Spotlight on Lavender

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes

Lavender and butterflies

The air was fragrant with a thousand trodden aromatic herbs, with fields of lavender, and with the brightest roses blushing in tufts all over the meadows. . . .”
William Cullen Bryant



Latin name(s) - Lavandula officinalis, Lavandula angustifolia
aka - English lavender, French lavender
Family - Lamiaceae
Parts used - The seeds and young leaves
Purported actions - Antibacterial, Antispasmodic, Aromatic, Carminative,Expectorant, Stimulant
Methods of use - essential oil

Origins - Lavender is native native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and east to India. Nowadays the cultivated forms are planted in gardens world-wide and so they are occasionally found growing wild, as garden escapees, well beyond their natural range. Around fifty distinct species of lavender grow throughout the world, including lavandula vera and lavandula officinalis.

Description - Lavender is a perennial plant, which grows about 18 inches to 2 feet high. It has grey-green feathery leaves covered in a silvery down.The blue-violet flowers are arranged in spirals of 6 to 10 blossoms, forming interrupted spikes above the foliage.

Lavender has the most complex of all essential oils. The molecules are very small and therefore have the fullest and most complex bouquet.
The main elements responsible for the scent are linaloll and linalyl acetate, it contains up to 40% linalyl acetate and 30% linalol..

Attributed medicinal qualities - Lavender has been extensively used in herbalism. An infusion of lavender is claimed to soothe and heal insect bites. Bunches of lavender are also said to ward off insects. In medieval times herbalists advised the use of lavender to prevent head lice.

If applied to the temples, lavender oil is said to soothe headaches. Lavender is frequently used as an aid to sleep: Seeds and flowers of the plant are added to pillows, and an infusion of three flowerheads added to a cup of boiling water is 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 sunburn and skin burns and other inflammatory conditions (it is a traditional treatment for these in Iran). 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.

Certainly its soothing, relaxing qualities are effective. Constituents of the oils found in lavender have been found to treat hyperactiviety, insomnia, flatulence, bacteria, fungus, microbial activity on gums, airborne molds, and (mixed with pine, thyme, mint, rosemary, clove, and cinnamon oils) Staphyloccus -aka "Staff"- bacteria. Compounds in the plant have even shown promise as a treatment for certain cancers. In mice these compounds reduced the size of breast cancer tumors.

History - The word lavender comes from the Latin lavandus “to be washed,” or lavare, “to wash.” officinalis means medicinal. As a herb, it has been in documented use for over 2,500 years. In ancient times lavender was used for mummification and perfume by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians and other peoples of Arabia.

Throughout history lavender has symbolized love, affection, cleanliness, purity, chastity, protection, longevity, acknowledgement, perseverance
and peace. Biblical references and folklore have mingled together over the years, and it was believed that Adam and Eve took lavender with them when they were banished from the Garden of Eden. As that legend goes, lavender later received its perfume distinction when Mary laid the baby Jesus’ clothes upon a bush of it to dry. In the gospel of Luke it is mentioned by the name used at that time, spikenard

The first recorded cultivation of lavender was found to be by ancient Egyptians who held it in high regard, using it to produce soothing and healing ointments and perfume. It was also used by the Egyptians as a balm for mummification and the perfume has been found in tombs, including that of Tutankhamen, the oils were used to preserve the skin and intestines and the flower to mask the odour of decay.

The ancient Greeks called the lavender herb nardus, after the Syrian city of Naarda. It was also commonly called nard. In China, lavender was used in a cure-all medicinal oil called White Flower Oil.

During Roman times, flowers were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which was about the same as months wage for a farm labourer or 50 haircuts from the local barber. Lavender was commonly used in Roman baths to scent the water, and it was thought to restore the skin, also used it to dress wounds. It is thought that when they conquered southern Britain, the Romans introduced lavender.

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe the washing women were known as "lavenders", as they used lavender to scent drawers and dried their laundry on lavender bushes. It was often used as a strewing herb to rid houses of pests.

During the height of a cholera epidemic in France, glove makers at Grasse would scent their leathers with lavender oil, and this was claimed to ward off the Plague.

And in 1630 when the Great Plague swept through Toulouse, France. Four thieves ransacked the city without contracting the disease; when
finally caught, a judge decided to commute their death sentences, if they revealed the secret ingredients to the mysterious decoction that
gave them immunity from the disease. The formula now known as the“The 4 Thieves Vinegar” was a combination of thyme, lavender,
rosemary and sage steeped in vinegar. One hundred years later the disease struck again in Marseilles. Herbalists then added garlic as the
fifth ingredient. In the 19th century a French distiller of vinegar patented the formula and marketed this elixir to nuns, priests and
doctors. “Drink some on an empty stomach in the morning. In London around the same time, during the Black Death, it was suggested that a bunch of lavender fastened to each wrist would protect the wearer against the deadly disease. This story could have some validity as the plague was transmitted by fleas, which lavender is known to repel.

During the First World War when modern antiseptics were depleted, the public was asked to gather up garden lavender so the oil could be used to dress war wounds.

Over time lavender has been associated with love, chastity and an aphrodisiac. For example, “A sprinkle of lavender onto the head of a loved one, would keep the wearer chaste.”On the other hand lavender was supposed to inspire passion; the famous nursery rhyme "Lavender blue, dilly dilly" was written in 1680 and talks of "Whilst you and I, diddle, diddle…keep the bed warm."

Royalty has valued lavender for centuries: Charles VI of France demanded lavender filled pillows wherever he went. Queen Elizabeth I of England required lavender conserve at the royal table. She also wanted fresh lavender flowers available every day of the year, a daunting task for a gardener if you consider our climate. Louis XIV also loved lavender and bathed in water scented with it. Queen Victoria used a lavender deodorant and, Elizabeth I and II both used products from the famous lavender company Yardley and Co. of London.

Today lavender is a common commercial plant widely grown in France, Spain, Italy, England, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and The United

Cultivation - Lavenders are widely grown in gardens. They grow well in a sunny border in loose, fast-draining soil. The best way to cultivate lavender is from cuttings taken from healthy, robust plants. It is possible to grow from seed, but the success rate is low.

Plant it in a sunny place in well-drained soil, add a light application of organic fertilizer to the planting hole. Water well until the soil is completely moist.

If planting in pots, make sure to repot every spring into a larger container with fresh soil to allow the plant to continue to mature and to provide as many flowers as possible. A good, coarse, sterile potting soil with organic fertilizer mixed in works best. 

Lavender is extremely drought resistant once established, but it grows larger and produces more blooms with regular watering. Don't over water though as it can suffer from rot.

To prevent your plants from becoming leggy and woody prune the plant after flowering, in the summer and autumn. Cut the plant back into a dome shape. If you carefully prune after the first flowering the plant may even flower a second time.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - Lavender is a joy to harvest.  The flower heads look gray before the flowers open. once they are bright and vivid, you should start cutting. Cut the flower stems during the cool of the morning after the dew has dried. In humid areas, try to cut on dry days.

To dry for a dried floral arrangement, stand the cuttings in a dry vase. If the flowers are to be used later, dry in small groups by tying with a twist tie and hanging in a dark dry place or individually by spreading them on a screen and drying out of the sun.

The dried lavender can be left hanging or placed in a breathable container, such as, a cardboard box. Dried Lavender should be stored in a cool and dark area. Once dry, the buds can also be stripped and used in potpourri, sachets, or even cooking.

Jars of lavender oil should be kept tightly closed to avoid rapid evaporation.

Culinary Uses - Using lavender as a savoury herb it can be blended with rosemary, sage, mint and cinnamon in meat and cheese dishes. Herbes de Provence is a spice mixture usually containing several different herbs (chervil, tarragon, savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, lavender and frequently also fennel). It is also used in vinegars, jellies and even ice-cream.

Magical Uses - Lavender is referred to as the “good witches” herb, as it was useful in averting the “evil eye”.

It is also a herb of love and romance: A brew of lavender sipped by maidens on St. Lukes day helped to divine the identity of their true loves. "St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me, In my dreams, let me my true love see." In alpine regions lavender in the pillows brought hope of romance, while lavender under the bed of newlyweds ensured passion.


Other Uses

  • The fragrant, pale purple flowers and flower buds are used in potpourris.
  • Flower spikes are used for dried flower arrangements.
  • 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 essential oil is also a base ingredient in many perfumes, soaps, shaving creams, cleaning supplies and scents.
  • Many cosmetics such as lotions, lip balms, and bath salts contain the essential oils of lavenders too.
  • Dried and sealed in pouches, they are placed among stored items of clothing to give a fresh fragrance and as a deterrent to moths.
  • Lavender flowers yield abundant nectar which yields a high quality honey for beekeepers.
  • The flowers can be candied and are used as cake decoration.
  • Lavender is an ingredient of herbes de Provence.
  • Lavender is used to flavour sugar, the product being called "lavender sugar".

Culpeper, 1652: This is so well known, being an inhabitant in almost every garden, that it needeth no description.”

Salmon 1710: "it is also good against the bitings of serpents, mad-dogs and other venomous creature, being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise to the parts wounded. The spirituous tincture of the dried leaves or seeds, if prudently given, cures hysterik fits though vehement and of long standing."

Dr. Fernie, Herbal Simples: 'By the Greeks the name Nardus is given to Lavender, from Naarda, a city of Syria near the Euphrates, and many persons call the plant "Nard." St. Mark mentions this as Spikenard, a thing of great value.... In Pliny's time, blossoms of the Nardus sold for a hundred Roman denarii (or L.3 2s. 6d.) the pound. This Lavender or Nardus was called Asarum by the Romans, because it was not used in garlands or chaplets. It was formerly believed that the asp, a dangerous kind of viper, made Lavender its habitual place of abode, so that the plant had to be approached with great caution.'

Gerard: 'It profiteth them much that have the palsy if they be washed with the distilled water from the Lavender flowers, or are annointed with the oil made from the flowers and olive oil in such manner as oil of roses is used.'