Lavender Oil

24.05.17

Lavender oil is derived from the lavender plant, a member of the mint family which has a long history of cultivation, dating back to the Romans. Lavender is a perennial shrub, which is native to the Mediterranean region and thrives when grown in well-drained soils in sunny locations.

Overview

Lavender has multiple uses: the flowers can be used either fresh or dried for potpourri and sachets or to flavour vinegars, jams and sugar; and the essential oil, derived from steam distillation of the flowers, has a long history for use in perfumes, has antiseptic properties and can be used in aromatherapy.

There are two species of lavender farmed commercially: common, English or true lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) and spike lavender (L. latifolia). Many of the cultivated varieties produced are hybrids between these two species and are referred to as lavandin (L.x intermedia). L. angustifolia occurs naturally at higher altitudes (800-1300 metres) with L. latifolia found at lower altitudes down to sea level.

English lavender yields the best quality oil, while spike lavender yields around three times the quantity of oil of English lavender but the oil is of lower quality. The hybrid lavandin, produces the largest quantities of oil for all species but the oil is of lower quality as it has a distinct camphor scent.

There has been some concern during the history of the lavender oil industry in Australia about the consistency of identification of species and varieties, and about the standard and consistency of the oil. As at 2013, these issues are being addressed by the Australian lavender industry.

Australia is a net importer of lavender oil, suggesting there is room for import replacement. However, it is important to identify potential markets for lavender before investing in the production of a crop.

The lavender oil industry is classified as an industry in the early stages of development in Australia. It has its own industry association The Australian Lavender Growers Association that is also a member of The Essential Oils Producers Association of Australia.

Facts and figures

  • Lavender originates from the Mediterranean region
  • Lavender has multiple end uses; fresh and dried flowers, oil, culinary uses, perfumes and cosmetics and in aromatherapy. Its production is also often linked with tourism activities
  • Lavenders flourish best in dry, well-drained, sandy or gravelly soils in full sun; all types need little or no fertiliser and good air circulation
  • Two species of lavender are commonly farmed in Australia, true lavender (Lanandula angustifolia) and spike lavender (L. latifolia), as well as hybrids of the two species (lavandin)
  • Australia is a net importer of lavender oil
  • The Australian lavender industry consists of many small producers and a few commercial farms, the majority of sales are directed to the domestic market

Production status

Over the 7 year period from 2005 to 2012, world lavender production has declined from 225 to only 90 tonnes due to an insect-borne bacterial disease prevalent in France, the main production area globally. Bulgaria has now overtaken France as the major producer of lavender oil.

As at 2011–12, oil production from true lavender in Australia was estimated at 3.5 tonnes, with a gross value of AU$1.3 million. In the same year, there was probably another 1–2 tonnes of lavandin oil and 5–10 tonnes of dried flower production consisting of bunches and stripped flowers.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Production of lavender provides a number of marketing opportunities from ornamental (cut and dried) flowers, to oil production for medical, cosmetic, aromatherapy and culinary applications, to tourism.

Any commercial endeavour should consider a range of products to maximise income.

Oil from English or true lavender is of premium quality and more highly sought after than the higher yielding lavandin oil. The lavandin oil tends to have a distinct camphor scent and is usually used for general fragrance applications and blending.

Lavender is often distilled on farm and the quality of distillation facilities and resulting product can vary greatly.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

The two commonly cultivated lavender species originate from different agro-climatic zones in Europe. The English or true lavender originates from higher altitudes. The spike lavender and lavandin hybrids tolerate lower altitudes and warmer temperatures, than true lavender.

Lavender is produced in regions of Tasmania and Victoria, in southern and western New South Wales, south east Queensland, south east South Australia and the Margaret River region of Western Australia.

Undulating countryside is favoured for lavender production as it can lower the risk of waterlogging. Exposure to wind should be minimised, to reduce the potential loss of flowers and volatile oils.

Soil type

As lavender originates from southern Europe it is best suited to calcareous, stony free-draining soils, with a pH (water) range between 6.0 and 8.0. Lavender does not tolerate continuously damp soil.

Climate

Cool coastal regions are well suited for lavender production and milder conditions should be considered for spike lavender production.

Although lavender can be quite drought hardy and is adapted to low rainfall, access to irrigation should be considered for establishment and management through dry times.

Most lavenders can tolerate cold winter conditions and are frost hardy although late frosts in November or December, once flower buds have started to develop, can severely reduce spike numbers and hence oil yield.

Varieties

The selection of a lavender cultivar should match the location and intended market. Lavandin hybrids are more vigorous than the straight species but their oil is of a lower quality. They can yield up to five times more oil than the English types, however the oil quality specifications of the intended market should be carefully considered. Once selected and established, careful testing of the oil quality should be regularly carried out as the quality can vary with growing location.

A cultivar name does not necessarily give certainty about the oil production and quality. Stock used for establishing a plantation should come from a known and reliable source.

Australian research has identified new varieties appropriate for Australian climates. A number of these are covered by plant breeders rights.

Planting and crop management

Lavender crops should be established by vegetative propagation of known stock to ensure uniformity of the variety selected. This can be quite time consuming and the resulting plants can take up to four years to reach optimum oil production. Adult plants can yield up to five tonnes of flowers per hectare. Planting populations are generally around 12,000 plants per hectare.

Lavender requires moderate amounts of phosphorus and potassium; levels need to be adequate for flower development but excessive levels can be deleterious. Calcium applications are important in non-calcareous soils. Lavender responds well to nitrogen sidedressing in spring to increase spike density and oil yield. However, excessive nitrogen should be avoided as it can result in too much vegetative growth, which can affect oil quality and the added bulk will increase distillation costs.

Irrigation can be advantageous, especially to aid establishment and later to alleviate dry periods.

For more information about crop management refer to the New Crop Industries Handbook.

Weeds, pests and diseases

Lavender is a poor competitor with weeds, particularly during establishment, so good weed control is imperative. This is especially so if the lavender is being used for oil production, as weeds may contaminate plant material during the distillation process and taint the oil. It is essential that all perennial weeds are controlled thoroughly before establishing a lavender crop.

Registered in-crop herbicide options are very limited, therefore plant density should be such that it is competitive with weeds to optimum establishment of the lavender crop. This will vary according to the lavender species or hybrid. Once the lavender is growing, inter-row cultivation and hand weeding may be required to control further weeds.

Lavender generally does not suffer from many pests and diseases. Aphid damage has been noted and can provide a means for virus infection, particularly the Alpha Mosaic Virus. Caution should be used if using mulch around the plants, as some types of mulch can introduce or encourage insect problems. The spittle bug (Philaenus spumarius) is often found in lavender crops in early summer but does not cause economic damage unless the crop is grown for the cut flower market.

Fungal problems are rare in lavender although root rot conditions will develop if the soil structure and drainage are poor or when roots are damaged by inter-row cultivation practices. Nematode damage has also been reported but is only significant when the plants are already stressed.

Growers should consult with an advisor or the industry association about management programs for weeds, pests and diseases in lavender crops. In some cases it may be necessary to obtain a minor use permit from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) to use pesticides not registered for lavender or the growing region.

For more information on pests and diseases refer to the New Crop Industries Handbook.

Infrastructure Requirements

Businesses involved in lavender production vary in their scale and therefore the level of infrastructure required. At the modest end of the scale, infrastructure requirements may be minimal.

For larger enterprises, mechanisation is required to deal with the volume of plant material generated. This would involve irrigation equipment, mechanical harvesters, drying facilities and distillation facilities. It is recommended that a prospective grower seek industry advice.

Harvesting & Processing

The level of complexity of harvesting and processing of lavender depends on the scale of the operation. At one end of the spectrum the lavender may be harvested by hand and at the other, such as large oil producing ventures, mechanised harvesting may be required to cope with the volumes involved. For example, the flower heads may be directly mechanically harvested and deposited into distillation vats trailed behind the harvester. As each is filled, it is transported to the distillery to be processed.

The oil is extracted from the flowers via steam distillation. Harvested flowers are placed in a still where steam is passed through them causing the oil to vaporise. The vapour then flows through condenser tubes reverting to the liquid state where it enters the separator. After separation, the oil is stored in stainless steel drums for longevity. For more information on harvesting and processing refer to the New Crop Industries Handbook.

Lavender plants should be pruned once a year following harvest.

Markets & Marketing

Traditionally, Australia has been a net importer of lavender oil but with a growing number of Australian producers some imports are being replaced with domestic production.

Growing lavender presents a range of marketing opportunities from cut and dried flowers, to oil, to value added products such as soaps and cosmetics. The Australian industry is a boutique industry and the majority of growers market directly to domestic consumers via the internet, from the farm gate or through specialist markets and stores. Often lavender production in Australia is also associated with tourism activities.

The price received for lavender oil is dictated by the quality of the oil and there are various categories defined by both Australian (Standards Australia) and international (ISO) standards.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

In terms of production, lavender is a hardy species and grows well in a range of areas and once established does not require intensive management. The main challenge facing potential lavender growers is identifying and breaking into a viable market and selecting an appropriate lavender variety for that market and the growing conditions. Establishment of crops can be expensive and time consuming and they can take up to four years to reach peak production. In addition, strict attention to detail is imperative during the distillation process to ensure a high quality product.

Regulatory considerations

There are regulations imposed throughout the value chain for lavender oil production. For example:

  • Establishment of a distillation plant requires the appropriate permits from the local government in the shire or region where the building application is being sought.
  • To be marketed, lavender oils must meet the regulatory standards as set out by Standards Australia and International Standards for either lavender or lavandin oils. Standards can be purchased from SAI Global.

For therapeutic use, products have to be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. At this stage, only oils from L. angustifolia are registered. This organisation also covers the required packaging for various products.

Publications

Publications/information

Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia RIRDC report (2014)

Australian Standards for Oil of Australian Lavandin Cultivars RIRDC Publication (2012)

Improvement of Lavender Varieties by Manipulation of Chromosome Number RIRDC Publication (2009)

New Crop Industries Handbook RIRDC Publication (2004)

Australian lavender industry RIRDC publication (2002)

Other resources

The International Aromatherapy and Aromatic Medicine Association Inc is an independent not for profit organisation that supports aromatherapy practitioners in Australia and overseas

Standards Australia is the peak non-government Standards organisation charged by the Commonwealth Government to meet Australia’s need for contemporary, internationally aligned Standards and related services

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is Australia’s regulatory authority for therapeutic goods. This organisation also covers the required packaging for therapeutic products

The International Standards Organisation develop and publish international standards

Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is the federal agency which oversees the registration of all agricultural and veterinary chemical products into the Australian marketplace

Image Gallery

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Harvesting lavender for oil production

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Lavender field

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Bottle of lavender oil amongst lavender flowers

Related Publications

03.03.09

Emerging Animal and Plant Industries - Their Value to Australia (2nd Edition)

25.02.12

Australian Standards for Oil of Australian Lavandin Cultivars

14.01.09

Improvement of Lavender Varieties by Manipulation of Chromosome Number

01.09.04

New Crop Industries Handbook