Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Timeless Appeal of Lavender ; in Heacham, England, a Farm's Only Crop Is Lavender

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Timeless Appeal of Lavender ; in Heacham, England, a Farm's Only Crop Is Lavender

Article excerpt

Stepping out of a car or off a tour bus into a sea of vibrant blue, you're surrounded by 50 acres of blossoms that will soon be converted into one of the world's more fragrant oils - English lavender, renowned around the globe for its exceptional quality.

But it is not scented oil that is uppermost in tourists' thoughts at this moment, but rather the extraordinary sight of broad mounded rows of lavender stretching away to distant hedgerows like some giant embossed carpet.

Surely, in full flower, lavender has to be one of the world's more striking agricultural crops. That's a fact not lost on English gardeners, given its widespread popularity in home flower beds around the country.

As it happens, these particular acres are on Queen Elizabeth's estate in Sandringham, part of the land leased or owned by Norfolk Lavender in Heacham, the only farm in England given over exclusively to lavender production.

England is far from being the world's top producer of lavender. That distinction goes to France. The Australian island state of Tasmania is another major producer, and production is increasing in parts of California.

It's the exceptional quality that gives English lavender its importance, a reputation that goes all the way back to Roman times.

Sunny, dry weather, cool temperatures, and the somewhat alkaline, often chalky soils that are commonplace in parts of England combine to produce excellent conditions for lavender-oil production.

The plants need plenty of sun but not too much heat. High temperatures volatilize the oil out of the plant, which is why Norfolk's cooling breezes are so helpful.

From Rome to Britain

Julius Caesar's legions brought lavender to Britain, though it is possible that some varieties existed naturally in the country.

Unlike today, when it's used mostly for its scent, lavender was part of every Roman soldier's first aid kit because of its soothing and insect-repellent powers. Lavender oil was also used extensively for massage in Roman times.

Wherever the Romans went, they built baths, and wherever they built baths, they scented them with lavender oil. In fact, the name lavender comes from the Latin word lavendum, which means "fit for washing."

When the Romans finally left Britain, the interest in bathing declined. But by the 16th century, lavender was again regarded as the herb of cleanliness in England, where it was frequently used in kitchens to repel insects. It was also found that a few drops of lavender oil could eliminate the normally rancid smell associated with early soaps.

In World War I vast quantities of the oil were used in field dressings for wounded soldiers; the end of hostilities saw the use of lavender decline.

At the time, the center of English lavender production was in areas immediately surrounding London. So, facing declining prices, growers readily succumbed to rising land values and sold out to developers. …

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