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Production, Chemical Composition and Quality Control
Although true lavender has been taxonomically classified as Lavendula vera de Canolle, L. officinalis Chaix, and L. angustifolia, it is the latter name which is the correct derivation for the commercially grown aromatic member of the Labiatae family.1 The original wild lavender (L. officinalis) can still be found high on the mountains of southern France where it grows on rocky soil where few other plants can survive. In the heat of July and August the wild lavender was once picked by the local peasants who carried the flowers in bundles on their backs into the valleys for distillation. Some French lavender is still produced from wild plants, but most is now grown on commercially controlled plots or communelles, where the lavender essence is graded according to exact analytical specifications and olfactory criteria. Commercial plants are grown from seeds or propagated from cuttings – though an established plant, if well pruned, may last as long as 20 years.
It is generally assumed that the majority of lavender essential oil is still produced in France, but although the French do still grow a lot of lavender, they are not, and have not been, the major producers of the essential oil for many years. The largest producer of lavender oil today is Bulgaria, which produces around 140 tonnes plus per annum, compared to the French who produce about 43 tonnes and falling. Other countries which also produce true lavender oil in quantity are Croatia, Russia, China and Australia, and to a lesser extent, Italy and the US.
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At one time, England was also famous for its lavender essence, and lavender production was an important economic aspect of English rural life. The earliest record of lavender being cultivated in England is in an ancient document belonging to Merton Priory from 1301, where there is mention of Spikings – 44 quarters, later explained as spiking, spike lavender, being grown to raise money for King Edward I. Merton Priory was in the neighbourhood of Mitcham in Surrey – an area which remains famous for its lavender fields even 600 years later! Three hundred acres of lavender were grown in and around Mitcham, in Surrey, during the mid-19th century, and the oil produced there realized six times the price of its French counterpart.
The distillation process was carried out in August when the oil content was at its height, and the fields were harvested by locals who collected the flowers into loose bundles of about one hundredweight, called mats (nowadays most crops are harvested mechanically). At the peak of production in the Mitcham area there were at least six growers supplying the London pharmacists and markets, especially around the area of Buckersbury. Bunches of lavender were also commonly hawked in the London streets – as early as 1805 the text under a print of a lavender seller read:
Sixteen bunches a penny, sweet lavender is the cry that invites in the streets the purchases of this cheap and elegant perfume. The distillers of lavender are supplied wholesale and a considerable quantity is sold in the streets to the middling classes of inhabitants who are fond of placing lavender among the linen yet unwilling to pay for the increased pungency of distillation.2