"Throw away the crutch of knowledge and use the Knowing..." Thomas Elpel.

The Power of Plant Oils is a forum for learning about the therapeutic use of essential oils.
This 13 module course is a means of acquiring the knowledge and experience so you can KNOW the properties
and uses of the plants and their oils.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Welsh Lavender

I just happened upon a website of a small lavender farm in Wales run by a Canadian free-lance journalist named Nancy Durham and her philosopher husband, Bill Newton-Smith. They moved to Britain 26 years ago and split their time between Oxford, where Bill taught, and the home he was restoring in the Maesmynis Valley of Wales.

One day, Nancy looked out their window in Wales and imagined a modest lavender hedge like the one they had in their garden down in Oxford. A friend suggested she apply for a grant from a group that supported local farmers and encouraged diversification. Given that the climate and soil in Wales is a far cry from that of the Mediterranean, many people thought she was crazy, but she applied for and received the grant to plant what became a field of lavender. Neighboring farmers thought for sure the lavender would grow in their rich, red earth even though it wasn't anything like the chalky, lime soil that lavender prefers.

Lavender fields in the Maesmynis Valley, Wales.
Nancy added some lime, marked out her fields, and planted 2000 lavender starts. Although her lavender babies struggled a bit, and looked "droopy", "weak", and "half dead" according to her diary, her farmer friends urged her to persevere. The fields have since survived harsh, snowy winters to flourish and grow. Nancy now has over 9000 lavender plants, mostly of the Maillete and Grosso varieties (Maillette is a cloned true lavender - Lavandula angustifolia - and Grosso is a hybrid Lavandin).

Ruby Lefant

As an experiment, Nancy distilled a small amount of lavender in 2009. Since then, she has purchased a larger still and plans to launch a line of pure, natural skin care products this summer in cooperation with Helen Lowe, who began her cosmetics career with the London herbalist, G. Balwin and Co. According to their website www.welshlavender.com, they are on track to ship to sellers sometime this month (July 2011).

New distillation equipment.

Named after the color of the soil and the Welsh word for lavender, their new venture is named Ruby Lefant. So far, their products will only be available in outlets in the United Kingdom. Unsure if anyone would be interested in buying dried lavender, or items made with locally distilled essential oils, Nancy is surprised and pleased with the willingness of fellow residents to support a hometown business. Now joined in this endeavor by her husband, Bill, their company is one of the only lavender producers in the country of Wales, but others may see their success and follow suit. They were also the first in Wales to distill lavender.

Lavender farming and distillation is a far cry from the exciting world of free-lance journalism that Nancy specializes in. Not only did she report on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the break-up of the Soviet bloc, and the shifting population migration that followed, but she traveled to Iraq in 2004 as a correspondent for CBS television, one year after she planted her lavender fields. Since then, she has also reported from the war in Afghanistan, no doubt returning to her lavender farms as a refuge from the conflict.

Nancy and Bill grow four varieties of lavender: Maillette, a cloned variety of Lavandula angustifolia; Grosso, a type of Lavandula x intermedia (a sterile hybrid of Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia grown from cuttings); and two types of true lavender (L. angustifolia) just for sachets and bunches called Royal Purple and Imperial Gem.

What started out as a wistful desire for a short hedge, turned into a full-fledged business that appears to have a bright future. Ruby Lefant and Welsh Lavender, we'll keep an eye on you!

For more information, check out their website at www.welshlavender.com or the following snailmail address:

Nancy Durham and Bill-Newton Smith                                  
Welsh Lavender Limited
Cefnperfedd Uchaf
Builth Wells, Powys
Wales LD2 3HU
United Kingdom

(No, that's not a typo in the third line. I dare you to try and say it...)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

2nd Annual Field Trip to the Lavender Farm in Lincoln, California.

Lesa Hertel explaining distillation.
Our field trip to the lavender farm was rescheduled from June 4th to today, because it was raining at the beginning of June. Here it is, the middle of July, and the temperatures are so moderate that the farm is not able to distill any essential oils yet. Lesa Hertel, one of the owners, explained to us that the plants need to be stressed by some sustained heat to begin producing the oils. She gave us an informative talk about lavender and showed us her little copper still. Then we went out into the fields for a short tour, after which, we grabbed scissors, baskets, hats, and sunscreen, and went out to chop the lavender bunches for our wreaths.

Lavender Maillette
Because of the wet winter, many plants had visible root rot, which Lesa explained had to be cut away. Instead of lush fields with lavender everywhere, there were large gaps in the rows where plants had died or were struggling. Apparently, fungus is one of the worst threats to lavender. The Hertels chose to plant acres of lavender originally because the deer won't eat it and most pests leave it alone. It doesn't require much watering and is almost drought-tolerant after the first year. It seems that is is better to under-water than over-water. Although their fields are on a slope, which probably saved them from a worse loss, the plants were still not happy with the rainy Spring. If you go back to look at  my pictures of last year's field trip, you will see a big difference between the row of Maillette that I photographed this year, and the rows of beautiful foliage from last year.

Donna making her bunches.
There was still plenty of lavender and lavandin for us to cut to make our wreaths, with a lot left out in the fields for the bees and the wreath-makers to come. Here are some examples of our handy work:

Joan in her sunhat, making her wreath.
Me, my wreath, and I.

As I sit here typing at my computer, the scent of lavender fills my office. The wreath I made, mostly from the Maillette, is hanging around the corner in the dining room. Waves of lavender aroma waft through the door periodically to remind me of the fun day we shared. Hopefully, this winter will be a little drier and the Hertel's farm will bounce back to its former lushness. We'll plan on field trip number 3 for June 2012.

Bekkah and Bellah hearing about lavender.
A small amount of distilled oil, Herbs de Provence,
and lavender spray.
Everyone listens intently.