Reviving Lavender

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Hvar is known as the Lavender Island. After years of decline, lavender cultivation is happily enjoying a revival.

Lavender in the Ager on Hvar Lavender in the Ager on Hvar Photo: Vivian Grisogono

It was the crisis in grape production in the early part of the 20th century which led to increased lavender cultivation on Hvar. Until commercialized tourism became the island's top money-spinner, lavender was a main income source for many families. In 1974, lavender was grown over 910 hectares, and yielded 83,720 litres of oil. Then a combination of circumstances led to decline. Apart from the boom in tourism, the increasingly competitive international market made it harder to sell Hvar lavender products at profitable prices; forest fires devastated large swathes of lavender fields on the hillsides; and ever-increasing emigration from the island meant that re-planting on a commercial basis was unviable.

Bare burnt-out hillside where the lavender used to grow. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Hvar's lavenders

Lavender, Latin name Lavandula, belongs to the mint family, technically Lamiaeciae, and has some 47 known flowering species.

True lavender thriving on a Hvar hill. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Narrow-leaved lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), is known as true lavender (lavandula vera), also English lavender and common lavender. In Dalmatia it is called Vera. It thrives in the Mediterranean area, and used to be cultivated extensively on Hvar, doing best at higher elevations above sea level. Its essential oil is considered the finest of all lavender oils, with particularly soothing properties. It is said to help reduce anxiety and mental stress. A few drops on your pillow can help you sleep; massage with a true lavender oil preparation can help ease tired muscles. Because of its known medicinal uses, it used to be called Lavandula officinalis. Narrow-leaved lavender used to be cultivated in quantity on Hvar. The popular alternative is lavandin (Lavandula x. intermedia) a hybrid between narrow-leaved lavender and spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). It forms a strong, large bush with its flowers on long stalks, and produces oil in greater quantity than true lavender. There are many species of lavandin. On Hvar there are two main types: one is known as 'levanda' or 'bila', the other as 'budrovka', 'čorna' or 'modrulja'. The essential oil of true lavender is considered to produce very fine quality oil, which is used in expensive lavender products, especially for skin care, and (sparingly, a few drops at a time) in its pure form to freshen one's pillow or bath water. Lavandin has a stronger scent, which increases over time, because the oil has a higher camphor content. Lavandin oil tends to be used in cheaper lavender products, but it is well appreciated in massage oils, as a natural antiseptic, and in lavender honey. Dried lavandin flowers in sachets provide long-lasting fresheners for household use, with the particular benefit of protecting clothes stored in cupboards and drawers against moths.

Jadran Lazić enjoying his lavender harvest, 6th July 2017. Photo: Vivian Grisogono.

The lavender revival on Hvar was stimulated a few years ago with a few EU-inspired enterprises, especially the Mediterranean Medicinal Herbs Project. Local people started planting or re-planting fields with lavender. Jadran Lazić, an internationally known celebrity photographer, planted over 300 bushes on his land on one of Hvar's higher points, known as Vorh. His long-term aim was to provide herbs for his daughter Tamara to use in her work as a dermatologist. Tamara was a student when Jadran began planting his fields, and her career has flourished in the intervening years. Jadran's first lavender harvest was in 2013, producing a yield of about 0.2 L, which gave him unbounded delight. The yield increased to some 4 litres in 2016, so there were great hopes for even more in 2017. The harvest date was set for Thursday 6th July, and an enthusiastic group of harvesters gathered in Jadran's lavender fields by 6am to get the work done before the sun and wasps became unbearable.

Harvesting in the early morning sun. Photo: Paul Bradbury

Some of us were first-time harvesters, so the main burden of effort fell to the experienced hands. Drago Barbić had arrived ahead of the main group, and had set to work with expert efficiency, aided by his young son Pjer. They had cleared an impressive number of bushes in the 30 minutes or so before our arrival, leaving neat bunches of lavender on top of the cut bushes. Seeing our ineptitude, Drago took time out to explain patiently how the cutting is done. The natural instinct is to take a handful of stalks and then apply the sickle; the correct way is to apply the sickle around a bunch, then grasp and cut. Easy when you know how. Once cut, the bunch is tapped at the bottom to bring the ends in line for neatness, and laid on top of the cut bush.

Drago cutting away the stalks, while Pjer holds the bag. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

There are two stages to the cutting process. First, the stalks are cut close to the main bush, otherwise the plants will turn woody as they grow. This was the part done by us amateurs. The second part requires expertise: the flower heads containing the precious oil are cut away from the stalks. Drago's preferred technique was to steady the bunch between his thighs and cut deftly vertically. Jurica, another expert, simply held the bunch up and sliced more horizontally. Their fingers are all present and correct after years of practice, so watching them at work was not the frightening sight it might have been.

Jurica cutting the flower heads away. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The star harvester was undoubtedly Jadran's mother Slavica. At 85 years old / young, she worked with a will from start to finish, as impressive example to us all. While younger volunteers paused with tiredness, boredom, over-heating, hunger or thirst, Slavica worked through with evident enjoyment. When the harvesting was over, she went around picking various wild herbs to take home.

Slavica (right) tirelessly at work. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Jadran does not take an active part in the harvesting. He acts as overseer, and records the action as a true pro photographer.

Jadran at work filming the action. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

He also ensures that the volunteers are fed and watered. A great tray of pastries appeared out of the blue, and was offered to all with gracious elegance.

Jadran keeping the workers fed. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Eco Hvar is happy to report that there was plenty of drinking water on hand. Some of the hardier males also knocked back a dram of rakija, and many quenched their thirst with cool beers. Fortunately for them, some in the group were expert at opening the bottles without a bottle-opener. Naturally, Paul Bradbury, aka Mr Total-Croatia-News, Jelsa's renowned English blogger, kept his spirits raised in his usual style, the beer having arrived just at the moment when he announced he was getting bored. For those who think Mr T-C-N shirks physical labour in the great outdoors, remember he took part in the tree-planting project organized by Održivi otok / Sustainable Island in 2016; he has been known to pick olives with his in-laws; and he tends his lawn in Varaždin with the care of a true gardener. He claims the beer helps in all these arduous physical endeavours.

Paul Bradbury replenishing his enthusiasm. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Being in Nature provided some new experiences and discoveries. There was a small insect emerging from its skin (exuviae). Was it a bee? No, more likely to be a cicada, according to our bird-watcher and Nature-lover Steve, who had identified a similar insect with the help of expert friends last year. A bigger, fully formed insect attached itself to Jadran's shorts. Our local expert identified it as 'konjić' - a dragonfly - but Steve was convinced it was more likely to be some kind of cricket. Needless to say, the insects, whatever they were, were allowed to get on with their lives in peace.

Insects at large. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Accompanying the group was a most welcome canine spectator, Nola, whose rescue story we recounted earlier this year. It was a delight to see her looking so well, obviously enjoying her freedom in the great outdoors. And she was beautifully behaved.

Nola supervising the harvest in the shade. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The harvest completed, Jadran checked over the bushes to assess the quality of the cutting, pausing to pick some flowers which had been missed. He presented these with his customary gallant charm as a token of thanks to Eco Hvar - a much appreciated gesture.

Jadran picking his lavender. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Then the flower heads were bagged up, ready for transport to the distillery.

Jadran and Drago tying up the bags. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

In true Dalmatian style, finishing the harvest signalled the time for a feast. Jurica was busy firing up the barbecue by the time the rest of us reached the 'farmhouse'.

The barbecue on the go. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Despite it being breakfast rather than dinner time, the abundant smoked meats, grilled lamb and fresh salads were devoured with relish, and conversation was animated.

Ready for the feast! Photo: Jadran Lazić

Once everyone was well fed, the lavender bags were taken to the distillery at Humac for transformation into golden fragrant oil.

The Humac distillery. Photo: Jadran Lazić

The result? A grand total of 2.5L, less than last year, but certainly of the finest quality. There were various possible reasons for the drop in quantity, offered by the experts on the ground: not enough fertilizer?  an effect of the extreme cold snap in January? harvest a few days too late? It goes to show how hard it must be to cultivate lavender for profit. No matter, Jadran declared that it had all been a lot of fun. He may not yet be able to supply Tamara with all the lavender oil she might need in her professional work, but he has plenty for personal family use, guaranteeing a year of peace and calm in the home(s). Slavica's participation in the harvest was undoubtedly one of the greatest sources of happiness for Jadran and an inspiration for the rest of us.

Jadran and Slavica after the harvest. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

© Vivian Grisogono, 2017

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