Debbie Travis tells us why everyone should be planting lavender and rosemary this spring
A little bit of Tuscany in Toronto
My farming adventures began five years ago on a hillside in Tuscany. The rundown property (big understatement) we had just purchased came with a hundred acres and 1,000 olive trees. We threw down nets, climbed ladders, picked olives and relaxed under the majestic trees, soaking in the last of the sun with a bottle of vino at the end of blissful but exhausting days of olive picking. For me, this first experience of working the land was exciting, exhilarating, absolute heaven.
I was soon racking my wee brain for alternative crops to grow on our sunny Tuscan slopes. Lavender is not typically grown as a crop in this area, (think of Provence and its endless rows of this glorious plant), yet the climate is similar. Why not here?
Spade in hand plus Luciano, my long-suffering farmer, and off we shuffled, planting 20 long rows of baby bushes down a south-facing stony hillside. The lavender bushes flourished. I now have more lavender than I can handle. I dry the fragrant flowers and fill silk bags, which I tuck lovingly under pillows for our guests.
Lavender’s natural oils are found in the base of the stalks. They go through a small distillery at a local farm, and drop by drop we extract the oil, which is then bottled. One drop will gently relax the atmosphere in a room, or the tiniest trickle on a pillow will have you melt into the deepest sleep.
The rest of the plant and the flowers are infused over several months in our own organic olive oil to create the creamiest, most delicious lavender body oil. I started selling the oils online and to our guests at Villa Reniella to great success, and, as a typical entrepreneur, I was ready for my next venture.
Rosmarinus officinalis, or rosemary to the rest of us, piqued my interest when I noticed several bushes the size of mid-sized cars growing on the property. Hmm, I thought, mind whirling. Now what is rosemary good for, apart from a sprinkling on a leg of lamb and to flavour the most scrumptious roast potatoes? It may be on everyone’s spice rack, but I was astounded that this bush, which is part of the mint family, has been used for centuries for just about every ailment under the sun.
Packed with iron, vitamin C and vitamin B6, these herbaceous woody leaves can be sprinkled over food, infused in water or their oils rubbed over your body. There are some impressive benefits to our health. As a congestive stimulant, rosemary is said to improve memory, help us focus and even increase intelligence. Stress and anxiety, which burden us all at some point, are relieved with just a few whiffs of rosemary oil.
Working the land is painfully hard on muscles and joints, and I now pour rosemary oil into every hot bath. Within minutes I can feel the aches and pains dissolve away.
I have been astounded though at its success as a stomach healer. We have many guests who arrive in Tuscany bringing with them regular upset stomachs, bloating and the rest! We infuse branches of rosemary in jugs of fresh water and suggest the ladies drink as much as possible. Within a couple of days, they have all gleefully announced that their stomachs are calmer.
There are many claims for the magical properties of rosemary, lavender and olive oil, and many are still being researched. On a personal level, I feel healthier having them in my life and knowing that they are organic, freshly produced and not synthetic, which is the case of many essential oils on the market.
Renowned interior designer Debbie Travis is best known for her shows Debbie Travis’ Facelift and Debbie Travis’ Painted House. She recently restored a Tuscan villa and now hosts girls’ getaways.