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Fields of Blue Gold

Fields of Blue Gold

As versatile as it is pretty, lavender rightly deserves to be called Blue Gold…

Words: Marianne Heron

Pictures: David Morgan and supplied

LAVENDER 002There’s something about the sight of a lavender field – all those intensely blue, scented spikes of blooms – that makes me want to sing. And I try substituting lavender for strawberry in that 1967 Beatles hit song Strawberry Fields Forever. But it doesn’t work, perhaps because John Lennon’s lyrics were about the garden at the Salvation Army children’s home of that name in Liverpool where he used to play as a child.

No matter the singing, the sight of a lavender field certainly makes people jam on their brakes, stop their cars and get out to take photographs. This is something Pietie le Roux, senior farm manager at La Motte wine estate in Franschhoek, knows only too well. For seven years his office was situated in the much-photographed cottage on the edge of La Motte’s roadside lavender field, and the screech of tyres became a familiar sound in the summer months when the fields were in bloom, remembers Pietie.

But the lavender was just doing its job, well, one of its jobs actually, as this is a really useful plant. “That particular lavendin has long stems for cut flowers and it’s so good for lavender oil,” explains Pietie, who is responsible for floriculture and viticulture at La Motte. “But we don’t only farm it for flowers and oil, we use it as an attraction. People stop for the beauty of the plant and then they come to visit the estate, so it is a triple-super plant.”

The lavandin (in this case a Lavender augustifolia cross) used for essential-oil production only flowers once a year, and the blooms are at their best for picking in December. “To harvest it for oil you must wait until the flowers are two-thirds over in mid-January, when the intensity of the oil is at its highest,” explains Pietie.

Distillation needs to be done immediately and the distillery must be close by as the lavender oils are volatile and can be lost very quickly. After that the bushes are trimmed back into a round shape, and the plant becomes dormant over winter. The cycle of lavender production – from propagation, planting, farming, harvesting, oil production by steam distillation to sales of lavender oil products – is carried out at La Motte.

The blending of lavender oil with other essential oils like those from the Cape snowbush (Eriocephalus africanus) is done in consultation with Professor Aubrey Parsons, a leading expert in botanical biology. “People use the oil for medicinal purposes, and putting a couple drops in your bath is very soothing,” explains Pietie. “From the same blend we also make lotions and air fresheners for sale in our farm shop.”

Lavender

The productive lifespan of lavender at La Motte is about seven years. It can last 10-15 years in optimum conditions, but after that the plants become woody and vulnerable to Phytophthora infestans (blight), which is carried from mountain fynbos by water. Sections of the field are replaced with new plants grown from cuttings at the estate. Rose geranium, the Cape snowbush and buchu are also grown for essential-oil production at La Motte but lavender is Pietie’s favourite. “It’s a good plant, so lovely to work with. I get so much pleasure from it.”

Lavender is dubbed ‘Blue Gold’, a description that could lead to unrealistic expectations as it’s hard to make lavender farming a profitable business on its own, without the added value of lavender-based products, and its tourism appeal.

On the plus side it’s an undemanding plant, requiring minimal water except in the blooming season and little by way of spraying or feeding. “It is the hardiest plant I have worked with,” says Pietie. “It doesn’t like to be fussed over, and it likes the Mediterranean climate here in the Franschhoek Valley, where it grows in poor, sandy soils. You must just go once a day and look at it. It likes to be looked at.”

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The next time I look at the glorious blue of lavender fields is at Canettevallei Wine and Lavender Farm in Stellenboschkloof. It’s harvest time for lavender and the air beside the winery is heady with scent from a wagonload of Lavendin abrialis waiting to be fed into a mobile distillation plant.

The story of the Canettevallei’s lavender began ten years ago but the seeds of this artisan enterprise, which is as useful as it is lovely, were sown long before. Ingrid de Waal once worked in France for one of the Champagne houses for several years and took her inspiration for her business from the lavender fields of Provence.

Back in South Africa, Ingrid married wine farmer Daniel de Waal and, when she left her post as a French lecturer at Stellenbosch University, following the birth of the second of her three daughters (Regina, Anaïs and Isabella), she wanted a project. “I wondered what I could do and at the time essential oils were the flavour of the month,” says Ingrid. “We tried it out and are one of the few still doing it. It wasn’t easy but it’s getting easier. Now we are looking forward to replanting, and have lots of plans for the future.”

On the historic wine farm originally known as Uiterwyk, which dates back to 1682 and where the De Waal family have farmed for five generations, fields of ornamental lavender cover the slope in front of Canettevallei (Duckling Valley) farm. With a six-month flowering season, the fields of purple flowers are a thrilling spectacle for tourists. “I made each little plant from one original bush,” says Ingrid, explaining that the camphor-scented perfume of ornamental lavender is more suited to blooms than oil production.

“I supply florists and weddings,” she says. Another two hectares are planted with Lavandin abrialis, which flowers for six weeks and yields premium essential oil.

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This is the oil that Werner Bester, co-owner of Essential Distillation Equipment (EDE), is extracting with one
of his customised steam-distillation units. We watch as steam vaporises the oil from the plants and, when cooled and condensed, the vapour and steam separate into water and oil. The lighter lavandin oil is then easily removed from where it has settled on the top. About one ton of lavendin will yield from 20 to 25kg of oil (oil is measured by weight rather than volume as the density varies so much).

Currently, bulk lavandin oil is valued at about R3 500 per kilogram, more with value-added products using its perfume, its flavour and medicinal properties (which include aromatherapy). Lavender also has a high yield compared with other plant material – 2 per cent compared with, for example, the 0.15 per cent from pelargonium.

Based in Riebeek-Kasteel, 13-year-old EDE takes Werner and his distillation machines to work as far afield as Madagascar, New Zealand and Scotland. The company also sells tested varieties of plants for essential oils, and consults on essential-oil production – activities that give Werner an overview of South Africa’s fledgling essential oil business. “We are trying to establish an industry,” he says. “In the beginning, people were given plenty of poor advice but now it is starting to happen. We are working with indigenous plants as well and are establishing a fynbos essential-oil forum. A huge benefit of essential oils is that there are so many downstream products.”

It is at Laventelhaan on the estate that I discover just how many varied products there are to be made from lavender. The scent-filled lavender shop that Ingrid opened three years ago is alongside Daniel’s tasting room, home of Super Single Vineyards wines from selected single vineyards, and under the Pella label for coastal region wines and Mount Sutherland for the new Sutherland Karoo region.

There are bunches of dried lavender, lavender rice for use as confetti, lavender honey, lavender oil, lotions and potions, pretty lavender bags hand-sewn by Ingrid and even lavender macaroons. “And did you know that lavender can be used for cooking and doesn’t taste as you would expect,” Ingrid tells me. “Nigella Lawson’s most copied recipe is St Tropez Chicken.”

I’m off home to try the recipe (roast chicken marinated in wine, honey, garlic, rosemary and lavender). This I’ll follow with a relaxing, lavender bath, careful to add just four drops, no more, as that could well have the opposite effect and see me energised and up and about. With lavender, never forget that a little goes a mighty long way.

024Lavender Sense

  • Lavender oil has been valued for centuries as a cure-all, used for a variety of purposes from perfume to flavouring.
  • It has antiseptic and healing properties, helps to soothe cuts, wounds and insect bites, and its relaxing properties help to banish stress and insomnia. Carry a bottle of essential oil with you to sniff as your own reviving, anti-stress remedy.

Back to Essentials

  • Essential oils are the volatile oils extracted from plant material – from green plants, seeds and branches. There are dozens of different complex oils, each containing a couple of hundred components. Sometimes only a handful of these are separated for specific uses in flavouring, perfume or medicines, by an industry that closely guards its secrets.
  • Among the indigenous South African plants used for essential oils are buchu, African chamomile, Cape snowbush, Cape May, blue mountain sage, African wormwood, helichrysum and pelargonium.

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