The Curious Guide to Lavender in Provence
You either love lavender or you hate it. The essence is used for insomnia, headaches, to cleanse cuts or insect bites, deter mosquitoes and more. Despite it’s uses though, there’s no denying that it’s absolutely stunning in the plant form, and oh so iconic of our beloved Provence.
You can see, prance and document the rows and rows of lavender that seem to go on forever in various shades of purple as long as you plan your trip to Provence during the lavender season, which is sadly quite short. Farmers have to cut the flowers when they’re at their peak for producing the essential oil.
If you can’t make it during the season, I have to say that’s there’s PLENTY more to see here in Provence. But if your heart only beats for purple…
Where to Find Lavender in Provence
I always recommend renting a car in Provence because visiting this place is all about the stunning undulating country roads and hilltop towns.
For the largest fields of lavender, head to Sault or the better known Valensole. Aim for either of these towns and you’ll see lavender for miles. The higher in altitude, the later the blooming. You’ll also find quite a lot of lavender just north or Ferrassières later on in the season.
The Luberon also has many fields but you’ll have to drive around to find them, as they are mixed between vines, cherry orchards and olive groves.
See here excellent suggestions for 7 Lavender Circuits in Provence.
Lavender Walk From Sault (suggested by the tourism office).
When to See Lavender in Provence
Timing is everything with lavender, as it is with sunflowers. Cruelly, they bloom at the same time. I start my lavender photo shoots during the last week of June and go until the first week of August. I’ll start in the Luberon, then Valensole, then Sault.
From the valley of Drôme-Diois to Haut-Buëch: the flowering of lavender begins mid-June in July around Crest. It lasts until the beginning of August in Haut-Diois and Haut-Buëch. Distillation sometimes continues beyond August 15th in places (Chamaloc, Valdrôme, La Faurie).
In Drôme Provençale: the flowering of the lavandin begins mid-June, in plain, in the area of Grignan and Tricastin. It continues until mid-July in the highest areas (Vinsobres, Roche Saint-Secret).
From Baronnies to Buëch: lavender blooms from late June in the Buëch valley. And from early July in the highest sectors (Laborel, Mévouillon). The harvest can take place until early August. And distillation, according to methods, until the end of August.
Between Ventoux, Luberon and Lure: flowering begins in mid-June around Apt. It continues until August 15 in the country of Forcalquier and on the plateau of Albion.
From Haute-Provence to Verdon: flowering begins in mid-June around Valensole. It continues until mid-August in the Digne country or Haut-Verdon.
Prealpes d’Azur and the Grasse region: in this cradle of production in Provence, we find mainly wild lavender (with the exception of the Caussol plateau). By the end of June, the sides of the mountains are a deep blue. Little harvested nowadays, this lavender remains visible long enough.
The blooming times are different each year according to the weather so if you’re really set on seeing the lavender, come at a time where you’ll be guaranteed to see it such as the first 2 weeks of July.
Visit a Lavender Distillery
A couple years ago I visited Aroma Plants Distillery in Sault and participated in a soap making workshop. During the warmer months these workshops are offered a couple times a week but mostly led in French. There are numerous distilleries around Sault and Valensole that you can visit. They’re all excellent and often grow other Provencal varieties of aromatic plants.
I find visiting a working distillery more interesting than a museum but if you can’t get to one, a museum such as Musée de la Lavande in Coustellet is a great way to learn more about this scenty crop.
Eating lavender is not really my thing though I have had it sprinkled into an apricot jam or an ice cream. To try it in ice cream, the most celebrated place to try it is the provencal organic lavender ice cream made by artisan Scaramouche. You can find a store in Cereste, Avignon or Paris.
Lavender vs Lavandin (for the purists)
There are numerous lavender species (lavendula) that grow naturally in Provence. Make sure to pay attention to those small shrubs in the hillsides; mixed in with the wild thyme and rosemary as you’ll also find wild lavender. The growers in Provence concentrate on two varieties, the “lavande fine” and “lavandin.”
Lavande Fine, or true lavender, only grows in altitude at about 700 to 800 metres above sea level. This is the high quality stuff used for high end perfumes, cosmetics, and bouquets. Lavande fine has AOC status in France and must follow certain criteria to achieve this status, just like a fine French wine. A hectare of fine lavender produces 15 to 20 kg of essential oil. These farmers are not rich wich is all the more reason to not pick the flowers but buy them from the distillery shop or the market.
Lavandin is a hybrid lavender that grows up to 600 metres in altitude. It produces more oil and is intended for functional perfumery such as soaps and detergents.
Lavender Sachets vs Wands (fuseaux)
Lavender flowers have for centuries perfumed ladies knicker drawers and linen closets not only for the lovely scent, but because the smell deters mites and even scorpions! You may have seen the movie A Good Year, set in Provence, where the guests are visited by scorpions after they throw the dried lavender flowers from their window. I wish we had known the lavender trick when we first moved here. We were deep in the countryside and had a couple scorpion incidents. Once even under the sheets! Don’t worry, other than that first crazy year, we haven’t seen a scorpion since.
Lavender sachets are lovely and you can buy them in various different types of linen or cotton sacks at the market all year round. For something a little more special and indeed authentic, you should visit Elsa.
Elegant Elsa creates traditional lavender wands using vintage ribbons. This was the original “lavender sachet.” A labour of love, she always has a wand on the go to explain to the curious. She takes fresh lavender from her garden, bends the flowers back on themselves and then weaves ribbons in between the stems for a stunning result. She also offers workshops during the summer months. Elsa only sells at the market during June-September because she needs fresh flowers to create her fuseaux. You can find her at Saint Remy de Provence Market, Eygalières market, and Gordes market. She’s always a stop on the CuriousProvence Market Tour.
To find her wands all year round, go to Le Savoir Faire des Alpilles Boutique in Saint Remy de Provence where you’ll also find many other local artisan products.
Lavender Festivals in Provence
As the French celebrate all crops with festivals, lavender is particularly special because the festivals often occur just after the harvest or during the harvest. Consequentially, the towns are absolutely permeated with the smell of lavender. You’ll be able to marvel at the cut flowers piled high on the backs of trucks heading to distilleries. At these festivals, there will be a small market, a little Provencal dancing and a parade.
The following Lavender Festivals are the dates for 2018. They change slightly each year so confirm the date beforehand!
- Fête de la Lavande (Barrême) July 22 juillet
- Fête de la Lavande (Saint-Geniez) August 11 to 15
- Foire de la Lavande (Digne-les-Bains) August 22 to 26 août
- Fête de la Lavande (Valensole) July 15
- Fête de la Lavande Sault July 15
Provence Lavender Photo Shoots
Book a professional lavender photo shoot with me for a stunning memory of your time here in Provence. Family, couples or solo, all photo shoots are fun! The Luberon is my favourite spot because of the varied landscape in the background of the photos. The time of day is even more important than usual with lavender fields as the fields are located behind mountains, or in flat areas. Waking up very early or waiting for a late dinner is worth it. Trust me. It’s my job to drive around (quite a bit) during the season so that I can keep tabs on each field, as each year the blooming is slightly different according to the weather. A couple days before the photo shoot I’ll send you gps coordinates. See Provence Vacation Photography for more information or visit the PhotographerinProvence website.
Let me help you organise a very special surprise proposal in a lavender field. Absolutely stunning. All the proposals I’ve photographed are real, so yes, a bit tricky and nerve racking but oh my goodness so worth it! I’ll bring the champagne. Rosé champagne of course… Email for inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hot Air Ballooning (for the adventurous)
Book at least 6 months in advance (if you can) for this absolutely amazing experience. Float in a basket with your pilot Tom over the expansive lavender fields of the Verdon National Park. It’s honestly not as scary as you might think. See the Hot Air Ballooning in Provence article for more information.
Things to think about
Bees are all over the lavender as soon as the sun comes out. However, for all the hours I’ve spent in the fields I’ve never, nor have any of my clients, been stung. I just mention it because if you’re allergic it’s best to carry an epi-pen with you but honestly the bees are more interested in the flowers. Thankfully so, as they create the aromatic lavender honey. YUM.
Please please please DO NOT pick lavender in fields. If you’d like a souvenir, buy some essential oil directly from the distillery. If you’re planning on a photo shoot and would like a bouquet with you, buy one for 4€ at the market the day before or you can ask me to bring one for you. The flowers aren’t there just to be pretty, they’re a crop. If you see the farmer (I’ve come to know a few) be polite and say hi to them. Ask if it’s ok to enter the field.
**Due to too many people picking flowers, the famous Abbaye de Senanque lavender fields are now closed off to potential lavender wanderers, posers and prancers. In order to continue to have access to other fields, please respect them.
Podcast Interview featuring moi by Latitude Photography about Lavender in Provence: Podcast with Ashley Tinker
Et Voilà! Have you ever pranced in a lavender field? Is it on your bucket list? First thing in the morning, or late in the evening, the experience is absolutely magical.