Phytobotanica loves lavender in Lancashire

PUBLISHED: 00:08 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:50 20 February 2013



A Lancashire farm's unusual crop has helped it reap rewards from the growing popularity of complementary therapies Words: Janine Keeble Photographs: John Cocks

Bees buzz among the rows of lavender stretching out for acres around on a warm summer afternoon. Weeding is being done by hand among the rows. In the herb garden a group of visitors gets a guided tour of 50 different medicinal plants.

It sounds like the perfect rustic idyll, but the work at Phytobotanica, the UK's only organic essential oil farm, is backed up by eight years of university research and rigorous scientific standards.

The company, based at Mill House Farm in Lydiate, near Ormskirk, was formed when local farmer Jane Collins, after returning to academic life as a mature student, got together with fellow farmers the Molyneux brothers to seize a new opportunity in the growing field of complementary therapies.

Dr Collins, who studied at Myerscough College and gained her PhD in essential oil sciences at Liverpool John Moores University, had developed a way of analysing essential oils, used by aromatherapists to treat a wide range of symptoms, and came up with some worrying findings.

'The essential oils being used in this country were of questionable quality,' she said. 'Complementary therapies were starting to be taken more seriously, but many aromatherapists didn't know what was actually in the bottle. And when we tested them, some had been mixed with chemicals, dyes or solvents. To work, the oils must be pure.'

UK agriculture was also facing a decline and farmers were looking to diversify in order to survive, she says.

That was more than ten years ago, and now the farm grows more than 150 acres of lavender, peppermint, and German and Roman chamomile. The oils the team produces in its on-site distillers are sold across the globe to countries including the US, South Korea, China and Australia. The company also markets more than 70 other essential oils from around the world - after using their hi-tech lab to check the quality - as well as growing 50 different herbs for research and demonstrations.

They also turn their oils into a range of 'cosmaceuticals' - cosmetic products that have therapeutic value which anyone can benefit from, without needing to be an expert in aromatherapy. And they do work, as Jane explains: 'Essential oils are very powerful; they are often nature's own pesticides.

'The plants produce them for purposes like attracting pollinating insects, or putting off herbivores from eating the plant or dangerous insects from laying their eggs on it.

Microbiologists have tested oils and found them to be very effective antibacterial and anti-fungal agents.' Lavender oil is even being tested to combat the superbug MRSA, a growing problem in British hospitals. In fact, lavender is an all-round wonder oil great for treating minor burns, cuts, insect bites and sunburn, as well as helping relaxation and the relief of insomnia.

'Lavender oil should go in every first aid kit, and in the holiday bag too,' says Jane, who can also advise buyers on how to use their products. Peppermint is good for staying alert and to boost blood circulation, while both types of chamomile have antiinflammatory oils for treating skin problems.

Although the oils do indeed smell delightful, the 'aroma' part of aromatherapy is only part of the story and it's their effect when they get inside the body through the skin or respiratory tract that can improve health.

And for all those gardeners whose lavender plants succumb to frost or turn into leggy monsters?

'There are more than 400 types of lavender and we went to Dr Simon Charlesworth, who has the National Collection in Kent, for advice on which types would suit our precise climate and soil.

'We have a sandy loam and we grow three varieties: Ashdown Forest, Peter Pan and Princess Blue. But the key is in the pruning; they should be a dome shape. In the first year we pruned them so hard we thought we would kill them. But a lavender plant will last 30 years if it's looked after. If it's not pruned, the plant becomes woody and the flowers are only found at the top of the woody stems.'

So many people have asked for advice that the shop on the farm now sells lavender plants too and dishes out advice on how to look after them.

As well as visitors calling into the shop, around 3,000 people, from therapy students to local WI groups, tour the farm each summer. Many students have never seen essential oil plants being grown, or the processes used to extract the oils. 'It changes their lives,' says Jane. 'They realise they just don't know enough.' Jane is on something of a mission to change a preconception about lavender growing. 'Everyone thinks

the best lavender comes from France. That's just not true. English is the best of the lot. Our climate produces a much better quality oil. And our farmers are the best in the world. They can grow any plant as long as it can withstand our climate - UK agriculture is gold-plated.'

The Phytobotanica shop is open seven days a week in the summer months, 9am to 5pm, and group tours can be arranged. Visit the website or call 01695 420853.

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