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First Wine, Now Lavender? Another Iconic French Industry Threatened By Climate Change

By Joanna M. Foster

"First Wine, Now Lavender? Another Iconic French Industry Threatened By Climate Change"

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Lavender field, Provence, France

Lavender field, Provence, France

CREDIT: LLShutterstock

It’s known as “blue gold” and it has been cultivated in Provence, France since the Middle Ages. But now, a tiny bacteria-infected cicada is laying waste to a crop which is as iconically tied to Provence as lobsters are to Maine, or maple syrup is to Vermont — lavender. Researchers studying the lavender worry that the problem will only get worse as climate change leads to hotter and drier summers in Provence, ideal conditions for the spread of the pest.

Unlike it’s larger cousin the cicada, which is loud but harmless, the cicadelle, or leafhopper in English, attacks lavender plants in two ways. Cicadelle larva feast on lavender roots all winter long and then the adults attack the leaves in the spring and early summer. Even more destructive, however, is a micro-bacteria called stolbur phytoplasma, carried by the hungry insects that blocks the plants’ sap canals, causing the plant’s inevitable decline

Even if a means of controlling the pest is developed in time, the march of climate change will likely force lavender cultivation to move northwards, perhaps out of Provence altogether.

Lavender essential oil from Haute-Provence has been an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) product since 1981. This designation requires that the lavender be cultivated within the particular region and even stipulates the altitude at which the plant must be grown.

Between 2007 and 2010, the production of the most popular variety of lavender, lavandin, a hearty hybrid, has halved in Provence. The lavender industry directly employs 10,000 people in the area.

“The cicada are difficult to deal with because we can’t find a way to kill the larvae in the ground and we can’t use pesticides because a lot of bee-keepers bring their hives near our fields during flowering,” Eric Chaisse of the Provence regional centre for experimentation on plants used in perfumes, aromas and medicines told The Guardian. “It’s hard to imagine Provence without lavender, but if we don’t get on top of this, the lavender will disappear in 20 to 30 years.”

While the desire to save beloved, iconic landscapes may motivate some in France to combat climate change, it drives others to oppose action which would curb the threat. A French court recently ordered that ten wind turbines be taken down, after a chateau owner complained that they were ruining the view. The decision was not based on lost property value, but instead, the aesthetic loss to a “bucolic landscape.”

Provence is far from the only flower-growing region in the world to face new climate challenges. Kenya is the biggest exporter of cut roses to the European Union, responsible for 38 percent of the market share. In 2012, Kenya exported a total of 123, 511 tons of flowers, worth $500 million. But a long-standing drought in Kenya is forcing flower growers to turn to precious and scarce lake resources to keep their valuable crops alive.

In the U.S. Northwest, the problem is too much water. The Snoqualmie Valley near Seattle, where lilies, gladiolas and dahlias thrive, is increasingly stressed by wet weather and floods — 23 since 2006 alone. In 2009, the Snoqualmie River crested at 62 feet, eight feet above flood stage, breaking the previous record set in 2006 when the river crested at 61 feet. Most flower growing operations in the valley are small, family farms that are least able to weather the financial losses.

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