Lavender growing in England for essential oil production

England’s modern lavender industry: Norfolk Lavender

History of the business

The family-run business originated in 1932, when Linn Chilvers founded Norfolk Lavender and planted the first six acres in Heacham, Norfolk. The demand for lavender during the First World War had been intense as it was used as a disinfectant for wounds when mixed with sphagnum moss. Most of the other English lavender companies around London had died down so this became the main supplier of lavender plants and oil. In 1932, planting was done by three men and a boy in 18 days for a total cost of £15!

The lavender was subsequently harvested by hand and taken by horse and cart to the railway station at Heacham and transported to Long Melford in Suffolk for distillation.

Lavender perfume

The oil was used in a secret formula to produce a perfume, made originally for King George IV by Mr Avery, a chemist interested in French perfumery. The perfume was made in a garden shed and bottled by two of Linn Chilvers’ sisters. Only hundreds were then made and sold. After the death of Mr Avery, the formula was purchased by Norfolk Lavender, and now many thousands are being made and sold.

In 1936, the company acquired three stills; one was new and held about an eighth of a ton of flowers; the other two were second hand, having been made in 1874, but held a quarter of a ton each. The stills were installed in Fring, which was nearer to the fields and were serviced by a boiler which made steam for a Great Yarmouth trawler.

The Queen’s mother, old Queen Mary visited the company in 1936, and the following year some of the fields in Sandringham were leased out for lavender growing by the company.

The Second World War saw the beginning of exports of lavender to the United States, as a foreign exchange commodity, with the Home Guard defending the distillery. By the end of the war the company produced bunches of lavender, lavender oil and lavender water as well as the special lavender perfume. Next, talc was produced and bath salts.

Beginning of modernisation

In 1953, Linn died leaving the post of Managing Director to a former worker, Tom Collison and Adrian Head became chairmen; Adrian’s son, Henry Head, is now in charge. The company began to change and in 1978, part of the old building became a tea-room and the stills were moved to Heacham. The fields of lavender and the stills can now be visited by the public for a good fee. There is now an enormous shop selling a good array of lavender plants, a modern warehouse from which mail orders are despatched, shops selling cosmetics, perfumes, tea-towels, various novelties and there are now eight full-time staff or equivalent, with forty-four more taken on during the season. The lavender fields now comprise 100 acres and one harvest of lavender is obtained. The residual plant material is burnt. The essential oil and products are exported all over the world.

Heel cuttings and newer methods of propagation

Until recently, heel cuttings were used during October for propagation (Head gardener, Norfolk Lavender). The stock plants were attacked with hedging shears and the debris sorted out into the good 13cm cutting with a good heel and some eyes. The cuttings were bundled into groups of fifty and dipped into rooting powder, then inserted into cutting beds in slit trenches, with about 2cm showing above the ground. There were sixteen rows of cuttings with only 2cm between the rows in each cutting bed. The cuttings were left for 12 months, then lifted out and relined out. They were then either sold as bare-root plants, or potted up for later sale or planted out in the lavender fields.

Due to the increasing number of plants required, soft and semi-ripe cuttings are now used which are raised in heat beds. Micropropagation is also used.

Some varieties do not respond well to the new methods, so the old method is used with some slight changes: a strimmer is used for the cuttings and a tunnel used for propagation.

Field management

Fertilizers used are organically-based and low in nitrogen. Cultivation is used to keep out weeds, together with spot sprays for bindweed and brambles and pre-emergent sprays for weeds which could grow in the lavender rows. However, the company insists in their brochure that no pesticides are used!

Distillation

The amount of oil and the quality depends on the type of lavender and sunshine etc. The lavender is loaded into each still and treaded down by a worker to fill the still to capacity. Steam is passed through to obtain 500 ml of lavender oil from 250 kg of lavender (one large still) in 20min.

Lavender products

About one-third of the lavender is dried for flowers, pot-pourri and sachets. The lavender is first loosely packed into sacks and laid on a special floor, with warm air circulating through them for 2–3 days. The stalks are separated from the flowers if needed.

Lavender cultivars developed

There are several cultivars of Lavandula angustifolia developed by Norfolk Lavender for their own use for the production of lavender oil and L. x intermedia Grosso oil for lavandin oil. There are numerous cultivars including:

Lavandula angustifolia cv.

  • ‘Imperial Gem’
  • ‘Little Lady’
  • ‘Little Lottie’
  • ‘Miss Katherine’
  • ‘Miss Muffet’
  • ‘Princes Blue’
  • ‘Royal Purple’
  • ‘Walburtons Silver Edge’

Lavandula lanata X Lavandula angustifolia

  • L. ‘Sawyers’
  • L. ‘Goodwin Creek’

Lavandula stoechas cv.

  • ‘Fathead’
  • ‘Helmsdale’
  • ‘Kew Red’
  • ‘Pedunculata’
  • ‘Roxlea Park’
  • ‘Snowman’
  • Willow Vale’

and other species and their cultivars, for example:

Section Dentata

  • Lavandula dentate
  • ‘Candicans’

Section Pterostoechas

  • L. x Christiana
  • L. canariensis
  • L. buchii
  • L. multifida
  • Lavandula dentata X Lavandula latifolia
  • L. x ‘allardii’

Section Subnuda

  • L. subnuda
  • L. aristobracteata
  • L. macra

 

Selections from the book: “Lavender: The genus Lavandula”. Edited by Maria Lis-Balchin. Series “Medicinal and aromatic plants – industrial profiles”. 2002.