or How come we can buy essential oils all year round?
First published in 2004 and still relevant!
In a modern world, in the developed countries, we have lost sight of seasonal patterns. Old timers will remember that it was not so long ago that one bought food and cooked food in tune with the seasons. We used to understand that harvest time was a season of abundance and that there was a hungry gap between the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
With the rise of the supermarkets this seasonal balance was lost. Many modern youngsters believe that they should be able to buy fresh apples in April and spring greens in December, buy fresh roses at Christmas and Christmas roses in June. The supermarkets and hypermarkets, in their greedy desire for profit at any price or cost to the environment, have exploited the Third World countries. These countries produce cash crops and transport produce from one half of the world to the other at great cost to the environment and often at great cost to the Third World countries themselves. Such countries know all about poor harvests and famine and the fluctuations of nature.
CAN ESSENTIAL OILS BE BOUGHT ALL YEAR ROUND?
To many buyers, aromatherapists included, essential oils are mere commodities – something to be purchased when they want, where they want and at a price they want. There seems to be some strange belief that you can buy an essential oil from any place and at any time, and it should be exactly the same. Even amongst educated aromatherapists there seems to be a gullibility that allows a chemical analysis to fraudulently lead to the belief that one essential oil is the same as another. Our nose tells us something quite different.
Aromatherapy has, however, become big business and those sellers of essential oils around the world whether in Japan, the United States, Great Britain or France, do want essential oils when they want. Supermarkets, department stores, and even therapists, seem to demand an unending supply regardless of harvest, weather and distillation possibilities. In the main they are duly satisfied by essential oil suppliers, little realising, or perhaps not even caring, that what they offer their customers is no more than a chemical soup. One cannot blame the supplier but one must ask the question Who is responsible for this? Is it the sheer ignorance of the buyer, the consumer or the user?
Consider this: Aromatic plants grow best and provide the most superb aroma when they are grown at the edge of the optimum environment. They often grow on so-called ‘poor’ soils but that are just right for the aromatics, the perfumes that grow from such soils.
When you are a real plantsman and genuine grower, a lover of the soil, you know that plants have a strong sense of place. You can feel it in the soil. You can feel it in the plants that grow. This is not romantic nonsense and is known to every wine lover around the world. True, as one Biblical reference suggests, you can throw pearls to pigs and they don’t appreciate it. Today one can drown in vinegar and propylene glycol that is sold as wine but that just tells us that the audience is uneducated and has poor taste – both metaphorically and literally. The same can be said of essential oils and perfumes.
CULTIVATED versus WILD
Undoubtedly the best aromatics come from land that is uncultivated and wild, whether this be Lavender or Chamomile, Cedarwood or Thyme. You only have to walk the land, feel and touch the plants, to understand this. Unfortunately the few ‘experts’ that debate about wild crafting, or comment on what should or should not be done in the environment, have little real experience of the beauty of essential oils from the world’s natural resources. Of course the wild needs protection. Of course endangered species should be protected. But not every wild crafter is an environmental rapist, not every government agency is stupid, not every essential oil distributor is a rogue.
Rather there are many people who have been concerned about the developing of such rich resources and protecting those resources before many of the johnny-come-lately environmentalists were born. This is especially so of tribal communities, of ancient village communities and local crafts people who are well aware of the destruction that greed and demand from the developed countries have wreaked on their land. Often it is the academic experts from around the world from, say, Aberystwyth to Tokyo, that have been at the bottom of the advice that has destroyed a great deal of land.
Those truly dedicated to aromatherapy, the classical aromatherapists, those with a passion for nature and real plants, understand only too well that there is a finite limit to the very best. The average consumer does not always realise this. Led by the supermarket mentality of cheap food, consumers think that essential oils can be turned on like a tap, with an unending supply. That is just not true.
FACTS ABOUT GROWING LAVENDER
We can briefly review the most popular essential oil of all time to illustrate the difficulties that affect the supply of essential oils. This oil is of course Lavender. French Lavender in particular is famous world wide. Yes it is grown in Tasmania; yes it is grown in Norfolk; yes it is grown in the Balkans; and yes it is grown in the Crimea; but they all vary, they are all different. Chardonnay from France is different from Chardonnay from California. Ask yourself then how something that was a dry wine becomes something that is fruity and sweet? The answer is not always in the chemical factory but a difference in the soil and the clone – something that appears to be the same is not always the same. For example, to suggest that one can buy wild Alpine Lavender and supply the world is simply ridiculous. It is not possible. It is not really even possible to supply large volumes of High Altitude Lavender. It is not even actually possible to supply really large volumes of true Lavender.
This comes as a remarkable surprise to many purchasers. Here are some basic facts:
True Lavender is grown at an altitude of between 800 and 1800 metres. The 1800 metres height is very rare indeed and is truly a speciality product.
The yield per hectare at the lower heights (800 to 1000m) is between 12 and 20 kilograms and nearly all of this goes to the select perfume industry and specialised aromatherapy companies like Fragrant Earth.
The total tonnage produced of essential oils is between 40 and 50 tonnes. That’s it – no more. It includes good oil, bad oil, high altitude, middle altitude and so on. There really isn’t very much to go round.
Most of the Lavender is produced in the Ardeche, Drome and High Alps by a relatively small number of growers, numbering just in the hundreds.
The majority of Lavender is grown by co-operatives – groups of farmers who join together, perhaps using one central distillation unit. This is the commonest way that fine Lavender is produced. Several crops are blended together to give a co-op standard. If the Lavender is grown in Provence, it will be given an AOC mark, AOC meaning Appellation d’Origine Controlée – simply meaning that it has been government approved, or stamped, guaranteeing that it comes from where it says it comes from. This is a French system and it is also applied to some of the old French colonial territories like the island of Reunion. Wine drinkers among our readers will recognise that this is exactly the same system that is applied to fine wines. Co-op Lavender with an AOC mark is good Lavender but it is not necessarily the best. Each grower may compete for medals based upon aroma and other merits. A number of specialised growers also have their own stills or favour putting their crop for distillation to a small and expert distiller. This often applies to organic growers who want their product separated from general or standard co-op Lavender.
Altitude plays a part in quality and the majority of Lavender is farmed between 800 metres and 1000 metres by co-operatives. Remember too that one side of a mountain produces something different from the other side of a mountain. There are many quality parameters that combine to make some materials scarce or even rare. Much of the material sold by Fragrant Earth is classed as High Altitude, a phrase that many co-op farmers would shrug their shoulders at. After all they are in the business of the mass market as far as is possible and, truthfully, it is not really practical for a co-op to grow such a specialised crop. For many years Fragrant Earth has, however, offered well grown material from specialised and selected growers from altitudes even as high as 1600 metres, which is virtually unheard of ! These specialists may produce even as few as 5 or 10 kilos per year, but what they do produce is sought after by the cognoscenti, those that really know.
Actually the term Lavender itself is very misleading because it includes a number of species and covers a multitude of meanings. Let us be clear about what we mean at Fragrant Earth. Our High Altitude and Wild Lavender is true Provence Lavande Fine from Lavandula angustifolia or officinalis. This is true population Lavender. That means that each plant is unique, it is different, it has no particular parentage, it is natural. Every single plant varies in shape, size, colour or fragrance all of which gives a wonderful subtlety and complexity of aroma and, incidentally, ensures that no bug, virus or anything else can adapt to it.
Beyond this comes cloning. Every good gardener knows that you can take cuttings from woody plants. Cuttings are essentially clones. This means that a specific plant has been taken from a population, perhaps with a certain shape or a certain flower or, particularly with Lavender, having a higher yield and the ability to grow at lower altitudes. The common varieties of clonal Lavender are Maillette and Matheronne. We offer an excellent Maillette clonal Lavender, organically grown. This too is good, general ‘work horse’ Lavender.
WHEN LAVENDER IS NOT LAVENDER
It will surprise many that the majority of Lavender that is sold is in fact Lavendin, a hybrid Lavender, a cross between True Lavender and Spike Lavender. Lavendin is grown because it yields essential oil 5 or 6 times higher than that of true Lavender. It also has the commercial benefit of growing at lower altitudes than Lavender. The aroma of Lavendin is always dominated by camphor although Lavendin Grosso has lower camphor content and its fragrance is not so far away from true Lavender. The yield of Lavendin is well over 1,000 tonnes and accounts for most of the so-called Lavender that people are buying. The Plateau of Valensole is the Lavendin capital of the world and the co-operatives are kings of this world. Lavendin helps to make up many of the chemical ‘soups’ that are sold as Lavender. Perfume and other companies buy in varieties of Lavendin and Lavender, mix them, blend them, add natural or synthetic components to them, whatever is required to arrive at smells that purport to be Lavender. These are sold around the world at different prices in different ways, often to an unsuspecting public and often to an unsuspecting therapist who believes that a GLC will determine what is authentic and what is not. That is only true to some extent.
These adjusted “Lavenders” have many uses. One of the greatest uses is to neutralise the odour of detergent – it acts like a white out if added at the right proportion, making the unpleasant detergent smell neutral. After that, many other types of fragrances can be used in the material.
BUYING IN HARMONY WITH NATURE
So let’s be real. If you want the best then you have to accept the difficulties that go with it. The best is not always available, whether it is Lavender, or Thyme of a specific chemotype, or Cedarwood coming from a specialised area. There are harvests and growing cycles that have to be taken into consideration. At Fragrant Earth we also have a policy of choosing the best distillers. Often our material comes from those who are medal winners or prize winners in competitions for their essential oils. For example, we look for distillers who use both old fashioned methods and new types of stills, such as hydrodihesion. We do not use materials that are ‘green’ or shredded and immediately distilled. We avoid co-operative blends where possible, preferring single source material from named growers.
All of this makes for fine fragrances. If you are a lover of nature and a lover of perfume, a lover of essential oils, a lover of plants, then you will understand the shortages that come from supply. You will understand the necessity to buy when available. You will understand the value that an essential oil will have and you will have the intelligence to appreciate it through your senses. Be quite sure – the best is finite. Understand that if you sell on commercially that there may be problems in the continuation of supply. Be prepared to switch from a wild Alpine type to a clonal Maillette type should the season run dry.
Remember that Fragrant Earth works near to nature, near to growers, with short supply lines. We do not readily substitute materials and we do not hide behind the generic term Lavender. Rather we really tell you what is going on and offer you the best without compromise. If you believe that chemistry is all that counts in aromatherapy then this material is not for you. If you want to sell it in a supermarket and have reproducibility and regular supplies then, again, such material is not for you. If you are in therapy where impact counts, where your desire is for a simple aroma to change the immune system, then this type of essential oil is for you. If you are a true perfumer, you already know.
© Jan Kusmirek