It's a month since we visited Norfolk Lavender, but it's been in my mind a lot this week because mine is really on song at the moment - that's the visiting bees for you - and the harvest in Norfolk should be well under way by now. At first glance the site looks like a glorified garden centre with its plants sales, shop and cafe, but scratch (and sniff!) beneath the surface and there's much more to discover. Most of the lavender production (both flower and oil distillation) is off-site these days: we visited the historic place where it all began in the 1930s where Linn Chilvers started his successful experiments, not only in finding lavender plants to rival those he'd seen in Provence, but to also distill his own top quality oil.
An old lavender perfume recipe was successfully revived and the business grew until today there's around 100 acres of lavender fields under cultivation in Norfolk, including some on the royal estate of Sandringham. The site we visited houses the national collection of lavender (pictured) of 200 cultivars spread mainly across 3 species - Lavandula angustifolia (7 varieties of which are grown for commercial oil production), Lavandula stoechas (which we also call French lavender) and Lavandula x intermedia. The collection itself needs re-accreditation with Plant Heritage because much of it has been replanted this year owing to the poor summers of the past 2 years.
NAH and I took a guided tour - an hour long and well worth doing - especially as we were the only ones on it. This gave us the historical background to the company and an insight into the drying and distillation process. Heaps of harvested flowers are left to dry in a barn, which also has slots in the floor so that warmed air can circulate all the way round. Last year was the first time in memory the lavender had to be turned during the drying process. The flowers from each field are distilled individually for their oil because buyers want particular fields and lavender varieties for their products. Extensive records are kept of a field's harvest and the resultant amount and quality of oil distilled each year.
I was surprised to find out that L. angustifolia can be grown almost indefinitely if it's cut back when in flower - as happens of course with the lavender grown commercially. I want to admire my flowers though, but learnt I can make my plants last a lot longer by cutting them down to about half an inch of green growth in September. I'd just been cutting back the old flower stems, which is why my plants are so woody and need replacing. L. stoechas needs to be cut back in August as it's tender in this country and so needs slightly longer for the plant to harden up after its haircut. A cutback in spring of any cultivar is not recommended for the UK.
During our tour we were given a sample of the dried flowers and the intensity of their scent was fantastic. I kept my sample in the pocket of my shorts and had a delicious whiff every time I took out my hankie during the rest of the holiday. We were also struck by how different the scent can be between both species and cultivars and decided L. 'Imperial Gem' was the best. NAH declared he loathed all L. stoechas but thought L. angustifolia was lovely. Throughout the rest of the holiday he was found sampling and sniffing the scent of lavender plants wherever we went. I might get him to like plants after all!
Naturally our visit ended with a cup of tea at the cafe, where we sampled some lavender cake plus some equally delicious lavender scones topped with strawberry and lavender jam. It was warm enough to sit outside, so we sipped our drinks surrounded by hundreds of honey bees, exploring and drowsling away at the lavender flowers. All in all, a grand afternoon out :)