Every summer, millions of travelers venture to the sun-drenched French region of Provence. One of its biggest draws? Symmetrical fields of sweet-scented, violet-hued lavender. Images of them light up social media feeds come late June to July. But if this aromatic plant—and everything it represents in French culture—is to thrive in the future, this postcard backdrop needs to change.
Due to high temperatures, low rains, and pest infestations, the $55 million lavender industry is nearing a breaking point. To protect it and its role in French culture, local growers, scientists, and business owners have come together to create the Fonds de Dotation Sauvegarde du Patrimoine Lavandes en Provence (Fonds SPLP), an endowment that is funding pollinator protection, planting pest-resistant hybrids, and adding irrigation systems.
For visitors, the most tangible change will be how the lavender fields look. The future is less manicured, with other blooming flora growing alongside the violet plants. This will help nurse the soil back to health, providing nourishment to the lavender plants and increasing its carbon store.
“It’s a changing vision of what lavender is,” says Justine Humbert, engineer and sustainable sourcing manager at Provence-headquartered beauty brand L’Occitane en Provence.
Here’s how visitors can experience these blooms responsibly.
An emblematic image
Lavender became a commercial crop in France as the perfume industry blossomed in the 19th century in Grasse, located in Provence’s Alpine region. Today, around 1,700 producers throughout Provence cultivate approximately 62,000 acres of two varieties of the plant: lavender (used in perfume and cosmetics), and lavandin, a longer-stemmed hybrid that scents household products.
But climate change is bringing or accelerating a range of problems for lavender farmers. Hotter summers are increasing the insect population, including destructive Cixiidae, mini leafhoppers related to the cicada. They devastate crops, both by eating plants and transmitting a disease called stolbur phytoplasma, first discovered in 1970. It disfigures the plants and cuts their typical lifespan from 10 years to just three or four.
The climate crisis brings other effects, too. “Drought is impacting lavender crops,” says Humbert. “Even if [lavender] is adapted to difficult territories, it needs a minimum of water.”
A new vision
Founded in 2012, Fonds SPLP helped develop two new varieties of dieback-resistant lavender, called MILA 2 and ETERNELLE 2. “Both are currently in the testing stage with producers,” says Charlotte Bringer-Guerin, coordinator at the Fonds SPLP.
In addition, agroecology—planting cover crops between the rows of lavender—is emerging as a way to protect the prized blooms. “Plant covers have the advantage of retaining humidity and micro-acclimatizing the plots to make them more resilient,” says Humbert. Other plants, including tree nuts, legumes, and grains, act as barriers between the lavender and the cixiidae, preventing the transmission of the stolbur phytoplasma and protecting the soil from erosion and wind.
As they sprout, these cover crops are transforming the classic aesthetic into a less manicured scene where streaks of yellow, green, and other colors are threaded among the purple lavender bloom.
Resistant to change
Just over an hour’s drive northeast of Marseille, the 300-square-mile Plateau de Valensole, is one of the primary areas for lavender growing and tourism in Provence. After seeing his crops decline due to disease and drought, Yann Sauvaire is one of the few producers in the region to embrace agroecology.
In some fields, he puts in native trees or lets grass sprout between the lavender. In others, he plants sainfoin, a legume that increases nitrogen levels in the soil.
Additional plants and trees have also benefitted animal life, with birds returning to the fields and sheep grazing on grass clumps between the lavender plants.
Still, the perceived costs of purchasing and maintaining cover crops has kept many farmers from fully embracing agroecology.
However, several farmers have adopted a half-in approach, planting cover crops for just a few months of the year. “This year, up to [1,000 acres] were sown in autumn and pulled up in spring because ‘postcard syndrome’ remains this physiological barrier,” Sauvaire says.
Beyond protecting the crops, residents want to safeguard lavender as a symbol of Provence. “It’s a cultural heritage we need to save,” says Bringer-Guerin.
But this comes at a cost for tourists who come to the region to take their iconic, purple-drenched photos. To truly experience the scene, Humbert encourages visitors to put down their phones. “Don’t look at the scene through your screen. Listen, breathe—use all your senses,” she says. “Visually, we’re accustomed to perfectly aligned fields, but people are going to have to get used to new landscapes.”
What to know
The flowering period for lavender starts in mid-June and lasts until the end of August.
Several cities host lavender festivals during the summer, including Valensole Lavender Festival (July 16), Sault’s Fête de la Lavande (August 15), and Digne-les-Bains’ Corso of Lavender (August 4-8).
Learn about lavender distillation techniques from the early 1900s at the Musée de la Lavande in Cabrieres d’Avignon.
Travelers can use the Routes de la Lavande to create their own lavender bloom road trip.
Go with Nat Geo: Sail southern France’s storied waterways on a Rhône River Cruise with Nat Geo Expeditions.
A version of this story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.