Plant Profile: Lavender
- Lavandula angustifolia
- Lavandula officinalis
- Lavandula latifolia (spike lavender)
- Lavandin (hybrid of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia)
Laminaceae (mint family)
Flowers — lavender flowers are very small, often the whole top of the flowering plant is used including the flower spike with a bit of stem and leaf
Lavender enhances elegance, beauty and fragrance in a garden, countryside, backyard or urban roof, no matter. Its hardy, uncomplicated to grow attribute confirms it as a keeper. Deemed a shrub, lavender originates from Europe’s Mediterranean but evokes images of the English landscape. It grows one to three feet tall and flowers at the end of June through early August. The greyish purple flowers bloom in rings around the branches and eventually take the form of spikes. Where I live on the coast of New Jersey, lavender grows generously beautiful. Although sensitive to cold temperatures, once well established, it seems to survive the winter here. Maybe it is the limey, sandy soil, which it likes. Lavender, though, definitely seems happiest in the warmth of the sun without too much dampness. If the soft, thin, fern-like leaves begin to yellow, the plant may be getting too much water and need a more draining soil, not fertilizer. Although lavender can be cultivated from seeds, small cuttings take off best. Bees love lavender flowers and we need to help pollinators in our gardens if we can. This spring I am going to make my own attempt at lavender gardening. I bought some seeds, but I am also planting a row of small cuttings to form an edge around some young trees. I read that baby lavender should be kept from flowering in the first year by pruning buds before they bloom to allow the plant to strengthen. That may be hard, resisting the flower temptation. Lavender buds cut when they are just starting to open instead of waiting until fully blossomed will be more concentrated and intense. After the first year lavender still loves to be pruned, the more flowers spikes clipped off, the more will bloom. Gathering flowers is best done on dry days either in the morning or the evening. The hot, mid-day sun and humidity cause lavender’s essential oil to disperse into the air so the flowers will not be as fragrant or strong in their elements for you the harvester. Test with your nose the next time you walk by a lavender plant, if it is hot sun the fragrance may be particularly strong even just walking by.
Gardening is absolutely not a requirement to use herbs, especially for lavender, popular, well-known and available to purchase dried, as essential oil, or powdered. Dried lavender flowers retain the greyish blue color of fresh. Store them in a dry place because any exposure to moisture will cause them to quickly lose their essence. All essential oil is sold in small bottles and can be pricy because much plant material is needed to distill the oil. For example, one farm estimates that 60 pounds of lavender flowers will yield just 16oz of essential oil. My favorite place to buy lavender for planting is Horizon Herbs (www.horizonherbs.com). Everything is organic and this family owned medicinal herb farm has the most beautiful philosophy. There is a huge catalog offering any herb imaginable. For lavender they sell several varieties as both seeds and potted plants and ship directly to you. Search online to find options for buying dried lavender, but my go to source for all that is herbal is Mountain Rose Herbs (www.mountainroseherbs.com) Here you will also find lavender powder along with dried buds sold by the ounce or pound. Essential oil is also available here as well as at Floracopeia (www.floracopeia.com) an amazing source for essential oils. For lavender as a liquid extraction or tincture in 2oz or 8oz bottles, Herbalist & Alchemist, (www.herbalist-alchemist.com) is my treasured and most trusted store. Lavender is even accessible in easy to use ingredients for baking such as lavender honey or lavender sugar. Because it is among the most well known herbs, it truly is easy to find. Purchasing online is not necessary if you have specialty markets nearby.
The volatile oils in lavender captivatingly flood the air beckoning those nearby to come closer. Attraction speaks volumes about this plant. For the chemically minded, the volatile oils in lavender linalool, cineol, pinene, limonene, geraniol, and borneol are combinations of oxygenated compounds and hydrocarbons. They are soluble in water and alcohol forming the flavors and aroma of the plant. While these fragrant substances carry much of lavender’s action, the organic acid, linalyl acetate is primarily responsible for the perfumed fragrance. Other phytochemicals and antioxidants, flavonoids, triterpenoids, and coumarins, all add to the complexity of lavender’s valuable composition. Energetically, lavender is cooling and stimulating, breaking through sluggish digestion as well as stuck emotions. From a nutrition perspective, lavender is a source of vitamins (vitamin A & C) and minerals (calcium and iron) if you eat a hefty quantity, which may be unlikely due to its intense flavor. Nevertheless, taking in lavender feeds the body, mind, and spirit.
The mix of flavor in lavender is complex and strong. A little bit goes a long way. Lavender has a pungent, bitter quality to its taste. The floral fragrance transforms to sweet, lemony citrus and aromatic in the mouth. For some, it is too overbearing like eating perfume or soap, for others it is a welcome breath of fresh and pure. Combining lavender with tastes that mellow its perfume creates a subtle sensuous richness particularly delicious in fruity or chocolaty desserts.
Close your eyes and imagine the smell of lavender, the images that come to my mind communicate softness, sweetness, flowers. The soothing scent of lavender is distinguished in perfumes, soaps, lotions, bath salts and other cosmetics. Studies show that lavender’s fragrance positively effect mood and emotional balance. Much would be lost to aromatherapy without lavender.
The power of aroma touches our psychology. It is interesting to explore the studies performed associating lavender with changed mood and reactions. Well established as a calming scent offering help for sleep, lavender’s aroma reaches far into other areas. Lavender’s fragrance can reduce fatigue, improve commitment to task, decrease anxiety at the dentist, increase time that customers linger in a restaurant or the amount of purchases they make in stores, elevate mood, and enhance trust in social interactions. Lavender added to footbaths has been used since ancient times for relaxation and calming.
Aromatherapy massage with lavender essential oils can alleviate pain, discomfort and colic. Recently women with menstrual pain and cramping were subjects of a study using aromatherapy massage with lavender essential oil to the lower abdomen, compared to those who were just massaged, no lavender, the cramps decreased. Inhalation of lavender essential oil will also relieve sinus congestion.
The word lavender itself divulges a story. From the Latin, lavare meaning to wash, in Roman times lavender perfumed baths as it still does today. In Egypt, kings and queens valued the virtue of lavender’s aroma. Perhaps it hid the odors of mummification as it was discovered in King Tut’s tomb. Cleopatra wore lavender perfume. In the Middle Ages, lavender protected as part of the Four Thieves Vinegar. Along with thyme, rosemary, mint, garlic, and sage, this was used to protect against the germs that carried the Black Plague. At the same time monasteries, the cultivators of medicinal herbs, incorporated lavender as a versatile remedy. Lavender water was prepared by mixing it with brandy and used for migraines. It was also used for its antiseptic properties for common problems like lice. During the time of King Henry VIII, lavender became a symbol of the English countryside. It was a royal garden requirement. Queen Elizabeth I demanded it in every room of the palace, ate a jam-like lavender conserve for breakfast every morning, and relied on lavender tea to help with stress, anxiety, and migraines. Men and women took her lead wearing hats quilted with lavender buds to prevent headaches.
The Victorian language of flowers defines lavender as constancy and loyalty, sweetness and undying love. Gift a lavender bouquet and you are bestowing good fortune, possibly the promise of uncovering strong, but still silent affection. Something about the loveliness of lavender signifies feminine virtues and women used it well. Ever present as a symbol of beauty and love the perfumed fragrance was able to attract a suitor and sipping the tea before sleep might bring a true love to nighttime dreams. Women tucked some lavender under a mattress to avoid marital quarrels and maintain passion. Burning lavender as incense provided protection from evil spirits.
On a more esoteric note, fairies love lavender and relish it as a gift. If you are interested in seeing ghosts, lavender can help while offering protection from evil spirits. Astrologically, this plant is ruled by planet mercury, which is responsible for its quick growth and shooting up spikes. Folk tales, songs, superstitions aside, I think it wise to scatter lavender throughout the home for harmony and peace and to make people feel better on entering.
Culinary and Cooking
With its perfumed flavor, a slight, gentle hand keeps lavender from being too overpowering. A little bit goes a long way. The flavor is unique, like a mysterious guest who appears vividly but whose identity is concealed. There is a slight difference between ornamental and culinary lavender, the latter being a bit sweeter, more flavorful. If you are growing your own lavender, look for a variety called Munstead, it is a cultivar of Lavendula angustifolia, English lavender, really nice. Lavandin is a fairly new type created as a mix of Lavendula angustifolia and latifolia, also sweet, fragrant, and good for the kitchen. If you are buying dried lavender for cooking it is best to pick organic to avoid possible pesticides. Fresh or dried flowers both offer their essence in cooking and should be used exclusively without stems or leaves. Fresh buds can be added to salads, flavor meats, or mixed into a cookie batter. Dried lavender is part of the European spice mixture, herbes de Provence, with fennel, rosemary, savory, thyme, oregano, and sage. This dry rub can be used as a marinade or seasoning for beef, lamb, poultry, fish, or vegetables. Toss a tablespoon of dried lavender buds into a peppermill with 3 Tablespoons of peppercorns for an extra pungent seasoning. Lavender is a true partner to desserts and baking, especially if fruits like berries, plums, or peaches are present. Chopped or powdered lavender buds can be added directly to cookies, brownies, muffins, or cakes. It can be made into syrup or infused in honey, sugar, or milk. Lavender marries well with all nuts except chestnuts. Queen Elizabeth I requested a conserve of lavender served to her with every meal to comfort her stomach. A conserve is different than a jam because it is made with a whole fruit, peel and all. I found this recipe for orange lavender conserve http://gildedfork.com/orange-lavender-conserve/ and I think it brilliant, all the better because orange peel has the same dispersing affect as lavender to relieve indigestion. As I experiment with lavender in my own cooking, I notice I feel calm with it there. I move methodically and do not get upset or distracted. Is this a coincidence or am I just having a good day in the kitchen, I don’t know. Try it yourself and tell me what you think.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Lavender calms, balances, releases, soothes, and cleanses. For centuries, lovely lavender has been used to elevate moods, improve circulation, and awaken passion with its intoxicating scent. Rudolf Steiner, a 19th century philosopher and founder of biodynamic agriculture as well as anthroposophic medicine (an alternative approach similar to homeopathy that combines science and spirituality), said of lavender that it is for the “negative state of the soul”. I think he is referring to intense emotions that clamp down so tightly that we begin to lose ourselves in them. One of my teachers, herbalist David Winston, says that lavender is among his favorites for something he labels as stagnant depression, a state of sadness that will not go away. Sadness becomes like an addiction. Lavender, combined with other herbs, helps the obsessive thoughts float away. It influences frame of mind, relieves stress, elevates moods, mends broken hearts. Other strong emotions such as frustration, anger, irritability, nervous anxiety, and panic release, balance, and dissipate in the presence of aromatic lavender.
The essential oil of lavender likely used more than teas or tinctures is at the heart of lavender aromatherapy exuding calm and relaxation. As with all essential oils, it is highly concentrated and used drop by drop. Lavender is a rare essential oil that does not have to be diluted in water before topically applying to the skin, but still it is not taken internally. A drop or two soothes cuts, burns, bruises, insect bites, and stings. Added to a bath, lavender relieves tension and stress and promotes restful sleep. A few drops of lavender essential oil on the temples, can relieve the pain of a headache, even a migraine.
Lavender is antimicrobial and supports the immune system, helping the body heal from colds, flus, and infections. The essential oil is antiseptic and can actually substitute for antibacterial hand sanitizers. Add a few drops to water, put in a spray bottle and use to cleanse hands, on minor wounds or bites, or even as an air freshener and disinfectant. For burns, it is even better when a drop or two is mixed with aloe gel to promote healing and prevent infection.
Lavender clears obstructions, stimulates movement. Movement for that which is stuck be it physical or emotional. Along with removing stagnant energy, lavender dissipates dampness that is causing slowed digestion or pain. In the gastrointestinal tract this may show up as gas, nausea, stomach rumbling, or bloating. In muscles and nerves it feels like spasms, tension, pain, or headaches. Emotionally, stagnant energy is that irritability, tension, and sadness that will not go away. The anti-inflammatory properties of lavender move this stagnant energy, relieve pain and promote a more peaceful feeling. A great 17th century English botanist and herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper labeled lavender “good for all grief and pains of the head and brain, strengthening the stomach and freeing the liver of obstructions”. I translate this to summarize the virtues of lavender for emotions, stress reduction, pain relief, and digestion. Lavender has magic about it and lore of love, yet scientific studies exist to support its long traditional uses. There is no doubt that it belongs in a kitchen medicine cabinet.
Lavender flowers being tiny, some of the top parts of the stems can also be used in preparations. But not for essential oils, only the flowers are used because any part of the stem will change the essence and smell of the oil.
It is best to mix lavender with other herbs for teas because the taste alone is very bitter, sort of unpleasant. As a small part, it can add lovely depth to blends of earl grey or white tea, lemon balm, mint, and rose petals. Use a French coffee press or place one teaspoon of this mix into a tea ball, add to a mug with 8oz of boiling water, and steep for at least 20 minutes. The addition of a bit of honey will also help to balance the bitter flavor.
There are several ways to make herb infused honey. Be careful if heating the honey because if you heat it at too high a temperature, its healthy enzymes will be destroyed. To prepare it ahead of time, I think the easiest method is placing dried flower buds in a jar, pour honey over buds and allow to sit for at least a week, stirring every day. This is a bit messy to strain but if you run the jar under hot water, the honey will become more liquid and then I allow it to just drip for a while through the strainer into a wide mouthed jar.
Syrup requires a bit more preparation than honey, but will keep for a while in the refrigerator. Add a bit to lemonade or seltzer, drizzle over salads, or use it in recipes as an alternative to maple syrup. To prepare combine 3 tablespoons dried lavender flowers (6 tablespoons if using fresh) and 1 cup (8oz) water in a saucepan and bring to boil. Add 2 cups of sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Allow to cool and then strain through a cheesecloth. Store in container with a tight lid.
Lavender can be purchased already powdered. It is also easy to do from the dried flower buds; if you have fresh they must be dried first. Because they are delicate, flowers can be ground to a powder in a coffee grinder. Definitely use a grinder that you do not also use for coffee though because if you do your coffee will forever taste like lavender and your lavender will have a distinct coffee hint.
A general method to make herbal wine is to mix 2 ounces of powdered lavender with sherry or brandy and allow melding together for at least 2 weeks, shaking daily. Mulled lavender wine is also a traditional holiday drink in some cultures. Fruit like oranges or apples and sugar or honey are mixed with lavender powder and red wine and simmered for 20 minutes.
The formal tincturing method uses 1 part dried lavender to 5 parts alcohol. That translates for example to 100 grams lavender buds and 500ml grain alcohol. Many herbalists who prepare tinctures use a simpler method, which does not involve measuring, the flowers are placed in a jar and vodka is poured over them. The extraction process takes a long time, about 6 weeks. During that time, keep the jar in a cool dark place and shaken daily.
Essential oils are made through a process of distillation where water is boiled in a chamber below the flowers and the volatile oils slowly extracted through a generation of steam. The result is a concentrated and very strong liquid. Lavender essential oil is used topically, on the skin, and is often added to massage oils, soaps, lotions, or bath soaks for the soothing scent and relaxation. To make a massage oil, add 8-10 drops of lavender essential oil to 4 ounces of almond oil or just rub 2 or 3 drops on the back of your neck and feet for relaxation.
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- Culpeper, N: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. A book of natural remedies for ancient ills. Woodsworth Editions Limited, London, England; 2007.