A summary of what is available, from best to bad follows:
The following excerpt is from a paper written by Prof. Pierre Franchomme entitled “Guarantees on the Plant”:
“The Lavender with the most marvellous fragrance is Lavandula officinalis ssp (subspecies) fragrans (the accepted botanical name is now L. angustifolia). It comprises around 15 species and takes many shapes some plants with rounder, long flowers, blue, violet or mauve with dense or sparse spikes with long or short stems etc. It grows only in a wild state on the driest lime stone soils at altitudes from 700 metres up to 1800 metres.”
Wild-harvested True Alpine Lavender is to be considered as the “crème de la crème” of Lavender essential oils. It can have an ester content (linalyl acetate) of up to 50%. As a hand harvested plant, the labour costs are high and hence is the most expensive of Lavender oils. It is interesting to note that up until the 1930’s, wild-harvested Lavender was the only Lavender oil produced, only in Southern France. Wild Lavender growing through stunted Alpine Juniper, summit of Mt. Ventoux, France. Notice the small size of the flower heads.
“Next is fine Lavender. Less odiferous and more subtle is Lavandula angustifolia ssp delphinens is which grows naturally on cooler soils at lesser altitudes. It is sometimes cultivated alongside hybrid species which are more productive”
This subspecies also occurs in the wild and the wild-harvested oil is available. This oil has a linalyl acetate content of up to approximately 38%, with very low camphor (~0.6%). It is this Lavender subspecies that is used for “population” Lavender. This means that seed from wild plants is used for growing in plantations in Southern France, generally above 600 metres elevation. Because the plants are plantation-grown, harvesting is much easier and the price is more reasonable. One way to notice a ‘population” Lavender field in France, is when a variety of flower colours are found in the field.
Two qualities of ‘population’ Lavender are available – that from certified organically-grown plants and that from conventional agriculture. In the case of conventional agriculture, synthetic fertilisers are not used (the plants “burn out” too quickly), but conventional pesticides may be used if occasionally necessary.
Next down the line is that of “clonal” Lavenders. This is where true L. angustifolia species are used, but are reproduced from plant cuttings, not wild seed. This allows growers to “pick and choose” qualities concerning flower colour, consistent fragrance composition and essential oil yield. These clones are what are generally available as “True Lavender” in nurseries, such as “Lavender Hidcote”. Three common examples of “clonal” Lavender oils are Bulgarian Lavender, Tasmanian Lavender (Bridestowe Estate) and “Lavender Maillette” (France).
These clones produce consistent oils in terms of composition (they have a high ester and a low camphor content). These clones, such as Bulgarian Lavender are what is available in retail Aromatherapy ranges if it is a 100% pure and natural L. angustifolia essential oil – such oils are the lowest in price of the True Lavender oils. The “downside” of “clonal” Lavenders is that they generally are produced primarily for acceptability of fragrance – not for therapeutic use. The plants are grown using conventional agricultural methods and are generally distilled for short periods of time (20 minutes for a “perfume” distillation versus 1 hour, 45 minutes for a full distillation). From the point of view of therapeutic use, a full-length steam distillation (at normal atmospheric pressure or even under partial vacuum) is preferred. Short “perfume” distillation times do not bring over all the “heavier” essential oil compounds, such as various coumarins, that add to the therapeutic activity. Such short distillation times are for the production of essential oils more acceptable for perfumery uses. As well, longer distillation times add to the cost of the oil.
“Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia, also known as L. spica) grows at lower altitudes whilst the Lavandula stoechas grows well in the most southern regions. They have a camphoraceous, less sweet odour” Spike Lavender is not to be confused with True Lavender. It is a distinct species, with quite a different essential oil composition, something more like a Rosemary oil. The oil contains no linalyl acetate - it’s main components are 1,8 cineole (~32%), linalool (~39%) and camphor (~13%). Spike
Lavender grows at sea level up to 700 metres, where it’s range slightly overlaps with that of True Lavender. It is a very useful essential oil – anti-infectious, expectorant, a good wound healer and more. But it has a stimulating quality, as compared to the sedative qualities of True Lavender. The main producing countries are Spain and France.
There are Croatian “True Lavender” oils offered, but somehow, they have been botanically misnamed. The plants are wild-harvested at sea level, which is not the range of True Lavender, and the oil composition is that of a Spike Lavender oil. Lavandula stoechas or Roman Lavender, again produces a very different essential oil, rich in cineole, camphor and fenchone. It is not a commonly available essential oil.
“Hybrid Lavenders are known as Lavandula intermedia (also known as Lavandula x burnatii). These are a cross between a True Lavender and Spike Lavender, commonly known as Lavandins. These constitute the majority of present day cultivation because of their high productivity. This is in spite of their less refined or more camphoraceous odour. The “white Lavender” which of course is not really a genuine one is rich in a fairly neutral essence which improves productivity during distillation.”
As I mentioned before, the range of Spike and True Lavender overlap to some degree in Southern France. In the wild, these two species can create sterile (the plants cannot be grown again from the seeds) hybrids known as Lavandins. Since the 1930’s onwards, Lavandin clones have been grown in plantations, first in France, and now in a number of countries. Lavandin essential oils represent approximately 90% of the world production of “Lavender” oil.
The reasons for the popularity of Lavandin oil are:
- They are hardier plants, more resistant to disease and can be grown at low altitudes.
- Lavandins have quite large flower heads and yield substantially more essential oil than True Lavenders.
- Because of this higher yield and mechanised agricultural practices, Lavandin oils are a fraction of the cost of the best True Lavender oils. Being sterile, Lavandin plants must be grown from cuttings, as in the case of “clonal” True Lavenders. There are a number of Lavandin clones. Almost all of the “Lavender” plants offered in nurseries are in fact hybrid Lavandins. The most common clones used for essential oil production are, in decreasing order, Lavandin Grosso, Abrial and “Super Linalyl Acetate”.
The composition of Lavandin oils reflects both True and Spike Lavender. Generally, Lavandins will have a high linalyl acetate and linalool content (as in True Lavender), but will contain more cineole, borneol, and camphor (up to 7% in Lavandin Grosso), as in Spike Lavender. Hence, from a therapeutic viewpoint, we cannot say Lavandins represent the same qualities as True Lavender. Certainly, Lavandin Grosso and Abrial oils, with a high camphor content, are more stimulating in nature. Of all the Lavandins, Lavandin “Super” oil is the closest in composition to that of True Lavender oil, with a high ester and a low camphor (about 4%) content. Practitioners, such as Dr. Daniel Pénöel, consider that Lavandin “Super” can be used for the same purposes as True Lavender. My own experiences over the past 20 years also confirm this.
Relative to “Lavender” oils from best to bad, I will say that I prefer to use a organically-grown, fully steam distilled Lavandin “Super” oil, before I would choose a conventionally-grown, short steam distilled “clonal” Lavender, such as Tasmanian Lavender. As well, because of the higher essential oil yield, Lavandin “Super” is a less expensive oil. Now for the “bad” oils. Up until the newest version of the British Pharmacopoeia (BP), “Lavandin” oils could be described as “Lavender” oil. Here in Australia, with the Therapeutics Goods Act using the BP standard for essential oils, meant that cheap blends of Lavandins could be sold as “Lavender” oil, replete with a TGA AUST L listing and therapeutic claims made. When a 50mL bottle of “French Lavender Oil” sells retail for only $4.50, one really does have to wonder what is in the bottle!
Further, products such as “Lavender Mt. Blanc” are not only blends of pure Lavandin oils – such products contain highly rectified Lavandin oils plus synthetically produced aroma chemicals, such as synthetic linalyl acetate, to create an oil that smells something like True Lavender. We finally come to the cheapest “fragrance oils”, which are blends of a bit of everything, synthetic aroma chemicals, isolated essential oil compounds, maybe a bit of a Lavandin, etc. The composition of such products does not represent the complex composition of a True Lavender oil, even at the chemical level. If we consider the “energetic” qualities of True Lavender, it is clear that such synthetic, “nature identical” blends have nothing to do with the therapeutic “personality” of True Lavender oil. They are simply there to be passed off to unsuspecting consumers and to make money for the supplier – not for therapeutic use!