The lavenders (Lavandula) are a genus of 39 species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast regions of India. The genus includes annuals, herbaceous plants, subshrubs, and small shrubs. The native range extends across the Canary Islands, North and East Africa, south Europe and the Mediterranean, Arabia, and India. Because the cultivated forms are planted in gardens world-wide, they are occasionally found growing wild, as garden escapees, well beyond their natural range. Because lavender cross-pollinates easily, however, there are countless variations within the species. The color of its flowers has come to be called lavender.
Four common lavender species:
• Spanish lavender (lavandula stoechas): Begins blooming in May; continues until October if dead-headed. Recognized by the “bunny ears” at the top of each pinecone-shaped blossom. Plants grow 18-36 inches tall and might need protection in cold winters.
• English lavender (lavandula angustifolia): Blooms from mid-June to late July; deadheading might produce a smaller flush of bloom in August or September. Has short-stemmed flowers on plants up to 2 feet tall.
• Lavandin (lavandula x intermedia): Blooms from early July to late August; some varieties bloom until frost. Plants are larger than English lavenders (some grow 3 feet tall or more), with longer stems and larger flower spikes.
• Woolly lavender (lavandula lanata): Blooms from mid- to late summer. Foliage is silvery and sometimes fuzzy; flowers are typically dark purple; plants are 18-30 inches tall.
Guidelines for Growing Lavender
• Plant lavender in a sunny spot with well-draining soil. Loosen the soil well; sand can be added to clay soil for better drainage. Mix a cup of bone meal in each planting hole to trigger root growth.
• Mulching with shells or gravel will help drainage and provide warmth for heat-loving lavenders.
• Water at least once a week (more if it’s hot) during the first month after planting. Once plants are established, water every couple of weeks. Avoid pairing lavender with annuals that need more frequent watering.
• Prune lavender yearly, in October or November, to keep the plants from spreading open. Don’t cut into the woody part, because new growth may not occur. Hulscher likes to leave at least 3-4 inches of foliage.
• Dry flowers by cutting stems as long as possible, then removing the foliage. Wrap small bunches with rubber bands and use a paper clip to hang them in an area out of the sun, with some ventilation. It will take about a week for flowers to dry. To make sachets, wait a couple of weeks, then remove the flowers from the dried stems.
The most common “true” 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.
Lavandula x intermedia or “Lavendin” is the most cultivated species for commercial use, since its flowers are bigger and the plants are easier to harvest, but Lavendin oil is regarded to be of a lower quality.
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 is also used extensively as herbal filler inside sachets used to freshen linens and discourage moths from closets and drawers. Dried lavender flowers have become recently popular used as confetti for tossing after a wedding.
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 sometimes used as cake decorations. Lavender is also used to flavour baked goods and desserts (it pairs especially well with chocolate), as well as used to make lavender sugar. Lavender flowers are occasionally sold in a blend with black, green, or herbal tea, adding a fresh, relaxing scent and flavour.
Chefs in and around Provence, France, have been incorporating this herb into their cuisine for centuries, either alone or as an ingredient of herbes de Provence. Lavender lends a floral, slightly sweet, and elegant flavour to most dishes, and pairs beautifully with various sheep’s and goat’s cheeses. For most cooking applications it is the dried buds (also referred to as flowers) of lavender that are used, though some chefs experiment with the leaves as well. Only the buds contain the essential oil of lavender, which is where both the scent and flavour of lavender are best derived.
The French are also known for their lavender syrup, most commonly made from an extract of lavender. In the United States, both French lavender syrup and dried lavender buds are used to make lavender scones.
Lavender has been used extensively in herbalism.
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) yields an essential oil with sweet overtones, and can be used in balms, salves, perfumes, cosmetics, and topical applications. Lavandin, Lavandula x intermedia (also known as French lavender), yields a similar essential oil, but with higher levels of terpenes including camphor, which add a sharper overtone to the fragrance. Spanish lavender, Lavandula stoechas is not used medicinally, but mainly for landscaping.
Essential oil of lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used in hospitals during WWI to disinfect floors and walls. These extracts are also popularly used as fragrances for bath products.
An infusion of lavender is claimed to soothe and heal insect bites. Bunches of lavender are also said to repel 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 and nearby regions).
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.
The ancient Greeks called the lavender herb nardus, after the Syrian city of Naarda. It was also commonly called nard.
Lavender was one of the holy herbs used in the biblical Temple to prepare the holy essence.,.
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. Its late Latin name was lavandarius, from lavanda (things to be washed), from the verb lavare (to wash). When the Roman Empire conquered southern Britain, the Romans introduced lavender.