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Please scroll down for Essential Oil Distillation in Provence

July, 2001:  I took a course on Essential Oil Distillation and Lavender Growing with the Austalasian College of Herbal Studies - in Provence, France.  The class of about eighteen people (here are four of them) from all over the U.S. and two from China were wonderful to learn and travel with.  Here are some of the many things I experienced.  It was a very rewarding time for me in body, mind and spirit.  

On the left is the view from the front seat of the bus - arriving at the end of the Gorges in the Provence region of France.  Lavender fields of varying hue stretch as far as the eye can see.  And the aroma is never to be forgotten!  I find that the lavender hydrosol made here at La Paix reminds me more of the fields of lavender of France than the essential oil, which is stronger.    
This is a photo of Grosso lavandin which now constitutes 80% of the lavender now grown in France.  It is preferred because a larger percent of essential oil (2-3 times) is obtained from Grosso than the traditional lavenders of France.  Another advantage is that it is not subject to the bacterial wilt of the original lavenders.  A third attribute is that it can be harvested by the use of large machines which harvest three rows at a time.  In West Virginia, it is chosen also because of its hardiness in winter.  


Lavender can be either hand picked or picked by machines.  The machines can go from one farm to another, but timing is important as most of one kind of lavender blooms at the same time.  Lavender picked for essential oil has only a few blossoms open at the top; whereas lavender picked for arts and crafts project s is harvested later when all the blooms are open.  Hand picked lavender, used in the smaller distilleries, is dried on the ground in a sunny place for two to three days before distillation.  This bunch of lavender was on the concrete steps of a small gift shop located on a lavender farm in Provence, France.  Many farms growing lavender in France have gift shops attached where value added lavender products and other French related items are sold.  The Lavender Trails (tourist season for busses going through the lavender fields in bloom) and farm shops are now making as much money for the farmer as is the lavender harvest itself.  I would like to see such Lavender Trails in West Virginia.  It is true eco-tourism.

This is a small organic (one of the few seen) lavender and sage farm in Provence, France run as a family farm.  In the photo above, the lavender is just ready to harvest (sage was being distilled at the time of our visit).  See how a slight slope enhances the drainage for the lavender.

This is the building attached to the farmhouse which contains the boiler, condenser and retort to the distillery.  As can be seen, in France, most of the distilleries are partially open to the air.  This is the solution which La Paix found most practical too.  See the patio built next to the Shop in the section Growing Lavender in West Virginia.

The owner of this small organic farm (far left) is framed in the doorway.  She explained that the condenser is on the right.  The boiler is in the adjacent room, and pipes steam to the retort.  I like the idea of having the boiler separate from the retort.  Slightly below and to the left of this picture is a flat concrete platform on which sage was distributed to dry slightly before distillation.

The excess warm water from the condenser spills out from a pipe into a concrete basin.  The water was black and I did not get to ask what was done with it.  I suppose, after it cooled, it could be used for watering nearby fruit bushes.  I have used the lavender tea left in the retort from my distillations for cleaning the outside bathtub and other surfaces.  It does a good job!   This shows the spent sage bale, left after the distillation is finished.  Those spent bales from the large distilleries are huge.  What to do with it?  And remain environmentally friendly?  I have used spent lavender for mulching and it seemed to work well.  The French are using the larger spent lavender bales the same way Americans are using straw bale for housing!  Hmmmmm.

This large distillery (upper middle of photo) is located in a beautiful town in Provence named Sault.  Sault also hosts the Lavender Festival on August 15th or so.  Other Lavender Festivals on August 15th are in Lesches-en-Diois and Esparraon-de-Verdon. These large distilleries are taking over in France.  The small farms of the past were able to use portable distilleries somewhat larger than La Paix's small model and thus the distillery went from farm to farm or the small farm owned it's own distillery as seen above.   This is a typical large essential oil distillery in Provence.  It serves the area farmers.  Sage, hyssop and lavender are the only herbs it distills.  As the season for harvesting is quite limited, this is an efficient way of using the distillery.  However, with my small distillery, I try to distill the same herb more than once, as it is time consuming to clean out the retort after each distillation.  I would imagine cleaning out these retorts would be so onerous that cleaning is only done once per herb.  That is why the number of herbs is limited. 

On the left is the condenser in the distillery at Sault.  Here you can see how huge the condenser is.  Note the circular pipes within which the steam from the retort turns into liquid essential oil and hydrosol.  The French often throw the hydrolate away after re-circulating it several times again through the retort and condenser to get all the essential oil out.  In India, where jasmine is distilled, this has caused serious pollution of rivers (dead rivers) when the hydrosol and boiled water were dumped into them.  As my intention is to develop an environmentally friendly business in West Virginia, these issues must be addressed.  I believe the best way to address them is by innovative thinking (e.g. My friend, Sue Cosgrove, suggested using the spent bale to make handmade paper). 

La Paix Herb Farm
3052 Crooked Run Rd.
Alum Bridge, West Virginia U.S.A. 26321
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