Behind the scenes at Hampshire’s lavender growers and artisan producers
- Credit: Archant
Essential oil, herbal remedy or baking ingredient, lavender is one of the most versatile plants around, Viv Micklefield visits some local farms who have seen a surge in demand for the now popular plant.
Let’s be honest, lavender used to be a bit old hat. A bag of dusty flower heads would be squirreled away at the bottom of the clothes drawer to ward-off hungry moths.
Whilst lavender-blue rinses adorned freshly permed barnets across the land. This despite the oil reputedly being used by Cleopatra to seduce Mark Anthony, and lavender jam being served to Queen Elizabeth I.
Yet today, alongside the renewed appreciation for natural products, a willingness to push the gastronomic boundaries and our passion for plants carrying a hint of nostalgia, lavender has undergone something of a renaissance.
Introduced to England by the Romans – its name comes from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning to wash. Hampshire may have to concede bragging rights to south London’s Wandle Valley as the birthplace of commercial lavender production here in the UK, yet the reputation of local growers and the myriad of products created is cause for celebration; particularly as we’ve now a National Collection on our doorstep.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Lavender Fields, Alton
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As fourth generation farmers, Nick Butler and his wife Lyndsay know, even in a normal year, turning a profit on the eight varieties of lavender they grow can be unpredictable.
“All the English lavenders here are relatively hardy, it’s usually the wet weather they don’t like. A lot of flower buds got knocked-off this May, so yields come the next harvest will be down,” observes Nick. He swapped a desk job in 2018 to take over Hartley Park Farm from his parents, and whilst hand weeding the five-acre crop is labour-intensive, he enjoys being “the master of my own destiny,” and plans to grow more lavender in the future.
“Normally lavender plants take three to four years to reach maturity, and the quality of the oil produced does vary according to the variety. We’ve recently introduced a new one called ‘Phenomenal’, which is such a great name.
“During lockdown our retail shop was shut, but we pressed-on with online orders for lavender products and launched a lavender hand sanitiser, which does smell really nice. Our plant sales also surged, with people being at home more.”
So, with plenty of ideas for taking the business forward, what else does the future hold? “A growth area seems to be lavender in food and drinks, including chocolate, fudge, biscuits and tea. Our ice cream and jams are produced locally, so we want to try and continue to give the business to Hampshire based companies whenever we can. And we’ve produced our own cookbook.”
PLANT COLLECTOR’S PARADISE
Long Barn, Alresford
“At the heart of our business there’s a real love for lavender plants,” says founder Richard Norris. Which for someone who lives and breathes the heady fragrance is a bit of an understatement.
A devotee since the 1990s, his equally successful retail emporium has seen demand for carefully chosen lavender products thrive.
Such is Richard’s specialist knowledge of lavender’s heritage however, that among the 100 different ones grown at Long Barn, the Lavandula x intermedia has received the ultimate accolade of National Collection status. With the focus on conservation, any gaps in the Collection are quickly filled by propagating fresh stock. Singling out a favourite commercial oil variety, called ‘Sussex’, he’s fascinated by its origins.
“Sent from France to Australia all the labels got mixed up, and when this lavender eventually found its way to the UK they renamed it. I like this history. And, the fact that it’s a very garden worthy lavender with a long flower spike which throws its scent better than any other that I know of. As well as making a fantastic hedge, it’s also particularly attractive to bees.
“Now that I’m in a position to be able to speak with other collection holders around the world, hopefully, this means I can get hold of some of the more obscure lavenders out there and expand Long Barn’s collection even further.”
IN MINT CONDITION
Summerdown Farms, Basingstoke
With 21 years’ experience under his belt, farm manager Ian Margetts, knows a thing or two about growing and distilling herbs. Alongside its famous mint crop, and fields of camomile Summerdown, which was started-up by ex-mustard magnate Sir Michael Colman, currently has over 75 acres of lavender. And what started out as a small harvest to supply the skincare and wellbeing trail-blazers Neal’s Yard Remedies, last year saw three-quarters of a tonne of oil produced.
“I use the same equipment for all of our crops,” explains Ian. “It’s cleaned down thoroughly in-between and we also distil for other people. “Our organic lavender variety ‘Folgate’ is harvested first to avoid cross-contamination, which takes around 10 days, followed by the non-organic ‘Myett’ over the next two weeks. We have a custom made mechanical lavender cutter. As the crop’s cut, it’s blasted into tubs, which are towed behind. When they are full, the lavender is brought up to the distillery and ‘cooked’ straight away. It’s a constant process of harvesting and distilling as we go.”
Such is the quality of oil produced that most is snapped-up for high-end fragrance and aromatherapy. Meanwhile, in keeping with the farm’s sustainable credentials, Ian says there’s also demand for a by-product of the process.
“The lavender water has an in-built antiseptic and fungicide, so stays nice and fresh; we sell this to laundries to give the clothes a nice smell. It’s used as well to wash or spray horses to keep the flies away.”
Unsurprisingly Summerdown’s online business has gone from strength to strength in recent months. And whilst visitors may have been absent, life down on the farm for Ian and his team flourishes.
A NOSE FOR NEW PRODUCTS
New Forest Aromatics, Brockenhurst
“It’s very low-tech, everything here is handmade,” says owner and aromatherapist Debbie Mulkern. With the alchemy happening inside her modest workshop, Debbie’s focus for the past nine years has been to source local, wherever possible, so Summerdown’s organic lavender oil is the natural choice. And from toiletries to home fragrances it features in her best-selling lines.
“Lavender is good for so many things. My first-aid kit always includes a little bottle of lavender. It’s gentle and kind, cooling and soothing, relieves anxiety and headaches, reduces swelling when applied to bites and stings, and is useful for sunburn.
“The younger generation don’t know about lavender’s traditional associations. It’s currently very popular with the under 30s.”
Lockdown saw Debbie’s products frequently going into farm shop delivery boxes. Meanwhile, New Forest Aromatics also worked with charities, donating hand sanitiser and lip balm to local care homes, hospices and schools, as well as to paramedics and hospital staff.
Never one to stand still there is, she says, plenty in the pipeline.
“I always have new products bubbling away for our own ranges, as well as designing for other companies. Our Wisp Balm was created with a local beekeeper, in support of Help for Heroes, to assist people with prosthetic limbs. And I’m currently developing a birthing kit for another company which includes lavender oil.” newforestaromatics.co.uk