The plant is both medicinal and culinary, not to mention gorgeous in the garden.
The ancient Romans gave lavender its name
Lavender is one of the many plants that belong to the vast Lamiaceae family, which includes the mints. Humans recognized early on that there were many benefits to having it growing nearby. Since this was a plant of western Europe and the Mediterranean, the people of Rome were quite familiar with it. The Romans gave us its name, derived from the word, lavare, which literally means, 'to wash'. All of the best Roman bathhouses had lavender scattered on the floors and floating in the water. The scent was associated with cleanliness and health. Lavender was considered medicinal and although it has slight disinfectant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, its aroma was lavender's most useful feature.
Medicinal properties of lavender
Lavender oil is probably the most popular essential oil in modern times as well. The scent of lavender is relaxing and is often used as a sleep aid. Lavender oil rubbed on the temples seems to reduce the severity of headaches. People soothe babies to sleep with it. Some dentists infuse it in their waiting rooms to help ease anxiety and 'white coat syndrome', while some holistic healers recommend it for post-postpartum depression. However, in ancient times, lavender and lavender oil had some very different uses.
Ancient beliefs and uses for lavender
Lavender was used by the ancient Egyptians in their embalming rituals and it is even said that when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, they could still smell the thousands years old lavender inside. Lavender was also considered an aphrodisiac in ancient times and legend has it that Cleopatra had it in her arsenal of charms she used to seduce Marc Antony. The belief persisted well into Medieval times and it was used extensively in love charms. If you drank a potion containing lavender oil, you’d dream of your one true love. They placed dried lavender flowers under beds and in pillows of newlyweds to ensure nights of passion. Lavender water dripped on the head of someone prevented them from straying from their spouse and kept them faithful. Apparently it was good witch repellent as well, since young women wore the dried flowers in their garters to keep them away.
Lavender thrives in the rocky soil and the sunny, warm conditions of the Mediterranean. If you want to grow it in your garden, duplicating those conditions will give you the most success. First and foremost, lavender hates wet feet. The soil you plant it in should drain well. Many people plant their lavender on a berm or raised bed area to ensure that standing water isn’t possible. Mine is in an elevated bed this year and it looks better than it ever has. You can grow lavender in USDA zones 5-9, or with English lavender to -20 Fahrenheit and French lavender to -10 Fahrenheit in the winter. Avoid cold wet soil in the winter and make sure there is good air circulation in the summer and your lavender should do fine. Very few pests bother it and even Bambi avoids it, unless there’s nothing else to choose from. After the first flush of blooms, cut your lavender back by 2/3 and most years it will reward you with a second flush of blooms later in the summer.
Making lavender honey
Not only is lavender a great aromatherapy item, it is also a nice addition to your spice pantry. Using lavender in recipes gives the foods a nice, light, floral flavor. Just remember to avoid chemicals and pesticides if you are going to use lavender in the kitchen. I’ve done two things with my lavender this year. I’ve taken some of our local honey and infused lavender blossoms in it to make lavender honey. In Provence, France, the beekeepers carry their hives to the lavender fields when they are in bloom so the bees can harvest the nectar and pollen. Their honey is a true lavender honey and it commands a high price at the market. You can make a copycat if you have fresh lavender, like I do. I took a pint of our local, raw, Lost Possum Honey, manufactured by the thousands of willing worker bees just down the road, in Possum Trot, Kentucky. (Yes, Possum Trot is a real place, look it up.) Pour the honey in a saucepan and add about 1/3 cup of fresh lavender blossoms. Heat slowly until the honey is good and warm, however don’t let it boil. The warm honey will liquefy and be easier to pour. Stir all the time and keep it warm for a couple of minutes. Pour back into the jar while still warm and let it sit for 3 or 4 days. Reheat in a saucepan and strain the blossoms out. Your lavender honey is ready to use. The bees and pollinators love lavender, so even if you don’t use it, plant some in your pollinator garden.
Baking lavender scones
Baking with lavender is nice too. There are cookie, cake and even pancake recipes on the internet and of course lavender is one of the ingredients in the famous Herbes de Provence mixture. The mixture is adjusted seasonally and by what is available, however fennel, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme are the most common. Other spices to include (or leave out) basil, bay leaves, savory, chervil, sage, oregano, mint, and lavender. Herbes de Provence is a wonderful seasoning for poultry, fish, vegetables and tomato-based soups. We’re not going the traditional route today though, we’re going to make some wonderful lemon-lavender scones. Heat your oven to 375F (190.55C) and while it is heating, put 1/3 cup of sugar in a little bowl and add the grated zest from two large lemons that you’ve washed well. Add 2 tablespoons of lavender blossoms and use your fingers to rub the lemon and lavender through the sugar. This gets those fragrant oils infused with the sugar. Take ¾ cup of milk and add ¼ cup of lemon juice (1 lemon usually yields about ¼ cup) and a teaspoon of vanilla. Stir and set aside. The lemon juice will thicken and sour the milk, and that will add to the flavor. Take a stick (½ cup) of cold, unsalted butter and cut into small pieces and place in the freezer for a few minutes. You want this butter cold as possible. In another bowl, add 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, a tablespoon of baking powder, half teaspoon of soda and a half teaspoon of salt. Add the sugar mixture and stir well. Take the cold butter and cut into the flour, until there are no large chunks left. Add the milk mixture and stir to form a dough. It will be sticky. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead a little. You don’t want to work the dough too much, just so it holds together well. Shape into a 9x6 rectangle. You don’t have to be exact, just close. Divide it down the middle longways. You’ll have 2 long rectangles. Divide each rectangle into thirds and then each third into two triangles. You’ll have 12 triangles. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake for about 18 minutes. They will rise and have some lightly browned tops. Cool and drizzle icing over the scones and sprinkle with a few lavender blossoms. For the icing, take ½ cup of powdered sugar and add a tablespoon of milk. Stir till it is liquid, adding a few more drops of milk if you have to. Enjoy!
Grow lavender for yourself and the pollinators
Enjoy lavender in the garden and in the kitchen. Add dried lavender flowers to little cloth bags and keep in your lingerie drawers. Use lavender oil to help you sleep and make sure the bees and pollinators have a share of it too. Lavender is happy to grow in a container, so those of you with balcony gardens can have some too. It is a plant with a history, with so many uses, and on top of that, quite attractive and easy to grow.