The timeless appeal of lavender

In Heacham, England, a farm's only crop is lavender

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.

About this time, Lin Chilvers planted six acres of lavender on his farm in Heacham, starting what is now Norfolk Lavender, and the great tradition of English lavender was thereby preserved.

Now lavender production is slowly returning as a general farm crop in some areas of England, helped by falling prices for wheat and other conventional farm crops.

Norfolk Lavender, however, remains the only farm operation devoted exclusively to lavender. The company distills its own oils and markets them around the world.

It's also a major destination for tourists on their travels through the rolling countryside of Norfolk. That's how I came to step off a bus in the heart of the Sandringham estate recently, and where I learned much about the plant.

Growing lavender at home

You don't have to live in England or France to grow lavender successfully. The plant's needs are simple: neutral to slightly alkaline soil, good sun, a modest amount of fertilizer in spring, and moist but not wet soil. Drainage must be excellent.

Lavender must not be mollycoddled if it's fragrance you're looking for. One reason for Norfolk Lavender's success is that the somewhat dry soils of the region force the plants to develop a strong root system in search of water. This promotes good oil production.

To help the plants develop a good shape, it's vital to prune the plants all the way back to the brown stalks at the end of each growing season. One reason for the attractive plants in commercially grown fields is that harvesting cuts the plants back to roughly six inches above the soil line, leaving them in a slightly mounded shape.

English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) is a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 6 and 7. Farther north than zone 6, plants may not survive the winter. Some gardeners in zone 5 are successful at getting lavender to return year after year by mulching it heavily, and others grow the plant as an annual.

In the Southern states, French lavender (Lavendula dentata) and lavendin (Lavendula intermedia) are more suitable than English lavender, because they stand up to the heat and humidity better.

Lavender grows readily from seed but most gardeners start with plants. Once you have your favorites in place (colors range from the traditional lavender to shades of blue, pink, and white), taking cuttings and rooting them in early summer is a simple way to extend your lavender beds.

Meanwhile, if you're visiting England, you might like to stop in at Norfolk Lavender and take a tour. When you walk into the sea of blue you may well hear the hum of bees all around. It leaves you with an "all's right with the world" feeling.

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