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HEAVENLY FRAGRANCE: A visual treat.
HEAVENLY FRAGRANCE: A visual treat.

SABITA RADHAKRISHNA

A dream drive through a gentle carpet of lilac... Australia's lavender farms beckon.

AS children fascinated by the cosmetics on Mother's dressing table, a few things were imprinted in our memory... Coty's face powder with the brown and beige powder puffs, and Yardley's Lavender talcum powder. Who can forget the gentle fragrance, which came out of the oh-so English blue container? The gentle lingering scent, which promises visions of a rain-fresh English garden, was captured by Yardley in 1708 whenthey first established their soap business in Bond Street, London.With William Blair's quote "Here grows lavender, here breathes England", we have been fed with the thought of lavender being native to English. Though Mitcham and Norfolk were famous for their lavender fields, experts say that lavender is native to the rocky outcrops of poor quality limestone soils of Mediterranean regions, the Canary Islands and India and, of course, Australia. It thrives in bright sunlight, can tolerate dry conditions, but fares poorly in high humidity, and is, therefore, unsuited to northern areas of Australia, which have very wet weather.

Purple haze

What a dream to actually drive to fields of purple, a gentle carpet of lilac in different tones, billowing in the breeze, set against the backdrop of muted hazy silhouettes of distant smoky blue hills ... As we drive from Warrnabool to Portland in Victoria, (Australia) the purple haze stretches endlessly and suddenly the rounded bushes and the long bunches of flowers enter our focus. We enter Portland Bay Lavender Farm, which is a good example as far as lavender farms go, situated on the Princess Highway between Narrawong and Allestree approximately 10 km east of Portland. It is run by Dawn Baudinette who along with others started the Australian Lavender Industry, and is now the largest lavender oil distiller on mainland Australia. Baudinette is President of The Australian Lavender Growers Association (TALGA). Her shop which bears the colour purple in all its products and décor, is perfectly appointed with the displays of lavender products, soaps, sachets, dried flowers, perfumes, talcum powder and so on.

Lavender oils

Baudinette distils three varieties of lavender for oil, lavendula augustifolia, lavendula X allardi and lavendula heterryphylla. Augustifolia is the old sweet-smelling lavender we know as English lavender and is used for fragrances, perfumes and culinary additives. X Allardi has great potential for disinfectants, herbal shampoos, animal products and domestic usage, while the third variety has potential for everything except culinary use. The oil retails at 50 cents to one dollar for a millilitre and the wide range of end uses of lavender oil covers perfumes, cosmetics, medicinal, antiseptic or culinary purposes. Some varieties are suitable for jams and marmalades.The distillation process takes about one to one and a half hours in an 80 litre capacity boiler with an urn at the lower end, filled with lavender. Water enters the boiler, fired by eight gas burners and converts into steam, which runs through the pipes on to the lavender to extract the oil. The steam travels to a condenser unit where it is cooled and drops of lavender oil and water trickle through a plastic tube into a jar. The lavender water is drained off, and using a chemical separator, the oil and any water remaining are separated.Lavender belongs to the mint family. Though the blossoms just bring to the mind the colour purple and shades of it, lavender is not just blue or lilac but also pink, white and green as is described in the nursery rhyme. It is the lavendula viridis, which has the fragrant pale green flowers. In fact the very name lavendula is coined from the Latin lavare, which means to wash. This probably comes from the Roman times when lavender was infused into the Roman baths. Apart from the gentle fragrance it was associated with cleanliness. As the English saying goes, lavender is to the soul as rosemary is to the spirit. It is said that ancient Roman soldiers carried herbs and lavender packs with them as they had healing properties and lavender was used as antiseptic dressing in both World Wars.What's more, legends claim that the heavenly scent repels the Devil and to this day Irish brides wear a garter of green lavender to guard against any sorcery or evil eye. Or perhaps the lavender soothed their nerves with its tranquilising properties. Tuscanian children carry lavender in their pockets to prevent gypsies from kidnapping them! In the Middle Ages it was a custom to anoint all sacred areas and tools of magic as part of a cleansing ritual.. This characteristic of lavender has established its niche in folk culture.

Uses

The essential oil of lavender is used in homeopathy and aromapathy and is regarded as an analgesic. Ideally soothing for headaches, sprains and bruises, we are told. And the sachets sold at Baudinette's shop are a tempting buy for fragrant bed linen. A little oil massaged on your temples or foreheads or rubbed on to your pillow ensures good sleep. Moreover the germicidal properties are powerfully effective in treating cuts, bruises, ulcers, and also bites and stings. The curative and therapeutic properties of lavender reads like a medicinal text.Of late the demand for lavender has grown in leaps and bounds, and the perfumes and toiletries industries have seen lavender cultivation in huge estates, virtually converting large tracts of lands into purple planes, besides intoxicating the senses. According to Baudinette, TALGA is developing and promoting lavender as a sustainable horticultural industry which is world class, innovative efficient and reliable.

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