France. Eastern Europe is a major production area, and there are lots of lavender farms in BC - in the Okanagan, Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Islands, as well as in Sequim, WA just across the Juan de Fuca Strait. And while it is easy to grow at home, and you can get plants already started at your local gardening centre, be aware that not all lavender is created equal.

There are over 40 different species of lavender. English lavender (Lavandula augustifolia), the most sought after lavender essential oil, known for its delicate and subtle fragrance is the most common. However, Lavandin (L. x intermedia) a clone of a hybrid cross between English lavender (L. augustifolia) and Spike lavender (L. latifolia) is becoming more common because of its larger flowers, often deeper colour, much stronger scent and ease of cultivation. Indeed, it takes about 130kg of English lavender to produce 1 litre of essential oil versus 40kg of Lavandin flowers to get the same amount of essential oil. Lavandin is not true lavender however and is often referred to as 'Bastard Lavender'. It produces an essential oil, strong in camphor (about 6-8% versus the less than 1% composition in English lavender essential oil), and can be found more and more in large scale applications. While its flowers are beautiful, its essential oil is considered to be inferior to of L. augustifolia, lacking the subtle lavender scents associated with fine English lavender. I was wrong, not all lavender is created equal!

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