As you walk down the streets of Avignon in the summer, the first thing that you’ll notice is the sweet, calming smell of lavender. Vendors line the small cobbled backstreets, selling everything from soap to candles to potpourris. This experience isn’t just unique to Avignon either. From June to August, lavender blooms in abundance all over the region of Provence. In fact, France produces over half of the lavender in the world! It’s arid climate, sandy soil, and sunny days make the Provencal climate perfect for lavender to grow.
Lavender first came to France from either the Canary Islands or from Persia, which is now Iran. Its medical properties were quickly discovered, leading the Greek to consider lavender to be a precious commodity. During the Middle Ages, medical schools in the nearby towns of Montpellier and Marseilles continued to explore the benefits of the plant, believing it to protect against the Black Plague. However, it was impossible to produce lavender in large quantities until the 1900s when leaps in agricultural technology were made.
Fields of lavender are the quintessential image of southern France. The beautiful fields make lavender a natural tourist attraction, but lavender also has a variety of uses. Lavender oil alone can be used as a calming aromatherapy, a natural medicine used to get rid of headaches when rubbed on the temples of the head, and a bug repellent. Interestingly, hospitals used lavender to clean wounds during World War II due to lavender’s anti-septic properties. Lavender can also be used for a variety of culinary purposes. Raw lavender is often found in desserts and pastries, sometimes in the form of lavender sugar. Additionally, the flavor pairs well with chocolate. Bees can also make the pollen of lavender into very high-quality honey.
So the next time you find yourself wandering through the streets of a lavender market, pick some up. If not for the history, the cultural influence, or the variety of uses, do it for the experience.