The True Story of Lavender and Einkorn
This has been reprinted from Artemis’ Essential oil bulletin with permission.
The True Story of Lavender….and Einkorn
Artemis writes: Noel and I have just spent a wonderful 6 days in Provence, working on the Young Living farm at Simiane-la-Rotonde. There has been a disease affecting Lavender oil production in the whole of France, and we wanted to find out more about it. Here is the true story (a long one, and a fascinating one). Enjoy!
There are more than 20 species of Lavender worldwide, however there are 3 key species within the Lavender genus (Lavendula) from which Lavender oil is produced. These 3 species are all found in Provence in the south of France, the largest lavender-producing region in the world.
The 3 species are known as “True” Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), “Spike” Lavender (Lavendula latifolia) and Lavendin (which is a hybrid of True Lavender and Spike Lavender). Young Living uses Lavendin oil in some of their blends (such as Purification). Apart from that, all of Young Living’s Lavender oil (both singles and blends) comes from True Lavender.
This is different to a lot of other companies. Most of what is sold as “Lavender oil” around the world today is either synthetic, or it’s Lavendin (or it’s True Lavender oil with synthetic additives to extend it). Lavendin differs greatly in its effects and its chemical profile from True Lavender, and has a higher camphor content. This means that whereas True Lavender is often used to help with burns, Lavendin will exacerbate a burn due to its camphor content. Lavender and Lavendin oil smell similar – Lavendin is a little more camphorous in its odour, and hence to most people’s noses it possesses a slightly stronger “Lavender” smell to it.
Lavendin is a sterile plant, so it needs to be cultivated from cuttings. It can occur naturally in the wild if a bee collects pollen from both True Lavender and Spike Lavender. The result of this natural cross-pollination is Lavendin. This is a relatively rare occurrence, since Spike Lavender grows at lower altitude, and True Lavender at higher altitude, with little geographical overlap.
True Lavender plants will live for about 20 years, although their essential oil production drops off after 10 years. For this reason, farmers in Provence have historically rotated crops. They grow True Lavender for 10 years, then they pull out the Lavender bushes and put in another crop for 2 years. Usually this has been Einkorn, an ancient grain which adds nutrients back into the soil. Occasionally farmers will use Clary Sage or Rosemary instead. After 2 years, these plants are taken out, and a new crop of Lavender is planted…..and so the cycle goes on.
Unfortunately, some farmers have moved away from these traditional farming methods, and have instead been farming monocultures (meaning that they pull the lavender out, and replace it with more lavender). This has been more evident among the Lavendin farms, but does also happen sometimes with True Lavender. Farming monocultures is a recipe for disaster, because it weakens the soil, and over time introduces disease into the plants….and that’s exactly what has happened in Provence.
There is a tiny insect, a relative of the cicada (only much tinier – barely 1 mm in size). It’s called the “Cicadelle” or “Leaf Hopper”, and is scientifically known as Hyalesthes obsoletus. It’s a parasitic insect with a voracious appetite. It attacks the stem of the lavender flower, and sucks all the glucose out of the stem. As a result, the lavender flower dies, along with its stalk.
Now this insect has been happily feeding off lavender flowers for 100 years or more, and it loves hot, dry weather. Adults appear in the second half of June, and live for up to 43 days (according to http://ag.udel.edu/delpha/439.pdf). In the past, its effects were not extreme amidst the lavender population. The lavender stalk would lose its glucose, and as a result the lavender flower would die……but the next year, new flowers would spring up from the lavender plant, and so long as the farmers harvested in time (ie. earlier in the summer, before too many flowers were affected), all was kept in balance.
The problem is that the Cicadelle is a carrier for a deadly microbacteria, Phytoplasma stolbur, which wreaks devastation on the lavender plant itself. It’s no longer just the stems that are affected (as happened with the Cicadelle). Now the entire plant is weakened with disease. The first signs of the bacterial infection are that the leaves yellow, and the Lavender plant stops growing in size (hence essential oil yield is stunted). Within a few years, the plant is dead (ie. its lifespan is greatly shortened).
So where Lavender plants used to produce great oil yields for 10 years (and the plant could live for 20 years), now the yield is right down, and the plant is dead after a mere 4 years or so. With the spread of this disease, Lavender oil production in Provence has dropped in yield to about a third of what it was in the year 2000. That’s had a huge effect commercially on the Lavender growers.
And it’s not just an isolated farm or two. This bacteria has had a devastating effect on Lavender oil production in the whole of Provence (which is the lavender region in France). Initially it was just the lower-altitude Lavender plants that were affected….but now the disease has affected plants and farms at all altitudes. There are still a few fields that remain unaffected by the disease, but the majority of all Lavender farms in France have now been affected. And while True Lavender was initially the most noticeably affected, over time the disease also began to affect both Spike Lavender and Lavendin cultivations.
I asked how long this has been going on for. News reports say that the Cicadelle was first noticed in Provence in 1994. However Benoit (the president of the Lavender Grower’s Association, whose family has been farming Lavender for 5 generations) said that even 100 years ago there was some evidence of this insect and its companion disease…..it re-emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But because of the practice of crop rotation, it was always a very minor effect. Now, the practice of monocultures has brought this disease to the forefront, with devastating effects on the production of essential oil.
I’ve done my own research, and found that the effects of Phytoplasma infections on plants was first reported around the year 1605 by Italian Scientist and Professor, Ulisse Aldrovandi (http://ag.udel.edu/delpha/439.pdf). And Leafhoppers are renowned to be one of the most common vectors (carriers) of this disease. So we can draw the conclusion that leafhoppers and Phytopasma have been around Lavender for quite possibly hundreds of years, and no doubt having some ill effects over this time…..but only now reaching a critical mass within the Lavender population.
And here’s the tragedy. As a result of the disease, many farmers have simply had to pull out all of their Lavender plants, and burn them to try and control the disease. At first some of the farmers switched to Lavendin, as it seemed more resistant to the disease….but with the disease now affecting Lavendin production as well, the farmers are now switching to other crops like wheat and Einkorn grain.
Because the Cicadelle loves the hot, warm weather, it’s the crops at lower altitudes which are the most affected. This includes the farming regions near Young Living’s Simiane-la-Rotonde farm, which sits at 750m above sea level. The picturesque rolling hills of endless purple flowers which the Simiane-la-Rotonde region is so well known for is now rolling fields of wheat (with occasional lavender fields dotted in between).
You might wonder why they don’t use a spray of essential oils to combat the bacteria, as Gary Young has used this concept on other crops with great success. I asked this question, however the likelihood of this being a cost-effective solution is slim, given the area of land covered by Lavender.
You see, no insecticide works on this disease (which is a blessing, because at least the organic lavender farms are not tempted to use chemicals on their fields). However, the Cicadelle larvae hatches in the soil, and new insects come out each week. So you’d need to spray every 2 days for the entire 2 months of Lavender production to be able to control the Cicadelle….and this simply isn’t going to be cost effective. As an alternative solution, farmers have tried spraying the plants with a solution of clay to smother the leaves. This has had a small amount of success in controlling the Cicadelle.
So now comes the next fascinating part of our story. Gary Young visited Provence many times, as part of his studies into the farming and distillation techniques for essential oils. In 1994 he gathered seed from True Lavender, and he took that seed to Idaho where he began his own crops of Lavender on his St Marie’s farm. Gary still had some of this seed left, so he brought that seed back to Provence. Benoit and other members of the Lavender Grower’s Association in France have been cultivating that seed into seedlings, and the seedlings have now been put into the ground around Simiane-la-Rotonde.
This “French Connection” or “St Maries” Lavender (as it’s commonly referred to) has so far shown no signs of the disease (although it’s still early days). This year was the first essential oil harvest from this French Connection Lavender. To everyone’s surprise, the French Connection Lavender flowered 2 weeks earlier than the other lavender in the fields. This means it flowered before the Cicadelle had yet come out!!!!
Benoit was extremely impressed, as he recalls that all Lavender used to flower this early in the past, and over the years the flowering season has been delayed. The magic of having the lavender plants flower early is that the harvest can take place before the Cicadelle comes to visit (ie. earlier in June). So by the time the Cicadelle comes, the majority of Lavender stalks have been harvested, giving the Cicadelle nothing much to feed on.
So the French Connection Lavender is offering hope to the Lavender farmers of Provence. Isn’t it profound that these seeds have come full circle – from Provence to St Maries (20 years ago), and now back to Provence at a time when they are most needed. J For myself, I’m excited by the invaluable role that Young Living and its founder Gary Young have played in this story. It’s yet another way that I see Young Living making a positive difference to our planet.
Noel and I have visited Simiane-la-Rotonde four times, the first being in 2003. What excited us on this visit was the number of Lavender farms which now display “Young Living Partner Farm” signs on them. This means that they are growing exclusively for Young Living, using Young Living farming and production methods. Gary Young shared with us at Convention in June 2014 that now 2000 acres of Lavender fields is producing exclusively for Young Living, and Young Living also has its own 50 acre farm in this region. How exciting is that! Young Living is apparently now the largest buyer of True Lavender in the whole region of Provence.
On another note, I want to share something interesting I learned about Einkorn. Einkorn is an ancient grain which is low in gluten (much lower than wheat). It’s often confused with spelt, because the French word for Einkorn is translated as “Little Spelt”….however, it is a completely different grain to Spelt. This has caused some confusion, because Spelt is now sometimes being called Einkorn as a result of this language confusion (where in fact it’s Spelt)…..so be cautious if you start buying “Einkorn”, as chances are it will be Spelt.
Compared to wheat, Einkorn has a really low yield (in other words, it wasn’t considered something that would be commercially viable to produce for the larger market). It’s kernel is one fifth the size of a wheat kernel. Because of this, Einkorn would have died out years ago in Provence, except that it became an excellent crop to rotate with Lavender. So farmers didn’t want the grain going to waste, and harvested it for their family (and that one harvest would provide grain for the family for a whole year).
Interested to try some? If you purchase your Einkorn from Young Living, you know it’s true Einkorn.
Young Living has “True Grit Spaghetti” and a “True Grit Pancake Mix” containing Einkorn, available from the USA office.
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