13th November 2011
Lavender is one of the most popular garden plants, renowned for it's lovely smell, purple flowers and ability to withstand drought conditions. The plant has a fascinating history, are some facts about the very luscious Lavender.
Lavender is part of the mint family and there are approx 25-30 types, natural to the Mediterranean, North and East Africa and South East India.
The most common species in cultivation is the Common Lavender Lavandula angustifolia (formerly L. officinalis). A wide range of cultivars can be found. Other commonly grown ornamental species are L. stoechas, L. dentata, and L. multifida.
Image Credit: Evgeni Dinev
Lavenders are widely grown in gardens. Flower spikes are used for dried flower arrangements. The fragrant, pale purple flowers and flower buds are used in potpourris. Dried and sealed in pouches, they are placed among stored items of clothing to give a fresh fragrance and as a deterrent to moths. The plant is also grown commercially for extraction of lavender oil from the flowers. This oil is used as an antiseptic and for aromatherapy.
Lavender flowers yield abundant nectar which yields a high quality honey for beekeepers. Lavender monofloral honey is produced primarily in the nations around the Mediterranean, and marketed worldwide as a premium product. Lavender flowers can be candied and are used as cake decoration. Lavender is also used as a herb, either alone or as an ingredient of herbes de Provence. Lavender is also used to flavour sugar, the product being called “lavender sugar”, and the flowers are sometimes sold in a blend with black tea, as “lavender tea”.
French chefs in and around Provence, France have been incorporating this herb into their cuisine for many centuries. Lavender lends a floral, slightly sweet and elegant flavor to most dishes. For most cooking applications it is the dried buds (also referred to as flowers) of lavender that are utilized, though some chefs experiment with the leaves as well. It is the buds however that contain the essential oil of lavender, which is where both the scent and flavor of lavender are best derived.
Flower of cultivated lavender; Lavandula stoechas or Spanish Lavender has been extensively used in herbalism.
English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, yields a highly effective essential oil with very sweet overtones, and can be used in balms, salves, perfumes, cosmetics, and topical applications. French lavender, Lavandula x intermedia, yields a similar essential oil, with higher contents of turpin, which adds a harsher overtone to the fragrance. Spanish lavender, Lavandula stoechas is not used medicinally, but mainly for landscaping purposes.
Essential oil of lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used in hospitals during WWI to disinfect floors, walls and other surfaces.
An infusion of lavender is claimed to soothe and heal insect bites. Bunches of lavender are also said to ward off insects. If applied to the temples, lavender oil is said to soothe headaches. Lavender is frequently used as an aid to sleep and relaxation: Seeds and flowers of the plant are added to pillows, and an infusion of three flowerheads added to a cup of boiling water are recommended as a soothing and relaxing bedtime drink. Lavender oil (or extract of Lavender) is claimed to heal acne when used diluted 1:10 with water, rosewater, or witch hazel; it is also used in the treatment of skin burns and inflammatory conditions (it is a traditional treatment for these in Iran).
Health precautions: There is scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of some of these remedies, especially the anti-inflammatory effects, but they should be used with caution since lavender oil can also be a powerful allergen. Ingesting lavender should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The ancient Greeks called the lavender herb nardus, after the Syrian city of Naarda. It was also commonly called nard.
During Roman times, flowers were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which was about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer, or fifty haircuts from the local barber. Lavender was commonly used in Roman baths to scent the water, and it was thought to restore the skin. When the Roman Empire conquered southern Britain, the Romans introduced lavender.
During the height of the Plague, glove makers at Grasse would scent their leathers with lavender oil, and this was claimed to ward off the Plague. This story could have some validity as the Plague was transmitted by fleas, which lavender is known to repel.