So begins the nursery rhyme which was often broadcast on ‘Listen with Mother’. It forms the beginning of a song which dates from the 17th century, and quite possibly even earlier. It was printed on broadsides after the Restoration and its lyric celebrated both drinking and sex.
Lavenders have been cultivated for centuries and, since they cross breed easily, there are more than 450 varieties of this herb. There are only a few whose oils are useful to humans, but the bees and butterflies seem to like them all.
Lavender is a native of the Mediterranean region, and the blossom spikes of many species are used for perfume, aromatic oils, soap sachets and bath preparations.
Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) can also be used to flavour food, but other species contain high levels of toxins, and poisoning by lavender oil is not unknown. The oils produced by lavender also have a Darwinian purpose. Most of them are bitter and, as some are even toxic, what better way does the plant have of protecting itself from being eaten?
Although the south of France (Provence) is most famous for its lavender fields, the top producer in Europe is Bulgaria, and other producers are South Africa, Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Argentina India, Australia, USA and Russia.
The most suitable growing areas enjoy both summer heat and summer rain, which are necessary for the plants to survive, as well as to produce their characteristic oils. Inland Algarve can be too hot for this otherwise hardy plant.
Soil condition is also important, since lavenders will not survive the heavy and poorly drained clay soils of the Barrocal which promote root rot but will flourish in untilled, dry and otherwise poor soil, provided it is free draining.
The main strains which we see around us in the Algarve countryside are Lavandula stoechas (known as Spanish Lavender) and Lavandula viridis (Green Lavender, sometimes referred to as White or Yellow lavender).
L. stoechas is widespread in Iberia and L. viridis is endemic to southern Portugal and southwest Spain. These two lavenders interbreed and produce strains with flowers of various blue to pink colouring. In the wild, L. stoechas can be prolific in unused fields, while L. viridis is common on shady north-facing slopes and unfrequented riverbanks.
The general Portuguese word for any lavender is ‘alfazema’, but ‘rosmaninho’ is in frequent use particularly here in the Algarve to describe L. stoechas. An Algarvian friend informs me that ‘rasmono’ is the plant; ‘rosmaninho’ is the flower; and ‘rosmaninhal’ would be a field of lavender. In translation terms, ‘rosmaninho’ is a false friend, since it seems to be rosemary (Rosmarinus officialis), but the Portuguese word for rosemary is ‘alecrim’.
‘Rosmaninho’ is so common in Portugal that it is often used to cover (and scent) the ground over which summer processions pass. It is used as a fuel to create scented smoke during the festivities of the Santos Populares, the midsummer festivals for Santo António, São João, and São Pedro.
Searching the internet for a lavender business here in the Algarve, I discovered Fonte Penedo. It is run by Bettina Steffan, who is gaining experience in the management of lavender and other species on her smallholding near São Bartolomeu de Messines.
She received me there with courtesy and enthusiastically explained how her business was established eight years ago and moved to its present location just over four years ago.
Bettina distils essential oils in an alembic, creates herbal waters and dries other herbs as a basis for herbal teas. One of Bettina’s main products is green lavender essential oil, which is earning a name for itself as a natural and potent fungicide.
Lavender essential oils have long been used in the cosmetic and perfume industries; but the most exciting developments are in their use in pharmacological and medicinal applications such as fungicides, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and aromatherapy.
Research is also being carried out into their use in food preservation and pest control. The food industry has relied heavily on synthetic preservatives to increase the shelf-life of food products, but there is an increasing demand for natural products for food preservatives, packaging and antibiotics.
Lavender oils have a strong antibacterial effect, and their fungicidal properties are currently useful in protecting strawberries especially, but also apples and tomatoes. Use of natural lavender oils is also proving efficacious in treating fungal growth in humans.
Other potential uses for distilled lavender oils are as antimicrobials and acaricides, and they are a promising alternative treatment for inflammatory illnesses. There is also evidence that the use of lavender oils ameliorates sleep dysfunctions, and has improving effects on stress, anxiety and depression. The oils have fewer side effects than the normally prescribed synthetic drugs.
Modern society is increasingly demanding natural products in place of synthetics, and the healthful properties of lavender oils are only just being fully investigated.
For those who are interested, I can recommend a visit to Fonte Penedo, where you will be well received and informed about the beneficial properties of lavender and its essential oils.
By Peter Booker