Lavender is a genus of flowering plants with about 30 species of aromatic evergreen shrubs of the mint family, with narrow leaves and bluish-purple flowers. It's scientific name is lavendula. The leaves and flowers contain scented oil glands. The spikes of flowers are purple, less commonly pink or white. Native to the Mediterranean, lavender is cultivated widely. Lavender's fragrance is comprised of 180 different constituents and is a staple of the perfume industry. The narrow, fragrant leaves and flowers are dried for use in sachets and potpourris. Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy for its clean, fresh scent.
Lavender We Grow
There is a larger variety of lavender than the ones mentioned here. This section is limited to information on the types of lavender we have at our farm.
True French lavender has the botanical name, Lavendula dentata (or L. dentate), for its tooth-edged leaves. We don’t have any of that at our farm. What most people call French lavender (including us!) is actually a lavandin (pronounced lah-vahn-deen). A lavandin is a hybrid of English lavender (L. angustifolia) and spike lavender (L. latifolia).
Most of our field is a relatively new hybrid called Phenomenal. It is botanically known as (L. x intermedia). The “x” stands for cross meaning hybrid plant. These are very long-stemmed and bloom mid-season, Phenomenal is very strongly scented and therefore make great sachets when the buds are dried and removed from stems.
English lavender (L. angustifolia) is the most popular garden lavender and the backbone of England’s original lavender oil industry in the late 1700’s. Our English lavenders at the farm are Hidcote and Croxton’s Wild and are the early bloomers in the season. Hidcote has a lovely dark purple, velvety bloom which keeps its color well as it dries. Hidcote and Croxton’s Wild scent is sweeter than the lavandins. We combine Croxton’s Wild with a variety of other lavenders to make culinary lavender for this reason.
History of Lavender
Most lavenders are natives of the Mediterranean region, the islands of the Atlantic, Asia Minor, and India, but they are now grown all over the world. Ancient Egyptians constructed stills to make lavender essential oil to be used in mummification rituals. Spiritually, lavender is considered a plant that will raise perceptiveness and take an individual to higher states of consciousness during meditation. (from Lavender: a Grower's Guide" by Virginia McNaughton)
Around 600 B.C. lavender was carried to France, Spain, Italy and England. Lavender is the best known of the fragrant herbs and has been loved and treasured for centuries. The Romans and North Africans used lavender to scent the water in public baths. Lavender was even found in the traveling kits of Roman legions and was used as a disinfectants. (from “Growing & Using Lavender” by Patti Barrett) Romans likely provided the root name of lavender (either lavare (to wash) or livendula (livid or bluish). Lavender is an ancient analgesic and was used in the treatment of mmild burns, abrasions, cuts, sword wounds, sores, stings, coughs, colds and chest infections. The Queen of Sheba offered it to King Solomon as a gift. Referred to as “spikenard” in the Christian Bible, lavender was used by Mary to anoint the feet of Jesus. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe the washing women were known as “lavenders” because they used lavender in the washing and sometimes dried their laundry on lavender bushes. German nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) advocated the use of lavender water, a decoction of vodka, gin or brandy mixed with lavender for migraines. In medieval times lavender was used as a condiment. Charles VI (1368-1422) of France (who was periodically convinced her was made of glass) insisted on having cushions stuffed with lavender to sit on wherever he went. Usage of lavender to calm fits of madness in some forms of mental disease is at least 2000 years old.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) required that lavender conserve (jelly) be on her dining table daily. In Elizabethan times lavender was thought of as a traditional lover's flower just as the red rose is today. A sprig sent between lovers signified "true love". From Shakespeare's (1564-1616) The Winter Tale we read: Here's flowers for you; hot lavender, mints, savoury, majoram; the marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun, and with him rises weeping... Shakespeare called it "hot" lavender as herbs which were positive and stimulating were considered "hot". Lavender as an herb has a long tradition of magical use and was one of the herbs used at summer solstice, being thrown on fires on Midsummer Night. In Tuscany, Italy, lavender was used to protect children from the evil eye. Louis XIV of France, (1638-1715) the Sun King, made a practice of carrying sprigs of lavender in his pockets. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) of England loved the fragrance of lavender and used it as a wash and deodorant. Yardley and Co. of London provided her products. (from Lavender, Sweet Lavender by Judyth A. McLeod)
As early as 1508 a “remedy” was written about containing lavender. This remedy, passed down through generations and in 1710 it was given the formal name, “Eau de Cologne” in 1710 was comprised of lavender, bergamot, lemon, orange flower, cinnamon, rosemary and alcohol. Interest in Eau de Cologne waxed as people gained the time and means to spend more time on hygiene and their comportment. It became the most popular Eau de Toilette throughout the world for 170 years. (from “The Magic and Power of Lavender” by Maggie Tisserand & Monika Junemann).
From the 17th century Colonial herb gardens of America hosted lavender and it was prized then for all its varied uses. Lavender was once a virtual medicine chest in every home. It was used for everything: as a nerve stimulant and restorative, for the relief of muscular aches and pains and sprains, to induced peaceful slumber and ease ache of rheumatism and nervous headaches, to promote appetite following illness and to (even) relieve flatulence! Lavender, rosemary and Lad's Love (lemon/camphor) were often dried and mixed together to make sweet bags to scent linen and act as moth repellent. And sprigs of all three were often included in posies for visitors. Lavender oil was extensively used as an antiseptic in WWI and WWII when surgical supplies became scarce. Lavender farms in England were asked to contribute to the cause. By the mid-twentieth century as many Americans no longer gardened or cultivated herb beds, the knowledge of the uses of lavender and other herbs waned. With increase of foreign travel in the second half of the twentieth century (think lavender fields of Provence, France) the back to small farming movement and the increased interest in natural remedies of the early twenty-first century, lavender has returned to America in a big way. Lavender farms can now be found all around the United States. (from Lavender, Sweet Lavender by Judyth A. McLeod)
Lavender, sweet lavender; come and buy my lavender, hide it in your trousseau, lady fair.
Let its lovely fragrance flow,
Over you from head to toe, lightening on your eyes, your cheek, your hair.
Cumberland Clark Flower Song Book 1929
How is Lavender Used?
Lavender has got to be the most useful herb in all of nature!
Some of the properties attributed to lavender are:
Health and Vitality
Stress and anxiety reduction
Treatment for headaches, including migraine
Treatment for motion sickness
Soothing to sore muscles and joints
Aid for reducing acne and psoriasis
Treatment of nasal and chest congestion
Soothes bug bites
Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal
Home and Critter Care
Mosquito, tick and moth repellant
Calming for dogs
Deters ants and other home invaders naturally Naturally deodorizing
Cooking and Entertaining
Makes beautiful gifts
Delicate scent is lovely in baked goods
Wonderfully calming in teas and cocktails
Adds natural cheer to décor.
How do You Care for Lavender Plants?
When you know a few tricks, lavender plant care is not difficult. Mid-eastern soils and climate conditions can provide a challenge to raising lavender so it’s good to give plants lots of room and good drainage. Lavender plants like full sun and need at least 50 percent sun daily. Do not over-water them as they like “their feet dry.” You can amend the soil with sand or pebbles for added drainage, but do not use mulch of any kind and do not mulch around the plants. Lavender likes a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.5. We also treat our plants twice a year with an all natural anti-fungal called Root Shield Plus every six months. Root Shield Plus can be purchased online. This treatment helps insulate the root system against the dreaded lavender killer, Phytophthora. The first year you plant the lavender, cut off the buds so the plant will bush out more quickly. By the third year you may have 1000 blooms per plant! Every year you must prune off about 1/3 of the entire lavender bush either in the fall (before November) or spring (by April 1st). Because we have a lot of plants we use a hedge-trimmer. But you can use scissors on your plants if they are few. Remember to trim so you keep a rounded shape. And don’t cut down into the woody part.
Here in Virginia, depending on the variety, lavender blooms from early June through mid-July. When it’s time to cut your lavender it should ideally be done in the morning before 11 a.m. as the hot sun evaporates the oil in the buds. Blooms which are one-third to one-half open on a stem are best to cut for drying. Hang or lay flat your lavender bunches to dry in a dark, cool place and they will be finished drying in three days.